George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Leadership

Doing It Differently: Tips for Teaching Vocabulary

Tips for teaching vocabulary that include letting students select the words, putting away dictionaries, and creating time for talk and play with new terms.
  • read later Bookmark

Every Monday my seventh grade English teacher would have us copy a list of 25 words she'd written on the board. We'd then look up the dictionary definitions and copy those down. For homework, we'd re-write each word seven times.

Good, now you know it. Test on Friday and never for those 25 words to be seen again. Poof. Old school, yes. Mundane task, yes. Did it work? I don't remember. Probably not.

Copying definitions from the dictionary we would probably all agree is not an effective way to learn vocabulary. Passive learning hardly ever is. It's just often the way we learned, and as teachers, we sometimes fall back on using these ways when teaching rather than taking a good look at student data, the latest research, and then trying something new.

The truth is, and the research shows, students need multiple and various exposures to a word before they fully understand that word and can apply it. They need also to learn words in context, not stand alone lists that come and go each week. Of course the way we learn words in context, or implicitly, is by reading, then reading some more. (This is why every classroom should have a killer classroom library stocked full of high-interest, age appropriate books.)

Selecting Words

Ah, so many words, so little time. When choosing which words deserve special instructional time, we don't have to do it alone. One of the biggest mistakes we teachers make in vocabulary instruction is selecting all the words for the students and not giving them a say in the matter.

My first year teaching, before my tenth graders began reading Lord of the Flies, I went through every chapter and made lists of all the vocabulary words I thought they'd have trouble with, so that I could pre-teach them.

When I looked at those long lists, I began to freak out. How will I teach all these words, and still have class time for all the other things we need to do? First off, rather than waste my time compiling lists, I should have let the kids skim the text in chapter one and select their own words.

Then, here's what to do after the students pick their own words:

  • Ask each child to create a chart where he/she writes down words of choice, and rates each one as "know it," "sort of know it," or "don't know it at all."
  • Then, on the same paper, have them write a definition or "my guess on meaning" for the words they know and kind of know (No dictionaries!)

Before they turn in these pre-reading charts, be sure to emphasize this is not about "being right" but that they are providing you with information to guide next steps in class vocabulary instruction.

Read through them all and use the results as a formative assessment. This data will show you which words they know, those they have some understanding of, and those words that are completely foreign to them.

The kids have selected and rated the words, and now it's your turn.

Ranking Words

When considering which words need the most instructional attention, let's turn to Isabel Beck's practical way of categorizing vocabulary words into three tiers:

Tier One: Basic words that rarely require instructional focus (door, house, book).

Tier Two: Words that appear with high frequency, across a variety of domains, and are crucial when using mature, academic language (coincidence, reluctant, analysis).

Tier Three: Frequency of these words is quite low and often limited to specific fields of study (isotope, Reconstruction, Buddhism).

Beck suggests that students will benefit the most academically by focusing instruction on the tier two words (since these appear with much higher frequency than tier three words, and are used across domains). So, this is when you take a look at the pre-reading vocabulary charts your kids created and choose "kind of" and "don't know at all" words that you deem to be tier two words. Go ahead and select some content-specific words (tier three) but only those directly related to the chapter, article, short story, or whatever you are about to read.

You now have a vocabulary list. It's time to teach.

Teaching Words

If you haven't heard of him, I'd like to introduce Robert Marzano. This guy is pretty amazing, having spent countless hours observing students and teachers. An education researcher and teacher, he stresses that in all content areas, direct vocabulary instruction is essential and suggests six steps:

Step one: The teacher explains a new word, going beyond reciting its definition (tap into prior knowledge of students, use imagery).

Step two: Students restate or explain the new word in their own words (verbally and/or in writing).

Step three: Ask students to create a non-linguistic representation of the word (a picture, or symbolic representation).

Step four: Students engage in activities to deepen their knowledge of the new word (compare words, classify terms, write their own analogies and metaphors).

Step five: Students discuss the new word (pair-share, elbow partners).

Step six: Students periodically play games to review new vocabulary (Pyramid, Jeopardy, Telephone).

Marzano's six steps do something revolutionary to vocabulary learning: They make it fun. Students think about, talk about, apply, and play with new words. And Webster doesn't get a word in edgewise.

The Rationale

At this point, you might be thinking that there just isn't enough time for all this pre-reading word analysis, direct instruction of vocabulary, and game playing. (You have content to teach!) So, I'd like end with a few quotes for you to consider:

Vocabulary is the best single indicator of intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success at school. -- W.B. Elley

Because each new word has to be studied and learned on its own, the larger your vocabulary becomes, the easier it will be to connect a new word with words you already know, and thus remember its meaning. So your learning speed, or pace, should increase as your vocabulary grows. -- Johnson O'Connor

We think with words, therefore to improve thinking, teach vocabulary. -- A. Draper and G. Moeller


Books to help you focus and fine-tune your vocabulary instruction:

Bringing Words to Life by Isabel Beck
Vocabulary Games for the Classroom by Lindsey Carlton and Robert J. Marzano
Words, Words, Words by Janet Allen
Teaching Basic and Advanced Vocabulary: A Framework for Direct Instruction by Robert J. Marzano

Websites that share effective and engaging vocabulary activities:

Reading Rockets

About the Author
Share This Story
  • read later Bookmark

Comments (44) Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Conversations on Edutopia (44) Sign in or register to comment

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY

I love your worksheet.

