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Effectively Building Vocabulary

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Like bricks in a wall, words are the building blocks of language. Learning many words and grasping their meanings is key to becoming literate. Our vocabulary knowledge directly influences our ability to read, write, speak, and understand language. So much of the knowledge we hold rests on the words we understand. If you want readers to better understand the text they are reading, vocabulary should be part of your plan. 

Vocabulary Development

There are two ways we develop a reader’s lexicon or the vocabulary they know. One is through incidental exposure, which happens when we acquire new words indirectly through conversations, learning, and reading. Most vocabulary is acquired through conversations, listening to books, and extensive independent reading. Reading or being read to is particularly important because written language contains more rare or unusual words when compared to oral language. Therefore, VOLUME matters. Feeding a brain with a consistent diet of complex text results in a larger vocabulary.

Two, we learn about words through explicit and direct instruction. Vocabulary instruction should be a part of our daily routines when working with students. This includes students in the earliest stages of schooling. Vocabulary instruction should launch from the beginning of a child’s school career and continue through every grade. It is critical to begin explicit vocabulary and knowledge-building immediately. Do not wait until a child has mastered “learning to read”. 

Remember there are levels of words, more frequently referred to as tiers. Tier 1 words are basic words such as high-frequency words. Tier 2 are important and useful in written and oral language. They appear frequently in a variety of contexts and have high utility. Tier 2 words are not domain-specific. Some examples might be coincidence or absurd. Tier 3 words are low-frequency words that are content and domain-specific. These words are needed to understand a concept. For example, words like peninsula or isotope.  

What does explicit vocabulary instruction look like?

Explicit vocabulary instruction should consist of the following:

  1. Preselect vocabulary words from the text that will be explicitly taught. Try to limit the number of words, less is more in this case. Also, try to select words that are critical to understanding the concepts of the text.

  2. Display the word and analyze the word structure. Analyzing the word structure will help the word “stick” in a student’s memory. Point out things like prefixes and suffixes, root words, word origins, and even syllables. Make sure that students know the word and have practiced saying the word themselves, not just listening to the teacher say it.

  3. Provide the students with a student-friendly definition. This shouldn’t be guesswork. Tell the students what the word means in terms they will understand.

  4. Show students how the word is used in the text you are reading, but don’t stop there, make sure students are exposed to other ways the word might be used. Give students several examples and remember to include both linguistic and nonlinguistic examples. If appropriate, giving nonexamples can also be useful. 

  5. Engage the students in interacting with the word. Students should use the word in both speaking and writing to deepen understanding. This might be a turn and talk or a quick jot that involves using the word. Providing sentence frames will help scaffold this work. Encourage the use of complete sentences when working with students.

  6. Provide opportunities for continued involvement with the word through conversations, reading, and writing. 

What should be avoided during vocabulary instruction?

Consider avoiding the following practices during vocabulary instruction:

  • Selecting vocabulary solely based on what the textbook identifies as important vocabulary. 

  • Teaching too many vocabulary words at a time. Less is more, and instruction should go deep. Therefore 15 vocabulary words from a short story is probably not going to be very productive.

  • Assigning students lists of vocabulary words and asking them to copy definitions from a dictionary. 

  • Selecting words that will not be useful beyond passing a vocabulary test. 

  • Selecting vocabulary randomly or from a list that is not connected to classroom learning. Vocabulary work should be connected to what students are learning about and reading. Teach vocabulary that is central to a unit or theme. 

In closing, create an environment that recognizes and values being word-conscious. As students grow and develop as readers, writers, and thinkers, they should begin to pay attention to unique words, explore the nuances of the English language, and seek understanding by thinking about words and what they mean. Vocabulary is critical to understanding and central to literacy development. It should be part of regular instruction in all grades. 


   Archer, A., Hughes, C. A., (2001). Explicit Instruction: Effective and Efficient Teaching. The Guildford Press: New York, NY.

   Beck, I., McKeown, M., Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Second Edition. The Guildford Press: New York, NY.

   Cobb, C. and Bachowicz C. (2014). No More “Look Up the List” Vocabulary Instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.


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