10 Powerful Vocabulary Instruction Tips Every Teacher Needs to Know

What’s one of the biggest barriers to comprehension?  Vocabulary.  No matter how well kids can pronounce the words they read or how clearly they hear a word said aloud, comprehension will break down if the meaning of words is unknown.  That’s why it’s been a part of every reading model as they’ve progressed over time.  The Simple View, Scarborough’s Rope, and the most current and comprehensive version,  the current Active View of Reading,  all include it.  The 2020 National Reading Panel listed it as one of the 5 pillars of reading instruction.  But why do some kids come to us with robust vocabularies, some with average vocabularies, and some with low?  And, given the vast differences in student vocabularies, not to mention the sheer number of words that could be taught, where do we begin?  Word of the week?  And a bigger question: what’s better–Incidental or explicit vocabulary instruction?

To answer that, let’s think about the ways vocabulary is built in the first place.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that it comes from exposure to words. Lots and lots of words.  This comes from talking, as parents do with their babies, where they praise and lift the child’s approximations at the same time.  If you haven’t seen this adorable video of this at play, you’ve GOT watch it!  

The other obvious way to build vocabulary?  Reading, of course.  Books, especially picture books, contain incredibly robust vocabulary words.  In 2015, researchers found that picture books, in fact, contained more rare words than parent-child conversations.  Some studies have shown that picture books contain more rare words than college-level conversational speech–so high-quality read alouds are a major key to vocabulary development.  

Of course picture books aren’t the only way to build kids’ vocabulary.  All reading does this…which is why the more kids read, the larger their vocabulary. 

Which makes the opposite true as well.  

A lot of kids today don’t come with these experiences.  Technology has played a huge role in this, as more and more kids have their noses in games on devices the minute they can hold an ipad.  This also means that the time spent on devices is time not spent interacting with others, building vocabularies.  Another factor?  Many children don’t have the luxury of being read to at home.  This isn’t necessarily due to socioeconomic status, either.  There are plenty of children from affluent families whose parents are so busy that reading and conversation are not a priority.  And our country’s multi-language learner population is growing every year.  

This is sobering, as a child’s vocabulary in the toddler stage has a massive impact on kindergarten academic success down the road.  This is a big problem for teachers well beyond kindergarten too, since “adequate reading comprehension depends on a person already knowing between 90 and 95 percent of the words in a text (Hirsch, 2003).”   

Image via New Africa

So…since we all have kids with limited vocabulary in our classrooms, it is then left to us to build it.  There are so many approaches to this, it’s hard to know what’s really most effective.  And even harder to understand how to fit it into our already jam-packed days.  

What to do?  Include a mix of incidental and explicit vocabulary instruction.  

“There is no one best method for vocabulary instruction, and that vocabulary should be taught both directly and indirectly.”    

National Reading Panel 

Here are some ideas for fitting in authentic, explicit and implicit vocabulary instruction that will increase students’ word knowledge and reading comprehension

  1. Use a large vocabulary yourself.  Don’t water down your words.  Instead, pair both “fancy” and “watered down” wording together.  Example: What’s your stance about this topic?  (fancy) What do you think about this idea?  (watered down).   Also, call things what they are.  Kids should know what quotation marks are, for example, but they won’t if they only hear them called talking marks.  
  2. Protect kids’ time for independent reading.
  3. Regularly read aloud to your kids.  Picture books, articles, editorials, poems…read a lot and read widely.
  4. Be intentional about being “word conscious.”  Researcher Joan Sedita encourages us to be excited about and point out interesting words, figurative language, and wordplay as you read aloud.  Invite kids to be “word conscious” in their own reading as well.   Just be careful to do this in a way that doesn’t interrupt the flow of the book, especially since you will also be pulling out a few words for explicit instruction.  Try different approaches with each time you read the book, or vary the approach from book to book. 
  5. Weave explicit vocabulary into your read alouds.  Before reading, pull out a few tier 2 words, provide a kid-friendly definition, pair it with an example and a picture if possible,  then have kids use them in a sentence with a partner.  (You may have to provide the sentence or sentence starter).  List these words on the board, and challenge the class to use the words in conversation that day or week.  Now, when you read the book, kids will have a better understanding of their meanings, and hearing them in authentic text will reinforce it.  
  6. Another time, you might even dig deeper into some of the words, and examine the etymology or morphology of the words.  Teaching kids to break down the words into morphological parts, in particular, is a great strategy they can and should apply on their own, too.  But not all words lend themselves to this kind of work, and of course you’ll need to consider the grade level of your students here.  
  7. Build text sets around a topic or concept for repeated exposure to vocabulary.  
  8. Tips 4 and 5 can and should be done across content areas, not just with read alouds.  
  9. If you use a specific phonics/spelling program, such as Words Their Way, be sure to include discussion of word meaning, and include student practice activities that require meaning to be incorporated.
  10. When doing modeled, shared writing, make a point of choosing specific words at various points.  When modeling revision, focus on intentional word choice–and set the tone that kids should do this work in their writing, too.

What not to do

Notice what’s not on this list?  Word of the day or  week.  That kind of contrived word learning isn’t nearly enough.  It isn’t connected to anything you’re doing in the day, so holds little value.  It might be fun, but it won’t likely stick or improve reading comprehension.  What else isn’t on this list?  Worksheets and packets of isolated word practice, especially massive time-wasters like word searches.  All of this is inauthentic, and will never give kids the kind of exposure to words that’s needed.  

There’s no point in wasting precious instructional time on this type of practice.  Because I would wager a bet that you probably don’t have time to waste.  Which is why I haven’t recommended time-intensive ideas, like the Frayer model graphic organizer.  A great tool, but definitely not in isolation, and it’s just not time-efficient for a whole class with a tight schedule.  Use things like this sparingly, or in small groups.  It would be a perfect thing to incorporate into your Words Their Way activities, for example, with a few high-utility words.  

There you have it.  10 tips for implicit and explicit, research-supported vocabulary instruction that are easy, no-cost, and effective.  I’d love to hear which tip sparked an idea for you!  Send me a DM on Instagram, let me know in the Facebook group, or email me!  

Could you use a thinking partner to plan some lessons that build in impactful vocabulary instruction?  I’m here for you, and I’d love to help!  We can set up a virtual coaching call so that no matter where you live, you can access the support you need, any day of the week!

Related Posts:  What’s the Best Way to Teach Vocabulary?, Want Students to Succeed in Reading?  Build Background Knowledge

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