Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

Vocabulary is an important aspect in reading comprehension.  If students do not know what the words mean, they cannot understand what they are reading.
Research has shown that vocabulary deficiencies are a primary cause of academic failure in grades 3 through 12. 
(Baumann, Kameenui, Stanovich, & Becker)
Unfortunately, too many of our students have poor oral language skills.  This can be due to many reasons, but research has typically found that students from low SES tend to be lacking in oral language development and vocabulary.  Once they enter school, we have the sometimes difficult job of trying to bridge that gap.
So, what can we do?  
Teachers need to be very intentional about teaching vocabulary.
  We have to take the time to teach vocabulary to our students.  We cannot just rely on discussing words that we may come across in our read alouds.  While it is very important to discuss unknown words while reading, we also need to explicitly teach vocabulary words to our students.
For example, I explicitly teach vocabulary words to my students in small groups during guided reading time.  Using my monthly Guided Reading packets, I introduce the students to 3-5 new vocabulary words for each story.  We read the word, write the word, discuss the definition, and then USE the word.  Just reading the definition is not enough.  The students MUST use the word to learn it.
 After introducing the words and practicing them numerous times, we read the passage that contains the words.
 The number of words I introduce for each lesson depends on the level of my students.  I do not want to overwhelm my lower readers with 5 or 6 six vocabulary words.  They are much more likely to learn 2-3 new words.
Students need “kid friendly” definitions of new vocabulary words.
  Do you remember having to look up words in a dictionary and write the definition?  I know I remember doing that (not in 1st grade, of course).  While I know that learning dictionary skills is very important, this is definitely not an effective way of teaching new vocabulary to young students.  For example, if I look up the definition of the word dilemma it says, “a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives.”  For a first grader, this definition would only lead to looking up the words situation and alternatives.  Students need teachers to provide them with definitions that they are going to understand.
Students need multiple exposures to learn new words.
It can take a student anywhere from 4-40 exposures to learn a new word depending on their previous vocabulary knowledge.  While I’m sure that 40 exposures would not be the “normal,” I know that I have had students that would need this.  We cannot mention a word once and expect students to understand and use the word.
 One of my favorite vocabulary activities is to use Fancy Nancy books to teach vocabulary.  I throw on a tiara, some fancy Dollar Tree glasses, and Christmas garland, and I instantly become Fancy Nancy.  I explicitly introduce the words prior to reading.  Then, we hang them on our Fancy Nancy Words board to use in our writing.

Provide students with rich vocabulary every day.
Students will never learn new vocabulary if they don’t hear it and use it on a regular basis.  As teachers, we need to try and use rich vocabulary as often as possible to give students more exposure.  I like to throw in vocabulary words into our morning message.

Use vocabulary in all subject areas.
We often think of vocabulary instruction during reading or science, but you can throw in vocabulary instruction into all subject areas.  We work on new math vocabulary every day when we do our Daily Math Notebooks. 

Know which words to teach your students.
I’m sure you have heard about Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 vocabulary words.  Tier 1 words are your basic words (cat, ball, cup, etc.).  Tier 2 words are your high frequency/multiple meaning words that often occur in literature and adult conversations (absurd, coincidence, embellish, etc.)  Tier 3 words are your content or subject based words that are not used very frequently.  These are vocabulary words that students may find in science books.  Direct vocabulary instruction is best for Tier 2 words.  These are going to allow students to expand their reading and oral vocabularies.

I love these Word Teasers that I purchased at Books a Million.  They make different levels of boxes, but I have the Small Fry and the Junior versions.  They are great for those extra minutes in a day to introduce a new vocabulary word.

Another idea is to place Tier 2 words into a Word Jar and randomly pick a new word for each day.

These are great ways to make sure you are teaching students vocabulary words that they will be able to use in their every day lives.
What are your favorite ways of teaching vocabulary in your classroom?

If you would like to check out my March Guided Reading packet, click on the picture below.  My monthly packets contain 3 levels of passages to make differentiating a breeze.


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One Comment

  1. I'm not a teacher, but mom to a struggling 6th grader (as well as a 1st grader and two 2nd graders ;)). He is on an IEP and receives weekly Speech Therapy, however his comprehension and vocabulary skills are still far below grade level. I have been trying to explain to his SPED and ST that they need to focus on "basic" vocabulary, rather than 6th grade vocab, and now it makes perfect sense that they are teaching him Tier 3 words when he is still struggling with Tier 2 words. You share some awesome ideas, and we'll definitely be implementing them at home!

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