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Vocabulary - Learning & teaching ideas


Vocabulary is the key to comprehension.

This page reviews the teaching and learning of vocabulary. Includes a summary of research on how people learn vocabulary, describes how instruction might be optimized, and different ways learners improve their vocabulary. Ways that include: context to assist learning of vocabulary, ways vocabulary is introduced, a five day procedure to use to plan and teach vocabulary, word sorts, and lastly, how to maintain vocabulary.

Related research:

Focus questions for this article:

  1. How is vocabulary being taught?
  2. How instruction might be optimized?
  3. How is vocabulary learned?

People continuously add words to their lexicon. Words are introduced in the context of listening and reading; and remembered with repetitive encounters. With sufficient repetitive encounters and meaningful experiences words can be learned well enough to be included in a person's speaking and writing.

Encounters with spoken words are usually more powerful than encounters in the context of print. The act of being with at least one other person in a physical setting with interactions accompanied with body language, verbal intonation, and all the realities of life, is a better learning experience, than encounters with words in text. Likewise, presenting words in a printed list isn't powerful enough for most people to learn.

However, nothing is absolute. Vocal encounters with a definition told in an unusual manner can increase the likelihood of learning new words. Similarly words in a text or list can be introduced in a powerful context to cause the reader to remember them.

So what conditions can increase the likelihood of learning vocabulary?

Context skills related to vocabulary:

Four ways context may or may not assist in understanding word meaning.

  1. The context can mislead the reader to make incorrect conclusions.
    “After Chris won the lottery friends, relatives, acquaintances, and people she didn’t know, turned up to congratulate her,” the clerk at the counter said grudgingly.
  2. The context offers no clues to the meaning.
    After Chris and Betsy talked in the hall they both smiled at each other and sauntered down the hall in opposite directions.
  3. The context includes descriptions that can support the meaning.
    Chris is so lucky. We were party hopping from one party to the next and of course she talks to everyone. But there were three people, that each gave her a lead to people, that she could contact, that might have a job for her. I wish I could be as fortuitous.
  4. The context defines the meaning.
    As Chris came diving through the window she snagged her earring on the lace curtain. Swerving seriously to her right she crashed headfirst into my vanity knocking most of everything onto the hardwood floor with a clatter and came to rest on her back. No sooner had she stopped her scream that the curtain rod fell on top of her, but not before one end seriously hammered the floor where mom was probably sitting below. Seconds later mom was at the foot of the stairs yelling. “What is all the commotion up there?”

Readerswho are aware of these four alternatives will make better decisions of what to do when they encounter unknown words: Look to another source for a definition: another person, glossary, dictionary... or use the context if there is a hint, description, or definition.

Two examples to illustrate how to provide practice for these differences.

What are the possibilities to derive meaning from the context?

Example 1 - A conversation between Templeton and Wilbur in Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. Wilbur asks Templeton if he will play with him. Templeton responds that he doesn’t know what play means. Wilbur explains with examples and Templeton answers with. “I never do those things if I can avoid them.”

Example 2 - A narrative about Templeton in Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White. "Templeton was a crafty rat and he had things pretty much his own way. The tunnel was an example of his skill and cunning. … it enabled him to get from the barn to the … trough without coming out into the open.” “...eating, gnawing, spying, and hiding. I am a glutton but not a merry-maker. … I am on my way to eat your breakfast, since you haven’t got sense enough to eat it yourself.”

Philosophical question:
Would it be a good idea, or not a good idea, to provide learners with texts that are written to generally support or directly support vocabulary development and avoid texts that are misleading or not supportive?

Learning vocabulary

When beginning readers learn vocabulary they usually decode a printed word that is part of their known vocabulary. Enabling them to quickly add the word to their reading list of known vocabulary words.

However, it doesn’t take long for readers to reach the level where their known vocabulary isn’t sufficient to know the meaning of all the words they read. When this point is reached additional skills are necessary to allow them to increase their vocabulary. This is misleading to teachers and the public who too often mistakenly think the rate of vocabulary development will be sustained without any skill development and encouragement.

The process to learn words

Problems using text to derive meaning

Strategies using the context to attain meaning.

What does it mean to know a word?

A word can be known in different ways.

  1. Never saw it before,
  2. Heard of it, but don’t know what it means,
  3. Recognize it in context and have a general idea of what it means,
  4. Know what it means and can provide a synonym,
  5. Know what it means and can use it, and
  6. Know its multiple meanings, its registers, grammatical forms, connotations, etymology, or other attributes.

Simple matching, true - false, or multiple choice exercises won’t help learners achieve the higher levels.

