Teaching Vocabulary

The definition of vocabulary is a stored set of words that is expandable.


Vocabulary has both print and speech forms. Beginning readers use their knowledge of the spoken form of a word to recognize the print version of that same word. Words are added to students’ repertoire by both organically making inferences to create the meaning of new words and through instruction that teaches specific words and word-meaning strategies.

A strong vocabulary is vital to comprehension and enhances fluency. When students match text to words they have learned through listening and speaking, it becomes easier to read fluently; if a word they are reading is not in their spoken lexicon, that word will interrupt their reading. That new word must be learned, in both form and meaning, before it can be added to their vocabulary.

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Strategies to Develop Vocabulary

Vocabulary is important for reading to learn as well as learning to read. Below are some strategies for increasing your students’ lexicon.

Total Physical Response (TPR)

Pair new words with a physical action and use the two together consistently. For example, teach students that the word “observe” means to look and think. When explaining the word, pretend to hold a set of binoculars to your eyes, and then point to your brain. Whenever the word observe comes up, use the physical response with the word to trigger meaning for students. Students should also use the physical response to move words into their lexicon with more ease.

Call and Response

To keep students engaged, change up your call and response to get their attention with a term and definition. Teach the students that when they hear the teacher shout out the specific word, their job is to reply with the definition in unison. For example, when doing a unit on 3D shapes, the teacher could shout out the word “faces” to get students’ attention. The students then stop what they are doing and reply with, “The flat side of a 3D shape!” To make the connection even stronger, you can incorporate TPR (see above).

Visual Support

Having visual cues to remember new terms and their meaning can be crucial to many students. Create a vocabulary word wall for students to refer to. We learn by attaching new learning to background knowledge. A simple way to pick up new words is by creating a graphic organizer that shows the target word’s relationship to known synonyms. You can add these graphic organizers to your classroom word wall. You can also add words to the word wall by simply attaching a small drawing to the word. For example, if students are learning the word “hostility,” you can add a mean emoji face to the word before posting it on the word wall.

Read Aloud Inferencing and Discussion

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“Read alouds”—sessions in which the teacher reads aloud to the class and engages students with questions and conversation—are probably the best-known way to expose students to the meanings of words that are not part of their current lexicon. To implement this strategy, intentionally select words that you want to teach in connection to class read alouds. Model to the students how you use supporting words near the unknown word to help you create meaning for the new word.

For example, if in a story you read the sentence, “You do not have a choice; attendance at the game is compulsory,” you could show your students that you figured out compulsory means “required” because you saw the relationship to “you do not have a choice” before the word. For younger students, you could highlight how the pictures can help us infer the meaning of a new term.

Next, find another vocabulary word in the read aloud text, and together as a class have a discussion about what inferences can be made based on the other words in the text.

Last, facilitate a discussion with new words in the book. Have students use accountable talk to explain their predicted definition and what evidence in the text supports their thinking. Allow students to add on to each other’s thinking and formally agree and disagree with their classmates. These conversations are sure to engage students while helping them grow their lexicon and gain skills needed to understand all unknown words.

Teach New Words By Using Them in Sentences

Students learn best when they learn the definition, spelling, and pronunciation of a word all together. Teaching words in isolation is ineffective. Help students master new terms by providing context sentences that emphasize word meaning. This strategy enhances a student’s understanding of the word and increases future word recognition. When you model new words in this way, students are more likely to use them in their everyday language.

Encourage Students to Use New Vocabulary Words

Students truly own a word when they can effortlessly use it in speaking and writing. Make it compulsory for students to use a new vocabulary word at least five times in their conversations with classmates. Keep track of how many times the new word is used in the classroom. Encourage students to use the word at home with their family members. Reward students when they correctly use the new words in their writing.

Learn more about other reading strategies >