Vocabulary Instruction

Help build your students vocabulary! Deisy Ortiz, May 2016

Promoting Vocabulary instruction

Limited vocabulary is many times the cause of reading comprehension struggles as well as reading fluency. In the case of my ELLs students it is the cause of reading comprehension struggles in both languages. In my district the bilingual program is set up to divide the week into English day instruction and Spanish day instruction. My dilemma is effectively covering vocabulary in both languages through out the week. In my school word walls are not required but it is the only semi-effective vocabulary instruction I have seen. It takes up a lot of room to have an English vocabulary word wall and a Spanish vocabulary word wall, which is why I don’t utilize one in my room.

Vocabulary is an important base for reading comprehension. For English language learners learning new vocabulary is key for the language acquisition as well. Providing different vocabulary instruction ideas for teachers at my school and district would be an informative staff development that teachers of various grade levels could benefit from.

Tip #1 Establish efficient yet Rich Routines for introducing Target words

Its easy to spend a large amount of instructional time teaching new vocabulary words. However if we focus on fewer high-priority target words each week you will receive a much higher retention rate. In the MCVIP Project "a three year research study that focused on the design, implementation, and refinement of a multifaceted, comprehensive vocabulary instructional program in fourth-fifth grade classroom" ( Manyak, 2014, pg. 15) the first step in enhancing vocabulary instruction is establishing efficient rich routines for introducing vocabulary words.

  • Present the word in the context in which it appears in text whenever possible.
  • Provide a kid-friendly definition.
  • Prompt student use: Think of examples in everyday life where students can use the word and utilize those as examples.
  • Show and briefly discuss a visual image: Prompt students to discuss why the visual is connected to the word.
  • Conclude with a thought question and/or a quick interactive activity:

Tip #2 Provide review experiences that promote deep processing

"The MCVIP team identified deep processing experiences as those involving comparing and contrasting word meanings, teasing out nuances of meanings, using words in writing, or applying target words while analyzing texts, characters and concepts (Manyak, 2014, pg. 18). The MCVIP team suggest four strategies that proved to be effective in their research when used regularly in the classroom.

1. Connect Two: student connect two words together from the word wall. Teacher will call on students to share the connections made between words. Variations can include connecting more than two words.

2. Two-in-One: students will write one or more sentences using two or more of the weeks vocabulary words.

3. Character Trait Writing: Students select a target character trait word and write two to three sentences about how it fits a character in a current or past narrative text.

4. Concept Word Précis writing: Students select a vocabulary word and explain it in writing, staying under a word limit set by the teacher.

Tip # 3 Word Selection

Greg Feezell makes a very valid point in his article Robust Vocabulary Instruction in a Readers' Workshop, a successful readers workshop begins with students having the choice in the books they read, similar in writing workshop students who choose their writing topics are more engaged in their writing. So why not allow students to have a choice about the vocabulary words they learn? Feezell (2012) sees it as an opportunity to give students a sense of ownership over their learning. Teachers may use any technique they prefer when allowing vocabulary submissions, Feezell (2012) suggests allowing students to make suggestions in a container that is accessible to students daily. Students can make suggestions when they come across a word in their daily reading or during the school day. Students will use a piece of paper or sticky note, write their name, word and the sentence in which they found the word. Contribution to the word box is not required but encouraged. If teachers see specific students who are not contributing then you may assess whether the student is not reading challenging books or how you can encourage them to contribute. Conferences can then be provided for students who are not contributing or for students who are contributing word below grade level due to lack of vocabulary.

Tip # 4 Use fun ways to review vocabulary

Once students have been introduced to the vocabulary words and have been exposed to them for a few days you can use fun ways to review words. Feezell (2012) gives some great ideas in his article:

  • Pictionary: Students use a vocabulary word and illustrate it. Their classmates must then try and identify the word based on the illustration.
  • Tic-tac-toe: Students draw a 3x3 grid on a scrap of paper. Each student chooses nine words from the word wall and write each in a square. The definitions are written on scraps of paper. Students draw an X through a word when its definition is read. (Feezell, 2012, pg. 236)
  • Get students up and moving with this next activity: Students choose between two words with similar meanings. The teacher will say a sentence that will contain the vocabulary but will allow the students to choose between which vocabulary word will complete the sentence. Students will move to either side of the room that is designated for each vocabulary word. If they are uncertain they will stay in the middle of the room.