To help learn vocabulary: It is important to help develop a desire to be a word-smith. To be on the prowl for new words; to seek new words to better describe different situations powerfully and to make words their own.

One way to move toward higher levels of understanding of words is to use the following chart and have students rate their level of understanding for some selected words.

Word is: Never saw it before Heard it, but don’t know what it means Recognize it in context and have a general idea of what it means Know what it means and can provide a synonym Know what it means and can use it Know its multiple meanings, its registers, grammatical forms, connotations, etymology, or other attributes.


How does a teacher decide what words, if any, to introduce to students?

Not all words have equal value for readers to know. Therefore, it is important to be able to identify words of optimal value. It is helpful to think of words within these categories:

  1. Words the reader knows.
  2. Words frequently used and would provide value to the reader,.
  3. Words rarely used and with limited value.
  4. Words essential to understand the targeted ideas.
  5. Words that will provide vivid, precise, and specific conceptual understanding.

Use these five criteria to select and classify some words, from the following passage, that might be important to introduce to readers.


It was at a concert in New York where a celebrated teacher of the violin was exhibiting his pupils. A boy of twelve stepped on the stage and began to play. A hush fell over the room. His face, his fingers, every move and look proclaimed an embryo artist.

With easy assurance, in which was no trace of effort, he played one number after another, the audience urging him on with enthusiastic applause. Each of us felt that thrill of personally discovering this new star in the musical heavens. The concert over, a gentleman rushed forward to congratulate the teacher.

"You must be wonderfully proud of that brilliant boy!" he exclaimed.

The teacher was unresponsive. "Not very proud," he said.

"But surely he will be a master."

"No. He will probably be a fiddler in a restaurant."

The man was a bit indignant. Was this coolness born of professional jealousy... the envy of an older man for the brilliant youth? The teacher did not leave him long in doubt.

"The boy could be a master," he explained, "but he never will. Some of the others who performed less well today you will hear from later. But he... no. He will be a fiddler. It comes too easy; he will not work."

Use your list, or the following words, and categorize them 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5.

exhibiting, celebrated, pupils, hush, proclaimed, hush, assurance, unresponsive, fiddler, master

Another example:

My Father, the Entomologist. by Andreanna Edwards published in Cricket Magazine June 2001 Vol. 28 Issue 10 page 5-6.

"Oh, Bea, you look as lovely as a longhorn beetle lifting off for flight.

And I must admit your antennae are adorable. Yes, you've metamorphosed into a splendid young lady."

Bea rolled her eyes and muttered "My father, the entomologist."

"I heard that, Bea. It's not nice to mumble. Unless you want to be called a ... Mumble Bea!" Bea's father slapped his knee and hooted.

Bea rolled her eyes a second time. The first day of fifth grade, and my father tells me I look like a longhorn beetle. Bea shuddered at the thought. She absolutely detested bugs.
Why does Dad have to be obsessed with insects? She wondered. Why not football or golf like most fathers? The answer was simple. Bea's dad was weird. His weirdness made the whole family weird. And he had made Bea the weirdest of all when he named her Bea Ursula Gentry ... B.U.G.

Suddenly, Bea felt angry. She flew into the kitchen where her father sat reading Insectology. She hurled her backpack onto the table.

"You know what. Dad?" she asked, tugging on one of her pigtails. "These are not antennae! Your bumper sticker, 'Have you hugged a bug today?' is not cool! And I despise eating in the dining room with all those dead bugs pinned to the walls!"

What words would you include in a list?


Use your list and categorize them 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5.


Ways to Introduce vocabulary

Get to know a word

Having learners look up definitions or use definitions given to them is usually only the first step in getting to know a word. This is because, definitions can be misinterpret by selecting a wrong definition, wrongly understanding a definition, misunderstanding the complexity of the definition, and using a simple definition as a complex definition.

To really get to know a word, it is helpful to know the weaknesses of using dictionaries to better understand words. First, dictionaries are meant to be concise. This means they often:

  1. Use weak distinctions between words.
  2. Use vague language.
  3. Do not include the necessary and sufficient information that specifies a words focus and limitations.
  4. Provides multiple words and meanings without providing their relationships or scope of their meaning.

Electronic dictionaries reduce some of these problems, because they can include more information, they can include a thesaurus, making it easy to switch from dictionary to thesaurus, they allow users to click on words used in definitions to quickly find their meaning, and other ways to quickly access information.

When using dictionaries for vocabulary development, we need to be aware of these weaknesses and turn them into strengths. We do this by clarifing meanings by:

  1. Thinking how specific a meaning can be.
  2. Thinking how general or vauge a meaning can be.
  3. Identify limitations of the word.
  4. Identify relationships between words and how they might be organized.