Your question, "How many times do we let students try/practice with new vocabulary words before we give a grade/hold them accountable?" is an important one. In my opinion, it is less a formal number and more of a feeling.

I aim to assess my students when I am confident in their knowledge of the vocabulary. Once I they are accurately using the words in context, I assessment to determine their understanding. Their quizzes are not about re-stating a definition but applying a word's functionality to a variety of contexts.

Cinnamon Holsclaw's picture
Cinnamon Holsclaw
7th Grade English and Science Teacher, Utah

Thanks, Brian! I think that you're right--it is more of a general sense of when they're ready.

Cinnamon Holsclaw's picture
Cinnamon Holsclaw
7th Grade English and Science Teacher, Utah

I used several of your vocabulary methods in my class this week. I think the thing that my students struggled with the most was taking the information they had learned and then applying it. I created a worksheet to help guide them through five of the six steps you posted above in your "Teaching Words" section. I posted the worksheet and wrote about your article in my blog because I was asking the question "How many times do we let students try/practice with new vocabulary words before we give a grade/hold them accountable?" I'm curious to know what you think about that question--and here's the link to the worksheet and blog post if you're interested:

Pat's picture
I am a middle school Math teacher.

I am a Math teacher and my problem this year is not the content vocabulary, but other words in word problems. For example, students did not know what "typical" or "journey" meant. It's hard to predict when it's going to happen and it's hard to stop the Math lesson to teach these supporting words in the word problem. Any suggestions?

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct Faculty Antioch University New England, former Elementary Principal

I see a couple of ways to approach this: First, simply set up a process where students raise their hand and when called on they say the one word they don't know. Another student provides a synonym. (or simple 3-5 word definition if a synonym is difficult to come by). It is a way to expand vocabulary to help your students with the problem at hand which doesn't take much time. For example Peter raises hand and says Journey, another student simply says trip. That should be enough to move forward in the lesson.

If it happens during independent work I would make it a collaborative thing where students may ask another student what a vocabulary word means or for a synonym. It not only helps teach the student the meaning, but also allows another student to practice speaking skills. I have found this also boots student confidence.

An alternative for times during a lesson, you could provide students a notecard of three tape flags or small package of sticky notes and have them flag the words they don't know yet and when students get work time they may use the above student led support strategy or ask the teacher.

Rusul Alrubail's picture
Rusul Alrubail
Edutopia Community Facilitator/ Student Voice & Literacy at The Writing Project

@John these are some great tips and they also support collaboration & teamwork!

@Pat one thing I would also do is designate an area on the board for vocabulary words, that way every class before each lesson students will share any unfamiliar vocabulary words. You can write them down, and chances are they will too. Then I would go ahead and use John's idea with brainstorming one or two synonyms that would explain those unfamiliar words. This process should not take more than 5 minutes. It will help students feel that it's okay to ask questions about vocabulary and will also show them that words are important even in math class.

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

Great Tips... Also. Kids hook a binder ring to their independent reading bags and add notecards to the ring as they use and learn vocabulary. The whole class can add a card or I will have them add cards independently during reading or writing workshop (differentiating the card list).

Matt Woodford's picture

I'm wondering if this is approach would work with intermediate level ESL students. Does anyone have any input on this?

James's picture

This is so true, Rebecca. We learn words in context by reading.

It is so important to see vocabulary words in context to fully grasp the meaning. If you want example sentences for words, give a try. This site uses simple sentences to define the meanings of complicated words. And it uses 10 unique sentences per word, not just one or after you read the page, you should know what the word means.

They have over 3,000 vocabulary words with sentence examples here

VocabularySpellingCity Mayor's picture
VocabularySpellingCity Mayor
VocabularySpellingCity is on a mission to improve student reading comprehension through improving vocabulary retention. And making it fun for the students, easy on the teachers. I'm also the founder of, K-2nd science.

This is a great overview on teaching vocabulary. While Beck's analysis is useful, I don't think it's the final word on word categories. For instance, there are very important words that are vital content vocabulary since they represent complex concepts. Examples would be river, lake, current, ocean,island, fresh water, salt water, and so on. There's also the category that I call the expensive $5 words. Basically, esoteric vocabulary which we use to think of as the "SAT Words". These words are of limited value since they are encountered rarely and while they do provide some nuance, they are not the keys to concepts. Lastly, I'd point out that the most powerful educational concept in comprehension and vocabulary is to focus not only on learning words but on retaining them through a program of spaced multimodal practice:

Sign in to comment. Not a member? Register.