Vocabulary instruction is essential. You may have seen the difference between students with a rich vocabulary and those without. And studies back that up.
In a 2011 paper, Preventing a Vocabulary Lag: What Lessons Are Learned from Research, Sinatra, Zygouris-Coe, and Dasinge note, “Unless children develop strong vocabularies early in life and continue to deepen and broaden their vocabulary knowledge throughout the schooling years, they will predictably face difficulty in understanding what they read, will not use advanced and mature words in their writing, will have problems with academic subjects, will perform poorly on national achievement tests, and will fall steadily behind their more vocabulary-proficient peers.” That’s a big gap.
That’s why vocabulary is one of five essential components of reading instruction, along with phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, and comprehension. In fact, explicit vocabulary instruction can help improve reading comprehension more than teaching reading comprehension strategies.
Explicit vocabulary instruction means teaching students words directly, ideally using everyday language. Students need to be able to understand the meanings of words and be able to express the meaning in their own words.
Students need repeated and varied opportunities to interact with vocabulary words. Let’s look at four ways you can embed vocabulary instruction in your classroom.
4 ideas for vocabulary instruction
Before you hand students some new words and a dictionary, consider this: students fare much better with explicit vocabulary instruction and review. That doesn’t mean that tools like Magpie Walls or vocabulary games don’t work. It means they need to be used and integrated into the way you are teaching vocabulary.
Don’t assume students will pick up words from context. That said, contextualizing words is a great way to develop student vocabulary. Try these steps when you are reading together and come to a word you think students won’t know:
- Ask them to repeat the word. If they cannot read it, help them break the word into sounds until they can say the word correctly.
- Use the context of the story or passage to explain the meaning of the word in everyday language.
- After you’ve established the meaning of the word in the context of your reading, explain it in other contexts. The Collins CoBuild Dictionary is a good tool to help explain words in everyday language.
- Then have the student try to provide their own example of using the word.
- Finally have the student repeat the word
- If you encounter the word again, ask students to say the word and explain it or use it in a sentence again.
- Use other practice tools to reinforce words you learn from your reading.
You can use the four activities that follow to support student vocabulary learning.
Get to the root
Morphology is a power tool for vocabulary building. When students learn roots, prefixes and suffixes, they can start to make sense of other words with similar word parts. You can focus on the meaning of a particular root/stem, prefix, or suffix. (See which prefixes and suffixes to teach when in this free phonics scope and sequence.)
Then have students go on a word safari, looking for words with the word part. When they find them, work through the process of understanding a word above, but starting with what they know about the word.
Create a section in your vocabulary notebooks or Magpie Wall (see below) that brings those words together. Keep practicing the words you find and keep adding new words with related word parts. When you add new words, review the meaning of the word part and then the meaning of the word.
You can get some practice with the -ed and -ing suffixes in this free resource:
For even more practice, check out: Suffix -ed and -ing Worksheets.
You know how magpies collect interesting things to take back to their nest? Magpie walls are a place to collect words, phrases, and ideas. You can use Magpie Walls in different ways, but one is to help students build their vocabulary.
You can include sections and sort words on your Magpie Wall, for example, break words into parts of speech, make a section of words with similar roots or prefixes or suffixes, separate words by part of speech (verbs, nouns, adjectives, etc.)
Make bingo cards with your vocabulary words. Then instead of reading the words, read the meaning. Students put a marker on the word that matches the meaning. The first student to fill a row, column, or diagonal calls BINGO! Have that student say in their own words, the meaning of each vocabulary word they marked.
To extend this activity, create the game together. Talk about each word. Have students practice reading it, reading it in context, and explaining what it means. Work with students to make up the meanings you will use in the game.
Word of the week
Word of the Week is a way to build vocabulary and practice new words. Each week choose a word and have students interact with it in different ways. Here are some possible vocabulary activities to try:
- Listen for somebody using the word.
- Use the word when speaking.
- Look up the word in a dictionary.
- Draw a picture showing the meaning of the word.
- Find the word in a book, magazine, newspaper or other source.
- Write a sentence using the word.
- Make a list of words that rhyme with the word.
- Describe the word to a friend.
Students can work on Word of the Week worksheets in literacy stations or as homework. At the end of the week, have students share in small groups one way they interacted with the word and add the word to your word wall. When you do that, revisit past words of the week for additional review.
Try a Word of the Week worksheet, as part of Suffix Activities -ed & -ing:
Then get more along with other activities to help students master words, in this bundle with phonics homework for the whole year: Fun Phonics Homework Bundle.