These ideas, and variations of them, are used to study and get to know words.

Word study

Ask learners what things help them understand and remember words. Ideas like: know what it is, know what it looks like, see a picture, draw a picture, know what it isn't, identify examples, identify nonexamples, and other ideas. Using these ideas to make a map or Frayer Model with the categories identified. More information and samples below.

Explicit instructional procedure for introducing a Frayer Model

Select the categories you believe most appropriate, prepare blank models for each student, and a completed model to use as background information for teaching. Frayer Model sample 1 or Frayer Model sample 2 or adapted model for mathematics and logic.

  1. Tell learners they are going to learn how to use a Frayer model to study and describe a word (or concept ...)
  2. Identify each of the categories on the model.
  3. Describe each category with a brief definiton and example.
  4. Display the prepared blank Model with the categories and identify a word or concept. Fill in the categories with an appropriate response that has the appropriate quality for the level of learners. Think out loud as you present the examples from your background information.
  5. Give learners a word and a blank model for them to complete.

Putting it to work in a reading context:

Select a chapter or article for learners to read, make a list of the vocabulary to study, create an appropriate model, decide how learners will work socially (alone, pairs, groups), and prepare models on paper or electronically.

  1. Present the list of key words (concepts).
  2. Review the list of key words (concepts) with the class before reading the selected information.
  3. Read.
  4. Choose a key concept word from the topic read and have learners help you complete a Frayer Model.
  5. Pass out blank copies of your Frayer Model or have learners create one.
  6. Learners practice the strategy in pairs or ... using the key words or concepts for the reading.
  7. Share the completed models with each other and edit them by adding additional ideas to the categories: descriptions, explanations, pictures, diagrams, symbols ...
  8. Identify other words or concepts that might spark interest to create additonal Frayer Models.
  9. Celebrate progress.

Create friendly explanations

Introduce words by having learners say the word, provide a meaning, and identifying friendly everyday explanations.

Examples include - when, how, and why the word might be used?

The idea is to have learners consider ways the word can be used appropriately. Hopefully, to provide enough information so learners will use the word in their speaking and writing.

Common sense seems to suggest the best time to introduce words is before learners read. However, as commonsensical as this seems, it is not without cost to learners’ self-esteem and self-efficacy about reading.

A better time, might be teachable moments during read-alouds and other opportune times.

  1. Use the moment to demonstrate how to determine a word's meaning.
  2. Use self talk to negotiate different possibilities from context that make sense and
  3. if none can be reasoned, model how to seek expert advice.

Create some possible monologues...

Use word associations to engage with meanings

Word associations like:

Try some …

Word studies, word sorts, classification of words, word walls, journals, and notebooks

Word walls, word sorts, vocabulary journals, or notebooks, can be used with word studies.

Word studies can be focused (closed), by providing the words with definitions, categories, pictures, and other supporting materials and ideas. Or they can be open, where each person decides what to include or not. Or they can range from any where between the two.

Ideas to support their creation and use can be taken from identification of words in lists. It is helpful to organize the words (word sort) by topics, themes, categories, or other relationships, which can be used to diagram, web, or map their relationships.


A word sort is an activity to identify shared characteristics of words and use them to group or classify them. The previous activities, along with others, can be used to identify relationships between words and word groups.

Sorts have two basic structures: open and closed. In an open sort, categories can vary. In a closed structure the categories are predetermined.

Examples of word sorts:


Model, procedure, or syntax for a week plan

Sample five day plan

Day 1
Read the word in the story or from a list. Ask students to repeat the word. Define and describe it. See ways to introduce words, for example use a Frayer Model sample 1 or Frayer Model sample 2 or Frayer Model Math sample.

Day 2- 4
Do any of the following: one each day.

  • Find other examples of the word used in the story or other places. Describe what the word means in each.
  • Ask for other examples where the word could be used. The teacher or students justifies their belief and their example’s accuracy.
  • If students have difficulty in providing examples give them a starter like: Describe a time when you were ... (incredulous). or I would be … (incredulous) if ... Or any other examples from above.
  • Have students act out or pantomime the words.
  • Describe a situation that uses the word in a way demonstrates its meaning.
  • Find synonyms or degrees of meanings.
  • Write a closed ended sentence that fits each word or provide those sentences with blanks for each word for students to complete.
  • Match words to meanings, sentences, or pictures.
  • Multiple choice test with very narrow different foils.
  • Draw a picture or diagram that defines, suggests, or uses the word.

Day 5
After a couple of words have been introduced, challenge students to see if they can combine two or three into a sentence related to the topic or book. Or use all or many of the words into a paragraph.

Try it

Maintain vocabulary with




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