Tip # 5 Create a Verbal Classroom Environment

In the article What is most Important to Know About Vocabulary? Linda Kucan describes a verbal classroom environment as energized verbal environments in which words are not only noticed but appreciated, savored and celebrated. In order to create this type of environment teachers should nurture word consciousness by developing curiosity about unknown words that encourage students to discover what words mean and how they work. Here are some suggestions on how to help create this type of environment according to Kucan (2012):

  • Deliberately choose literature that emphasizes "surprisingly fresh and imaginative language to describe and explain" (Kucan, 2012, pg. 361). This can also be done with books, poems or read aloud.
  • Dictionaries: Provide dictionaries that are readily available to your students. Encourage them to look up words that they come across as unfamiliar. Dictionaries can be provided online as well it technology is available. For some kid friendly dictionaries see the link below: http://familyinternet.about.com/od/websites/tp/kidsdictionaries.htm

Tip # 6 Teach students how words work

Kucan (2012) explains in her research that a typical school day presents multiple opportunities for students to learn about how words work, of the important features of words. Teaching students the features of phonology, orthography, morphology and syntax through instruction in phonics, spelling, word study, structural analysis, grammar, oral vocabulary, and story vocabulary. When teaching vocabulary make sure you are exposing students to the word in multiple word features.


  • Use rhymes, songs, clapping in syllables to help students learn how to pronounce new words correctly. " No one will use a word they can't say" (Kucan, 2012, pg. 362)


  • "Learning to read involves learning how the sounds of spoken words (phonology) relate to the way they are written (orthography) (Kucan, 2012, pg. 362). Reinforce phonics being learned in print so that students learn how to spell words related the patterns being learned.


  • "Typical approaches for drawing students' attention to morphemes, or units of meaning in words, involve teaching about prefixes and suffixes or Greek and Latin roots (Kucan, 2012, pg. 362)


  • Vocabulary instruction can also include syntactic forms of words. For example students may generate various syntactic forms of words and to use those forms in sentences to demonstrate how they function, such as in the following:

noun adjective verb adverb

strategy strategic, strategize strategically

Tip # 7 Assess background knowledge

In preparation for introduction of new vocabulary teachers should activate prior background knowledge and incorporate known vocabulary. According to Wessels (2011) "background knowledge is what students use to develop, expand, and refine word meanings". This is especially helpful for ELL students. Helping them make connections to vocabulary in their native language strengthens their understanding of target vocabulary. "Research on the literacy development of Els suggests that language knowledge and skills acquired through the native language can be transferred to English, although degrees of language transfer vary depending on individual differences and their proficiency in the native language" (Wessels, 2011, pg. 48).
Big image

Tip #8 Connect unknown vocabulary to known knowledge

Help students make connections to known knowledge. For ELL students providing the translation of the word in their native language helps them make connections to known vocabulary. "Some connections indicated a partial understanding of the vocabulary, which can be built upon and extended" (Wessels, 2011, pg. 48).

Tip # 9 Provide multiple exposures

Students need multiple meaningful exposures to new vocabulary if they are to retain it. According to Wessels (2011) in order to do this we have to steer away from lecture and call attention to use of the words in context, helping students make meaningful connections to their own lives. Group discussions are a great way of providing time for students to have authentic conversations were they can be exposed to rich vocabulary from their peers.

Tip # 10 Suggested follow-up activities

The following are suggested vocabulary activities that can be incorporated into the classroom.

  • Example/ Nonexample: Provide students with an example and a non example of a vocabulary word. Students decide which is the example of the word. Students can have task cards with the words example, non example to vote with or the teacher can designate sides of the room as each option.
  • Word association: Make different comments and have students decide which comment goes with a target word. Ex: restrictions, comment: When I applied for a library card, I was surpassed by all of the rules that I had to follow just to borrow a book.
  • Generate situations, context, and examples for vocabulary words. Example: dignity: How might a losing team maintain its dignity?
  • Writing: Provide sentence stems for students to complete with vocabulary words.
  • Cognates: Use cognates to help ELL learn new vocabulary.

Five Points for Parents

1. Help your child build their vocabulary by talking and reading with your child. Have conversations and discussions about interesting words you come across in your reads or day to day activities.

2. Brainstorm new words and definitions throughout the day, during car rides, dinner conversations etc. Talk about words with prefixes and suffixes, or multiple meanings. Remember that learning new vocabulary words takes time and patience.

3. Practice word wall/vocabulary introduced in the classroom. Talking counts! Ask your child about what they are learning or practicing at school.

4. Say it your way: When defining new words use your own words to describe the word to your child. They will understand it better if it is described in their words.

5. Act it out: Make learning new vocabulary words fun! Act it out, draw it make a competition of who can use it more through out the day.


1. http://www.readingrockets.org Reading rockets is a website that not only has great content for educators but also for parents. The website is easy to use and provides web-based reading strategies and resources to help struggling readers.

2. http://www.colorincolorado.org Coloring Colorado is the bilingual site that is equivalent to the reading rockets website for educators and families of English language learners. The website provides an abundance of research support for ELL.

3. http://www.edutopia.org Edutopia is a website that provides resources for educators on how to incorporate comprehensive assessment, integrated studies, project-based learning and social and emotional learning into the classroom. The website shares evidence and practitioner based strategies in a variety of topics.

