What’s the Best Way to Teach Vocabulary?

Vocabulary instruction is always  at the top of mind for so many teachers. Vocabulary–or lack of it–has a tremendous impact on reading comprehension.   Considering there are also tiers of words, limited vocabularies affect students in all parts of the day.  Larger vocabularies also impact students’ writing.  When kids don’t have the words to accurately describe, their elaboration and clarity suffers.  And of course, students with more robust vocabularies are able to articulate themselves much more clearly in their oral speaking.  

In a nutshell, vocabulary instruction matters.  A lot.  

The problem?  You guessed it.  Time.  We wonder how we’re going to develop strong vocabularies on top of all the other things.  

And let’s be very real for a moment–kids today, who, since they were small toddlers have spent a large amount of their free time with noses in devices, just do not have strong vocabularies.  Many, many kids have spent their time playing video games.  Not talking with others, not learning how to converse from adult role models.  Not building vocabularies.  (Look around the tables at any restaurant at dinner–it’s like a unicorn sighting to see a child older than 18 months old not holding a device.)  

Image shows yellow background with black and white alarm clock ringing with text that reads time is running out.

So teachers look for resources, because this is largely up to us.  Most often, they’ll go to an online source, like TPT,  for something they can squeeze into small amounts of time.  Or they or their school will purchase a standalone vocabulary program, often on a computer.  But those kinds of things are just never going to hit the mark, because they’re so isolated.  Just like teaching grammar and conventions as only isolated skill work rarely transfers to kids’ actual writing, isolated vocabulary instruction, where kids don’t really use and apply the words, also won’t stick.  

Leading literacy expert Tim Shanahan tells us that strong vocabulary instruction includes 5 key principles:

  • Focus on rich meaning, not dictionary definitions
  • Emphasize connections among words
  • Encourage the usage of words
  • Review the words
  • Involve students

I could not agree more!

Pamela Koutrakos wrote a fabulous book, Word Study That Sticks. It’s about all things word study–vocabulary, phonics, and grammar.  In it,  she reminds us that there is no silver bullet to word study.  It’s all about purposeful intentionality.  

“There’s no real magic to making word study stick; but it’s magical when intentional and focused learning opportunities make this actually happen.”  

So how do you fit in vocabulary instruction within the very packed teaching day?

You weave it in.  

This is easy to do within a Balanced Literacy structure, because you can leverage various components, like read aloud, shared reading, shared writing, small group instruction, and focused word work alongside each other.  

Read alouds, in particular, are FULL of beautiful words, and words that are used in new ways.  The mere exposure to words in the context of a meaningful text is incredibly powerful.  You ramp up that power when you pause to discuss some of them.  Then have kids use the words in a sentence with partners to try them on for size.  Challenge them to use one of those words in their own writing.  Be like Donovan, in Donovan’s Word Jar, and collect words.  Display them so kids can reference them throughout the year.  Maybe they’ll even add some that they find most interesting to their own personal dictionary.

Image shows young boy in glasses and white shirt holding open a book with colorful letters floating off page.

Don’t forget to use these high-level words yourself here and there in your conversations with students!  Hearing and using them over time will further help the words and their meanings stick…because it’s within a meaningful context.

What about morphology?

Sometimes, look up the etymology of words.  It’s fascinating to learn where our crazy English words were derived, and learning about it also helps make connections to many other words–which also helps make them stick.  This is where explicit instruction in understanding roots and affixes comes into play.  Here’s an example, borrowed from the book Mindful of Words by Kathy Ganske:

Magellan named the ocean he discovered the Pacific.  But in his day, the word was pacificum.  He named it this because it was a calm, peaceful ocean during the time he made his trip.  Pacificum means “peaceful.”  And that’s why a baby’s calming device is called a pacifier.  

See?  That’s just interesting!  This book, as well as Uncovering the Logic of English, are wonderful resources for digging into this.  

Another way to use read alouds for vocabulary instruction is to pull a part–a line or paragraph, for example, and teach kids how to use context clues to figure out meaning.  If students don’t know how to do this, all the decoding drill work in the world will not help them.  They have to learn how to make and maintain meaning–and using context is one way to do that.  

Want a super effective strategy to show students HOW to use context clues? Keep reading!

Vicki Vinton, in her book Dynamic Teaching for Deeper Reading, shares a simple and super effective strategy for doing this.  She advises us to teach children to highlight the words they DO know in a given passage.  This shows them how much meaning they already have, with which they can then use to help them make meaning of the unknown words.  From there, they can use what they know based on background knowledge, grammatical structure, and parts of speech to help them.  Doing this, Vinton says, “students can often get the gist of a passage in a way that also builds their confidence, sense of agency, and identity as readers.”  

image shows pretend dictionary with word understand highlighted in pink.

Even better, because this is such motivating and empowering work for them, engagement is high.  Every bit of this metacognitive discovery process leads to higher levels of comprehension.  

Another way to weave in this kind of vocabulary instruction?

Shared reading is the perfect teaching method for teaching this strategy, and it can be used across genres and subjects–and at any grade level.  From there, of course, that same strategy can be used in small group instruction for more practice so that kids can take this on for themselves, in their own independent reading.  This, of course, is the ultimate reason for vocabulary instruction in the first place.  

And because they’ve constructed their own understanding by activating their metacognition within a meaningful text, the actual vocabulary learning is very likely to stick.  It’s a win-win.  Kids learn how to use context clues as they’re reading (as long as they’ve learned how important MSV is and are actually monitoring for meaning), AND they build a more robust vocabulary.  

So, you see, there’s absolutely no reason to download products or purchase standalone programs.  

Vocabulary is built within classrooms where read alouds and shared reading are the norm, where talk about words is an everyday occurrence, and where intentional word study is in place.  

Could you use a thinking partner to find ways to weave in authentic vocabulary instruction?  Contact me to set up a coaching call!  And  join my private FB group for immediate support! 

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Related posts:  Interactive Read Aloud vs Read Aloud:  Which is Better, Easy Method for Teaching for Transfer in Writing, Why You Need to Do Shared and Interactive Writing, Are You Inadvertently Causing Your Own Time Frustrations?

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