13 Tips for Teaching Vocabulary

The importance of vocabulary instruction is hard to dispute. Having a vast bank of words to pull from allows children to understand what they are reading, become better writers, and effectively express themselves.

  • Only 10,000 different words account for about 96% of words in spoken English, but the number of different words in popular, contemporary print is at least 1,000,000.
  • If conversational levels of spoken language were reflected in print, we would be limited to a reading level equivalent to grade 4 or below. 
  • There are more rare words in print than speech. For example, only 68 out of a thousand words in a newspaper are rare words. In the oral vocabulary represented during adult prime time television, only 23 out of every thousand words are rare; there are only 31 rare words in every thousand words of a typical cartoon.  
  • Students in 5th grade who read an average of 65 minutes a day ranked in the 98th percentile of a norm-referenced assessment, and added an average of 4,358,000 words to their vocabulary in a year. Students who read only an average of 4.6 minutes a day scored in the 50th percentile range and added 308,000 words to their vocabulary in a year’s time. And students who averaged 0.1 minutes of reading a day ranked in the lowest 10th percentile and added a mere 6,700 words to their vocabulary in the same year’s time.

It’s clear that written language is more sophisticated, consistent, and exact than spoken language. Reading vocabulary plays an important role in word recognition. Beginning readers use knowledge of words from speech to recognize words that they encounter in print. When children sound out a word, their brain is working hard to connect the pronunciation of a sequence of sounds to a word in their vocabulary. If they find a match between the word on the page and a word they have learned through listening and speaking, it makes sense to them and they are more likely to continue reading. If a match is not created—because the word they are reading is not found in their vocabulary—comprehension is interrupted. This is the case even if they are able to generate the correct pronunciation through the decoding process.

It stands to reason, and research verifies, that vocabulary is important for reading to learn as well as learning to read. For understanding of text, students need to be familiar with the meaning of at least 95% of words in any book or passage they read.

  • Next time you read aloud, look through the story ahead of time and select one to three high-utility vocabulary words that children can use again in speaking and writing.
  • Write vocabulary words on eye-catching index cards and display them where children can see them during the read-aloud.
  • Think of a child-friendly definition for each word. Use language that kids already know and understand. Ecstatic means really, really happy!
  • Decide if you will introduce the words before or during the reading. Teach them before the read-aloud if the words are central to understanding the story or if teaching them during will distract from the pace and flow of the book. Otherwise, teach the vocabulary words during reading time.
  • Emphasize connections and associations between the vocabulary words and other words the children already know (much in the way that the word “vehicle” conjures other words like “wheels,” “gasoline,” “highway,” “gasoline,” etc.).
  • Ask kids to speak the vocabulary words back to you and define them in their own words, and then create their own example of how the word can be used. What makes you feel ecstatic? Can you think of something that makes you feel really, really happy? Puppies! Yes, puppies make me feel ecstatic, too! This helps with both pronunciation and comprehension.
  • Use props and pictures to help teach new words. For example, if the character in the story looks “bewildered,” use the illustration in the book to show the children the meaning of “bewildered.”
  • Point out vocabulary words each time you encounter them in the book. You can check children’s understanding or remind them of the word’s meaning.
  • Promote usage of the words. For example, have kids get together in small groups and let the students define each of the words back to each other, use them in a sentence, and brainstorm associated words.
  • Review new words often. Don’t simply introduce new vocabulary and move on; with each new week or lesson, review what was learned in previous weeks or lessons.Generally, learners need 8 to 10 exposures in order to recognize and understand a new word later on. In order to both understand and be able to use those new words, more exposure is needed.
  • Give one example and one non-example of how the word is and isn’t used. For instance, when teaching the word “delicate,” you could tell kids that one thing that is delicate is a teacup and one thing that isn’t delicate is the cement sidewalk outside school. Then invite students to share their own examples of things that are and are not delicate.
  • Ask students to identify words they don’t know. Self-awareness is an important part of developing an intrinsic desire to learn.
  • Think aloud to model strategies readers can use to figure out new words. These strategies include using context clues or familiar word parts to figure out new words.

No matter what strategy or route you take to teaching vocabulary, the most important thing is making it a part of your regular routine. Our education team has made it simple—and free!—with our downloadable Building Vocabulary Routines guide.

Happy learning!