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8 ways to make vocabulary instruction more effective

Timothy Rasinski
May 27, 2020

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Proficient reading requires the reader to comprehend and learn from a text. Similarly, proficient comprehension requires the reader to understand the words in a text. According to scholars, understanding word meaning accounts for as much as 80% of reading comprehension.

Writing also requires knowing and using a large number of vocabulary words. Further, every content area has its own specialized words and concepts.

Yet, vocabulary instruction has not been a priority in many schools. Another challenge is that it has not been highly effective or engaging. When vocabulary instruction does occur, it tends to be rote memorization, which students and teachers have come to dread.

While teaching vocabulary can be a complex and challenging task, the payoff is well worth the effort: higher reading proficiency, better writing and stronger learning across a wide range of subjects. Following are some general principles to help guide teachers in developing or choosing a vocabulary curriculum. 

Make vocabulary instruction integrative 

New words and concepts are best learned (and taught) in relation to students’ existing and developing word knowledge. Teaching words that are related to one another allows students to make connections between words. Also, rather than teaching words in isolation, vocabulary instruction should be woven into what students are already reading and studying. 

  • Make teachable moments out of interesting words encountered in authentic reading experiences. 

  • Integrate vocabulary instruction into the content areas.

  • Connect vocabulary learning to a current event. 

Involve active processing and discussion

A vocabulary program should offer plenty of ways to talk about words and engage in meaningful activity with words. This gets students thinking deeply about words.

  • Ask students to come up with synonyms or antonyms, then discuss how the specific words are similar and different. 

  • Engage students in categorizing a set of words or do a cloze activity that provides opportunities to actively engage in word study and exploration. 

Provide repeated exposure 

To learn word meanings and use words correctly, students need repeated exposure in a variety of contexts and modalities. Moreover, those exposures should occur over a period of days and weeks rather than one or two days. 

  • Give students opportunities to see words in various textual contexts: word walls, cloze sentences, word sorts, word mapping, word games, etc. 

  • Ask parents and other school staff to use the words in their own interactions with students. 

Focus on meaningful word parts

Effective vocabulary instruction takes advantage of morphology by helping students understand how words are made up of meaningful components: base words, prefixes, suffixes, and inflected endings. 

  • For example, knowledge of morphology helps students understand that when bi- is used as the prefix the word may include the notion of two-ness, and that the prefix tri- means the word may have something to do with threes (e.g., tricycle, triangle). 

  • Many base words in English are derived from Latin and Greek roots. Helping students detect the root in words and associate it with the original meaning can give them a productive approach for coming to the meaning of the word. For example, knowing that spect is a Latin root that means to see or observe, students can infer that the following words also address seeing or observing: spectacle, spectacular, spectator, inspect, inspection, retrospection, circumspection, etc. 

Differentiate instruction and practice. 

Digital tools can help in teaching words based on context clues and meaning, and make it easier to differentiate vocabulary instruction and practice. For example, using digital resources such as Vocabulary A-Z, teachers can choose from premade vocabulary lessons and word lists or create their own lessons, and then connect them to their current topics of study or popular reading series.

  • Assign differentiated lessons to students for online independent practice.

  • Use digital reports to monitor student needs and inform instruction for individuals or the whole class.

Make it game-like 

From Scrabble to Balderdash, adults play a variety of word games. Creating opportunities for students to play heightens their attention to and appreciation of word study. 

  • Make games a regular event in a vocabulary-rich classroom, rather than playing only after students’ work is done. 

  • Use online and mobile game-based activities to motivate students and extend their learning outside of the classroom. 

Take control

Most of all, teachers should have some degree of ownership over how vocabulary is taught. They should have control over the words taught and the methods used to teach those words. Simply following an existing scripted vocabulary program denies teachers and students the opportunity to make words their own. 

Make vocabulary a priority 

To help all students become proficient readers and writers, and learn important content, we cannot overlook vocabulary. Now is the time for teachers at all grade levels to dedicate themselves to making vocabulary an instructional priority.

Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D,  is a professor of literacy education at Kent State University and director of its award-winning reading clinic. He also holds the Rebecca Tolle and Burton W. Gorman Endowed Chair in Educational Leadership. Tim has written more than 200 articles and has authored, co-authored, or edited 50 books or curriculum programs on reading education. Tim is past-president of the College Reading Association, which also awarded him the A. B. Herr and Laureate Awards for his scholarly contributions to literacy education. In 2010, Tim was elected to the International Reading Hall of Fame. Follow him on Twitter @TimRasinski1.

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