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The Hidden Side of Strategic Vocabulary Instruction

By Cathy Puett Miller

A strong vocabulary is an important part of reading comprehension. According to Drs. Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown (Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction), children should add about 2,000-3,500 words annually to their reading vocabulary. But did you know that students learn 85 percent of those new words indirectly, as they interact with language and text?

More from the Vocabulary Instruction Series

Be sure to see all these articles in Cathy Puett Miller's series on effective vocabulary instruction.:

* The Face of Effective Vocabulary Instruction
* The Hidden Side of Strategic Vocabulary Instruction
* The Wonderful World of Words
* Building on the Power of Incidental Vocabulary Learning

Using only direct instruction to teach vocabulary can overwhelm you as a teacher and be too shallow an approach for students. Dr. William Nagy of Seattle Pacific University suggests that what really needs to happen to produce vocabulary growth is not more instruction but more reading.

Weave incidental learning of vocabulary into your classroom by

  • Encouraging excitement and curiosity about words (word consciousness). How? Be interested in words yourself. Draw attention to word meaning and power when interacting with students.
  • Identify specific opportunities to use new words. Jot a few on your clipboard or computer screensaver and use those in your speech. Discuss words introduced in other contexts (i.e., use the word "enormous" to describe the challenge of Columbus' journey to the New World after discovering "enormous" in Ogden Nash's poem The Adventures of Isabel.) Grab teachable moments.
  • Every day, without exception, provide independent reading time, small or whole group discussions, and at least one read aloud. Students must have time to read independently, talk, listen, and view to make necessary gains, especially if they come from disadvantaged homes.
    To defuse criticism from those who might not view such activities as "valid teaching," establish purposes behind these activities, connected to your state's standards. My home state of Alabama includes incidental learning in its course of study: "Demonstrate vocabulary growth developed through reading and listening to literature" (3rd-5th grade) or "Develop and use an extended vocabulary through reading, listening, viewing, writing, speaking, and presenting" (6th-8th grade). Most other states have similar standards.


    Incidental learning should never be a "filler." Planned appropriately, it is integral to expanding vocabulary, and puts the power of learning in children's hands. Remember, it's impossible to teach all the words students need to know through direct instruction.

    About the Author

    Known as the "Literacy Ambassador," Cathy Puett Miller uses her library science degree from Florida State University as the foundation of her work. With more than ten years experience as an independent literacy consultant working with teachers, parents, librarians, and non-profit family-friendly organizations, she has conducted research initiatives and best practice studies in the areas of beginning reading instruction, emergent literacy and volunteer tutoring. She currently is listed on the U.S. Department of Education's What Works Clearinghouse Registry of Outcome Evaluators.
    Cathy's freelance writing appears in such print publications as Atlanta Our Kids, Omaha Family, and Georgia Journal of Reading, and online at Literacy Connections,, Education World, Family Network, the Reading Tub, The National Education Association, and BabyZone. She also reviews children's books at Children's Literature Comprehensive Database. Her signature is her passion for connecting children and families to positive, powerful experiences with reading; she believes there is a book for every child.
    Cathy lives with her husband, Chuck, eighteen-year-old son, Charlie, and lots of friendly, ferociously read books in Huntsville, Alabama. Visit Cathy's Web site at The Literacy Ambassador.