A Comprehensive Vocabulary Program

The Why, What and How of Teaching Vocabulary

Why Should We Teach Vocabulary?

The Reasons Vocabulary is Key

As Marzano Research Associate Dr. Phil Warrick has said, developing a comprehensive vocabulary program is a "thin slice of excellence" in Level 3 of the High Reliability Schools framework. There are multiple reasons that vocabulary is such a key piece of the level dealing with a Guaranteed and Viable Curriculum. In fact, vocabulary could be considered a curriculum within a curriculum.


Not only does vocabulary make up its own category of instruction, it is also the key to all other content. As Phil said, vocabulary is a "gatekeeper to all learning." Vocabulary helps build background, a background many of our students today are missing. This vocabulary gap is considered significant. One study shows that by second grade, a child in a middle class family will know approximately 6,020 words, whereas a child in the bottom quarter of the income range will know just 4,168 words (see the article "The Word Gap" below for more information).


The power of words comes in the way our brains work. Vocabulary provides the labels or "file folders" in our brains in which we can store all other information. Without those categories, our sensory register tends to filter out new information. That's why explicit and direct instruction can play such an important role in learning.

What Vocabulary Should We Teach?

Tier 1: Basic Terms

Tier 1 vocabulary includes your very basic English words, those frequent in oral and written language. Examples include big, clock, walk, etc. These typically do not require direct instruction and can be picked up in context. However, English Language Learners may need direct instruction in Tier 1 terms.

Tier 2: General Understanding

Tier 2 terms are those needed to understand the English language. Words like lake or puddle are considered Tier 1 words, but the related words of gulf or inlet would be considered Tier 2 because they are not as basic. Other terms like therefore, whereas and accordingly are also considered Tier 2 words.


Another piece of Tier 2 are cognitive verbs. These category includes terms like summarize, analyze, predict.

Teaching Cognitive Verbs

While most Tier 2 terms are taught as needed in regular classroom instruction, cognitive verbs can be taught through a school-wide systemic approach.


These words filter across content areas and can be clustered with similar verbs. Our standards tend to use cognitive verbs as well, so using these terms in learning goals and proficiency scales can be beneficial.

Tier 3: Content-Specific

Tier 3 words are content vocabulary, those terms specific to a specific subject. Although infrequent, they are important to understanding that content. Because of this, explicit instruction is required. The goal is to develop a list of 20-30 terms for each grade and content level. That does not mean that those are the only words taught. What is does mean is that those 20-30 terms are taught, assess, reviewed and spiraled into instruction as part of the guaranteed and viable curriculum process.

A Comprehensive Approach to Vocabulary Instruction

Includes an explanation of the tiers

How Do We Teach Vocabulary

Two Types

One of things to consider when teaching vocabulary is that there are two types:


  • Receptive (input literacy): This includes reading and listening.
  • Productive (output literacy): This includes speaking and writing.

Since all four modes are represented, vocabulary instruction should include a variety of activities, which are all represented in Marzano's Six-Step Vocabulary Process.

Six-Step Vocabulary Process

Marzano's Six-Step Vocabulary Process is a strategy developed to explicitly teach vocabulary as well as to increase exposure to those new terms to move them from short-term memory to long-term learning.


The Six-Step Vocabulary Process uses the term "step;" however, these do not need to be followed in a certain order (at least past Step 1). They do represent interaction with vocabulary at different points in the learning though:

  • Steps 1, 2 and 3: new knowledge
  • Steps 4, 5 and 6: used to review and spiral


For more information about using the Six-Step Process, click on the picture below: