Vocabulary Teaching Tips Drawn from Research and Theory

The Problem: Students striving to learn English must contend with arguably the largest word bank in the world and a good deal of complexity in spelling patterns. These characteristics, and the relationship between word knowledge and comprehension, make it necessary to use effective instructional methods when teaching vocabulary. Teaching vocabulary primarily through dictionary or glossary study is not effective, especially for students with learning difficulties, at-risk readers and English language learners, just as assigning a list of words to be studied and memorized each week, with minimal use in speaking or writing and with minimal instruction, is not likely to significantly and positively effect vocabulary growth and will probably diminish motivation (see Bos & Anders, 1990; Bos et al., 1989; Bryant et al., 2003; Ebbers & Denton, 2008; McKeown et al. 1985; Nagy & Scott, 2000). Logically, it follows that copying words repeatedly and alphabetizing words should not be expected to promote vocabulary breadth or depth. Neither should we hope to see expressive or even receptive vocabulary expand as a result of completing word-search worksheets. 

The Problem Begins Early: There is a vocabulary gap between children who experience rich encounters with language at home, including elaborate adult-child discussions, lap-time story discussions, and bed-time stories, and children who are not engaged as frequently or as deeply with books and rich conversations at home. This vocabulary gap is immense--by kindergarten, the gap is a gulf that predicts either success or frustration with schoolwork (Hart & Risley, 1995). For more details on the primary-grade vocabulary gap, see post by guest expert Andrew Biemiller. Because of these early differences in word knowledge, we must begin in early grades to develop vocabulary; waiting until adolescence is problematic. Guest expert Michael Coyne describes how to promote word knowledge in at-risk readers in kindergarten and first grade, using a response to intervention (RTI) model of instruction and assessment. Dr. Coyne has been effective at helping at-risk youngsters experience success with vocabulary tasks. Success is important: In primary grades and throughout our lives, success is a powerful motivator (Bandura, 1997).

Motivation is essential and--for better or for worse--it permeates every phase of learning, from introduction to assessment (e.g., Tseng & Schmitt, 2008). One aspect of motivation is buy-in; learners are more willing to work if they feel the goal is worthy and understand the rationale for learning. A key component of explicit instruction, particularly for older readers with reading difficulties, is developing this rationale (see Mastropieri & Scruggs, 2002). Logically, motivation and explicit instructional methods become more critical when success does not come easily and self-efficacy is low. Suggestions for helping adolescents develop a rationale for learning are briefly discussed in the first post.  Some suggestions for creating a love for language are provided in Treated to Language.

Read! Read! Read!!  Read to students of all ages (see How to Read Aloud to Children to Optimize Word Learning). Encourage silent, independent reading, too. Reading frequently and fluently from a wide variety of topics is probably the most efficient way to build a large vocabulary, but reading is a frustrating or boring task for some. For more on helping struggling readers grow their vocabulary, see posts by Alexis Filippini and Jan Hasbrouck. Libraries and librarians offer support for struggling or disengaged readers (see posts by Susie Goodin and Fran Mancino). For a library-based program created to help less advantaged parents in the community become stronger literacy leaders during the critical years of language development in early childhood, see the post by Michele Berg.

Context and a Definition: Other than the motivation variable, there is no optimal means of teaching vocabulary; a variety of methods that include both a definition and context have proven effective (e.g., see Graves, 2009; Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986). A student-friendly definition is essential, along with context. Many dictionaries are not student-friendly; they use academic language and circular definitions (e.g., "to colonize is to create a colony"). This is not so helpful.

Four-Part Vocabulary Plan: A comprehensive vocabulary plan includes more than simply teaching students new words (Graves, 2006). It also includes teaching students how to learn words on their own (word learning strategies like morphemic analysis in context and the use of a dictionary and thesaurus). A comprehensive plan also includes creating an atmosphere that promotes word consciousness (see Word Harvesting by Tim Rasinski). A four-part vocabulary approach also includes providing many opportunities to engage in language, especially through wide and varied reading materials, skits, songs, etc. For a brief summary, see The Four-Ply Vocabulary Plan. For a more extensive summary, where researchers applied the four-part plan to numerous lessons in Grades 4 and 5, see MCVIP -- A Multifaceted, Comprehensive Vocabulary Instruction Program, by Baumann, Manyak, Blachowicz, Graves, Arner, Bates, Cieply, Davis, Peterson, & Olejnik.

Word Selection: Before teaching, it is helpful to consider which words are most useful to know. Time is limited, so we are selective about the words we teach (see Fisher and Frey's post on word selection). Deputizing a spelling list to serve as a vocabulary list is probably not ideal, unless the spelling words share the same morpheme (root, prefix, suffix) thematic concept, and/or meet the criteria listed below.  Michael Graves discusses words to teach in primary and elementary school. He describes two lists: Words Worth Teaching (Biemiller) and The First 4,000 Words (Sales and Graves). We also need to teach multipurpose academic words like distribute, analyze, hesitation (in addition to content-specific words like tundra, electron and metaphor). In choosing academic words to teach, we consider the following questions:

  1. Does the word appear in texts across the curriculum, making it more useful, more ubiquitous?
  2. Is the word bolstered by a morphological family of words, making the lesson more generative and transferable (e.g., timid, timidly, intimidate, intimidation)?
If we can respond affirmatively to at least one question and if the majority of students do not already know the word, we might decide to teach it. How well does the student need to know the word? If a word must be well understood and assimilated into expressive vocabulary, we base our instructional design in principles of explicit and engaging instruction, outlined below. Any one of these principles might be applied to any method and any word or phrase. 

Explicit yet Engaging Vocabulary Instruction:
  • Is differentiated to suit the strengths of the students.
  • Encourages active learning.
    • Students are not passive listeners; they are encouraged to be responsive and cognitively engaged.
    • See David Pearson's post for a science example.
    • See Concepts Sorts and Vocabulary Learning by Donald Bear 
    • See the booklet with various word-study activities, provided by Geri Mohler.
  • Is framed around context.
    • Printed context, picture context, conversational context, play-center context and/or authentic experiential context
    • Read Christie Cavanaugh for word-learning in the context of preschool play centers. 
  • Includes a student-friendly definition.
    • The word reluctant means unwilling. It is an adjective, describing how we feel if we do NOT want to do something.
  • Includes examples and non-examples. 
    • “The word reluctant describes how I feel about touching a worm. I am reluctant to touch a worm. However, reluctant is not how I feel about attending a party or playing basketball. Reluctant does not quite express how totally resistant I am to performing on stage.”
  • Reinforces the word via usage. 
    • Teacher asks students to respond to a prompt with a predetermined phrase or sentence (not a single decontextualized word):
      • Teacher prompts: "How do you feel about doing the dishes?" Students: “I’m reluctant to do that!” 
      • Teacher: "How do you feel about closing a book in the middle of a really good scene?"
        Students: "I'm reluctant to do that!"
        • Thus, students come to see that the word to often follows the word reluctant. They grow to understand usage, with syntax.
  • Reinforces the word via morphology (roots, affixes). 
    • For example, help the learner see that related derivatives of reluctant include reluctantly and reluctance and that reluctant has nothing to do with luck, despite how it may sound.
  • Reinforces the word via phonology (sounds, pronunciation). 
    • Model how to say the word aloud, accenting the correct syllable. Students practice saying longer words aloud until pronounced correctly.  Affirm correct pronunciation.
      • Adolescents are not apt to freely use the word in classroom conversations unless they feel confident.
  • Reinforces the word via orthography (spelling). 
    • How do we spell reluctant? What are the sound-symbol correspondences? Is it spelled like the word luck? (No, it has nothing to do with luck.)
    • Are prefixes or suffixes in the word relucatant? (Yes, re- and -ant.)
      • (By the way, several rarely used academic words -- some are new to me --  contain the root luct, Latin for "to struggle")
    • Does the spelling reflect the meaning through any morphemes? 
      • The word reluctant is not a good example, but consider how the spelling and meaning of the base word, please, is reflected in the derivation, pleasant.  Knowing that pleasant and pleasure are morphologically related to please helps us spell the derivatives (with an -ea- vowel team and the consontant s) and understand what they mean.
      • See the word-study booklet provided by Geri Mohler.
      • Read several posts by Pete Bowers (this post, too).
  • Reinforces the word via semantic clusters. 
    • Link the word to synonyms, antonyms, and conceptually, thematically, and/or categorically related words. Create networks of related words. Avoid teaching words in isolation.
    • For an example, read how Jill Castek et al. used Web 2.0 resources to  help students learn a cluster of related words: overwhelm, overwhelmed, overwhelming, distressing, deluge.
    • See Concepts Sorts and Vocabulary Learning by Donald Bear (including his discussion of the Osani Circle Game).
  • Builds on prior knowledge and promotes conceptual understanding
    • Conveys abstract concepts like taxation and rebellion though concrete examples
    • Seeks to promote generalization of understanding and transfer of learning
    • For specific examples of this, see post by Kathleen Lord.
  • Teaches connotations, not only denotations.
    • Which word best expresses how you would feel if you had to swim through oil? Which word connotes the most emotionally resistant feeling: reluctance, unwillingness, hesitation, antipathy or revulsion
    • (Read Ebbers and see poll results on connotations)
  • Provides opportunities for students to generate their own context.
    • Example: Tell your neighbor about something you are reluctant to do after 10pm.
    • Example: Write a brief paragraph, using the words reluctant, reluctance, or reluctantly, and ____ (insert a word already learned, a review word).
  • Reinforces the meaning with a picture, if feasible.
    • Students can sketch a picture, too, and/or visualize.
  • Reinforces the meaning via action, if applicable.
    • Use role-play to act out reluctant, for example.
    • Use the word in the context of hands-on learning.
  • Revisits words over time via listening, speaking, reading, writing and doing.
    • Juxtapose two or three learned words as review:
      • Example: After reluctant and dusk have been learned, ask students to generate a sentence that integrates both words, perhaps, "I am reluctant to go to bed at dusk."
  • Includes forms and variations of language
    • Include discussions of dialect, slang, jargon and register
    • See prior post by Susan Ebbers
  • Reinforces content-area instruction.