4. https://www.teachingchannel.org The teaching channel shares hundreds of videos with a variety of teaching strategies to support educators. On the website educators have an online community where they can share techniques.

5. http://www.adlit.org/article/19691/ All about adolescent literacy is a an online resourse for eduators and parents of children in grades 4-12. The website is also in Spanish and provides classroom strategies as well as current research and multimedia.


Kieffer, M. J., & Lesaux, N. K. (2007). Breaking down Words to Build Meaning: Morphology, Vocabulary, and Reading Comprehension in the Urban Classroom. Reading Teacher, 61(2), 134-144.

The researchers in this article demonstrated how important morphology is in vocabulary

acquisition. I have studied linguistics in my undergraduate degree but I had not encountered

specifically teaching students how to utilize morphology to help build comprehension

strategies for unknown vocabulary. This would be great read for teachers who are

interested in utilizing morphology to teach vocabulary.

Proctor, C. P., Dalton, B., & Grisham, D. L. (2007). Scaffolding English Language Learners and Struggling Readers in a Universal Literacy Environment With Embedded Strategy Instruction and Vocabulary Support. Journal Of Literacy Research, 39(1), 71-93.

I was interested in this article because it reviewed the use of a technology program as an intervention strategy for struggling students. At the moment we utilize a similar computer program as an intervention for both ELL and monolingual students in my district. This will be an interesting read for any one who currently uses similar computer programs in their classrooms.

Wallace, C. (2007). Vocabulary: The Key to Teaching English Language Learners to Read. Reading Improvement, 44(4), 189-193.

In this article Wallace (2007) referenced many difference research studies to arrive to his conclusion, “vocabulary instruction is the key to teaching ELL to read” (Wallace, 2007). As Wallace (2007) pointed out in his research ELLs struggle with reading comprehension because oral language is the first step in the language process. This is an interesting read for and teachers of ELLs.

Annotated Bibliography

Feezell, G. (2012). Robust Vocabulary Instruction In A Readers' Workshop. Reading Teacher, 66(3), 233-237. doi:10.1002/TRTR.01087

In this article Greg Feezell incorporates vocabulary instruction in readers workshops. Feezell

gives details and describes his day to day instruction and the way he incorporates vocabulary in

his readers workshop. He believes giving students a choice in the vocabulary they are learning

will give students a sense of ownership in their learning.

Kucan, L. (2012). What Is Most Important to Know About Vocabulary?. Reading Teacher, 65(6), 360-366. doi:10.1002/TRTR.01054

Linda Kucan in her article describes the importance of creating and maintaining a verbal

environment. She describes how a teacher can create a classroom where vocabulary

development is encouraged and appreciated. Kucan also describes the importance of teaching

vocabulary instruction through phonology, orthography, morphology, and syntax.

Manyak, P. C., Gunten, H. V., Autenrieth, D., Gillis, C., Mastre-O'Farrell, J., Irvine-McDermott, E., & ... Blachowicz, C. L. (2014). Four Practical Principles for Enhancing Vocabulary Instruction. Reading Teacher, 68(1), 13-23. doi:10.1002/trtr.1299

In this article literacy researchers design five essential components of effective vocabulary

instruction. This MCVIP project was a three year research study that focused on the design,

implementation, and refinement of a multifaceted, comprehensive vocabulary instruction


Wessels, S. (2011). Promoting Vocabulary Learning for English Learners. Reading Teacher, 65(1), 46-50. doi:10.1598/RT.65.1.6

Stephanie Wessels in this article identifies five characteristics necessary for students'

vocabulary learning.1. Accessing background knowledge 2. connecting unknown vocabulary to

known knowledge, 3. ensuring opportunities for meaningful vocabulary use, 4. providing multiple

exposures and 5. focusing on higher level knowledge. In her article she uses a vocabulary quit

to demonstrate how she uses these five characteristics in a lesson.


Feezell, G. (2012). Robust Vocabulary Instruction In A Readers' Workshop. Reading Teacher, 66(3), 233-237. doi:10.1002/TRTR.01087

Kucan, L. (2012). What Is Most Important to Know About Vocabulary?. Reading Teacher, 65(6), 360-366. doi:10.1002/TRTR.01054

Manyak, P. C., Gunten, H. V., Autenrieth, D., Gillis, C., Mastre-O'Farrell, J., Irvine-McDermott, E., & ... Blachowicz, C. L. (2014). Four Practical Principles for Enhancing Vocabulary Instruction. Reading Teacher, 68(1), 13-23. doi:10.1002/trtr.1299

Routman, R. (2003). Reading essentials: The specifics you need to teach reading well. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Wessels, S. (2011). Promoting Vocabulary Learning for English Learners. Reading Teacher, 65(1), 46-50. doi:10.1598/RT.65.1.6