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4 Ways to Teach Vocabulary and Reading Comprehension

Teaching these literacy strategies simultaneously can engage students in active processing, improving performance in both areas.

June 29, 2023
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As a teacher and researcher, I know the importance of vocabulary instruction for improving reading comprehension. There is some evidence that a reciprocal relationship exists between the two and that improving one may improve the other. It is especially important to explicitly and directly teach these skills to our youngest students. Teachers can use evidence-based strategies for delivering vocabulary instruction to improve reading comprehension and vice versa by integrating literacy across content areas. These should engage students in active processing, which is essential to student learning and retention.

I’d like to share four active ways to teach vocabulary and reading comprehension that have worked well for me.

1. Read-Alouds

Teachers can incorporate vocabulary into a read-aloud, first by reading through the book and identifying vocabulary words to be targeted for instruction. Preteach the vocabulary words to the students, and during the read-aloud discuss their meaning by providing brief, student-friendly definitions (for example, if a character is described as anxious, the teacher could add, “That means worried or scared”). Next, review the context of the words within the story. Students should repeat the vocabulary words for correct pronunciation and then visualize the meaning of the word and connect it with a memory.

Using the example of “anxious,” students would connect the word to a time they were feeling that way. Provide students with an example where vocabulary words are used differently from how they were used in the story. For example, if the story was about a child who was anxious about going to a new school, provide the students with a scenario like “I was anxious when I had to go to the doctor and get a shot.”  

Follow up the read-aloud with vocabulary activities and word play: For example, have students provide a sentence using the targeted vocabulary words. One activity could involve having the students act out the meaning of a word (“If you’re feeling anxious, how would you look?”). Another possible activity is to display several pictures and have students identify the picture that goes with the given vocabulary word, or students provide the vocabulary word that matches a given picture. This activity targets students’ receptive and expressive language skills.

Extend the lesson: This could be accomplished by incorporating questioning techniques. For example, ask the students how or when they might feel anxious, or what they could do when they feel that way. Another extension of the activity is to have students illustrate the vocabulary word or write a sentence that includes the word. 

2. Graphic Organizers

One way to teach vocabulary is to use graphic organizers, which are useful for both fiction and nonfiction information and for teaching across content areas. Graphic organizers help students to organize their ideas when responding to texts or completing writing tasks. In addition, graphic organizers benefit students with recalling and transferring information. Deciding on which graphic organizer to use can be a personal preference or depend on the task. For example, a story map would be suitable for fictional text, but not necessarily useful with nonfictional text. With nonfiction text, use of a Frayer model or T-chart in optimizing vocabulary instruction makes the most sense.

T-chart: Teachers can use a T-chart for comparison of examples and nonexamples of the vocabulary word through words, pictures, or sentences.

Story map: A story map helps students to understand the elements of a story, such as characters, setting, problem, and solution, or sequential points of the story, such as beginning, middle, and end.

Frayer model: With a Frayer model, teachers help students learn vocabulary words by incorporating a student-friendly definition, characteristics, examples or synonyms, and nonexamples or antonyms. A Frayer model can be used before reading to activate background knowledge, during reading to teach new vocabulary, or after reading to assess understanding of vocabulary. For example, using the word cooperation, we can complete the Frayer model as follows:

  • Definition: Working together
  • Characteristics: Helping, sharing, taking turns
  • Examples: Building a Lego tower with a friend, helping each other clean up toys
  • Nonexamples: Fighting over a toy, leaving someone out of a game

3. Mental Imagery

Help students learn how to make a mental picture of text. First, choose text that is very descriptive. Next, read a few sentences, pause, and share your thinking by “drawing” a mental image of the sentences. Be sure to incorporate all the senses (I see..., I hear..., I smell..., etc.). Have the students share their imaginings and note their different mental images.

For more interactive practice, provide a student with an illustration that is rich in imagery and have them describe what is in the illustration, while the other students and teacher make a mental image. Then, have students share their “picture.”

4. Questioning Techniques

Teach students how to predict, clarify, question, and summarize. Teacher modeling and student practice will be necessary. The use of rich language and discussion surrounding text and concepts improves children’s vocabulary and comprehension.

Predict: Before reading, use the book cover or title to talk about what will happen. During reading, discuss what will happen on the next page or chapter. After reading, ask the students to say what they think will happen if the story continues. Or ask the students to rewrite their own ending.

Clarify: Clarify can be used to explain a decoding strategy or to clarify an idea or unknown meaning of a word. For example, the teacher can model this: “I know the sound of ‘ch’ and ‘st’ at the end makes it a closed syllable, so this word must be ‘chest.’” An example of clarifying an idea can be modeled as such: “The main character was ‘drowsy,’ so he went to take a nap. ‘Drowsy’ must mean ‘tired.’” 

Question: Model for the students how to question by using the statement “I wonder …” For example, “I wonder why the character did…,” “I wonder why the author wrote this sentence…,” or “I wonder why ____ happened.” 

Summarize: Have the students retell a story in their own words. Completing a graphic organizer, such as a story map, will help them to organize their thoughts and remember the story elements. They can refer to it when retelling the story.

All of these techniques can be modified for use with older students or emergent bilingual students. For example, older students will be able to provide elaborate written responses rather than just drawings. Older students can also be exposed to multiple meanings and tenses of vocabulary words. For emergent bilingual students, the use of gestures, real photos, objects, or drawings may help with understanding of vocabulary words. In addition, teachers can incorporate the vocabulary word in their native language to parallel the word in English.  

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  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • Pre-K
  • K-2 Primary

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