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The Face of Effective Vocabulary Instruction


By Cathy Puett Miller

Did you know that, according to researchers Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, (Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction) student vocabulary should increase by 2,000-3,000 words a year -- and that about 400 of those words should be taught directly? Or that assigning rote rehearsal -- students reviewing words and definitions repeatedly until they can recite them verbatim -- is the least effective way to directly teach vocabulary? Or that asking students to look up definitions isn't much better; it just skims the surface. Which activities, then, do effectively build vocabulary?

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

Basal reading programs and language arts curriculum often provide research-based vocabulary activities. Search those out. Games, such as Jeopardy, are great for additional practice. Use extensive silent reading time to help students indirectly build vocabulary skills. (See last month's Reading Coach column Sustained Silent Reading Helps Develop Independent Readers (and Writers).


Conversations about words build word consciousness, individual word knowledge, and word strategies -- three effective vocabulary instruction skills advocated by professor of literacy education Michael Graves (The Vocabulary Book). Students connect new words to their schema (background knowledge) and grasp more than just an expert's definition.

How does that strategy work? First, choose the most important words to teach. Dr. Edwin Ellis, a University of Alabama professor in Interdisciplinary Teacher Education, says less is more. In The Clarifying Routine: Elaborating Vocabulary Instruction, an article written for LD Online, he recommends, "Don't teach words just because they are highlighted in the textbook." Instead, concentrate on a deep understanding of carefully selected terms. Ask yourself:

  • Which terms are most important to students' understanding of concepts in a unit?
  • Which will recur frequently in academic text?
  • Which contain patterns to help my students learn other words?

Then, begin conversations -- a 5-minute chat or a more involved 20-minute discussion.

  • Help students connect what they already know with new words for deeper understanding.
  • Keep key terms at the forefront and guide the conversation.
  • Encourage all students to actively participate.
  • Use existing vocabulary lists. Piggyback vocabulary instruction onto content and literature discussions or read alouds.
  • Model using context clues and word construction clues (prefixes, suffixes and roots) to uncover an unknown word's meaning.
  • Use questioning to reinforce vocabulary and move students from "we-do-it-together" conversations to independent strategy applications.
Follow conversations with short reinforcements, pointing out new words in different contexts. Consider vocabulary walls or words of the day for quick reference. Informal assessments identify students who need more practice.

Conversations have another value: they offer opportunities to explore words that arise incidentally. Encourage students to tap in to their listening and speaking vocabularies (Until eighth grade, listening vocabulary is usually two grade levels above reading vocabulary). That is especially helpful to English language learners and those with limited exposure to rich vocabulary in preschool years or at home.


We can see the application of this strategy in an example from Steve Brand, fifth grade teacher at Chapman Elementary School in Portland, Oregon, who says, "This is new for me, but I borrowed from someone else, who borrowed it from a book about reading strategies. Sometimes that's how you find what works best."

In Brand's example (below), the teacher uses conversations to teach vocabulary, word choice, and preciseness of the language.

sprinting stillness
  • Draw a continuum scale with two end points.
  • Place one word at each end. If you start with one word, supply an antonym or a word connoting an opposite concept.
  • Have students identify synonyms for both words Students who do not understand the original word will chime in as they hear words in their listening vocabulary.
  • Encourage "what-works-and-why" discussion.
  • Ask questions about shades of meaning to prompt student participation.
  • Solicit words whose meanings fall between the posted words (for our example, walking, perhaps). Brainstorm to emphasize more specific meanings: running, trotting, ambling and loping illustrate proper responses.
  • Write in additional related words.
  • When discussion wanes, return to original terms and ask students to redefine them.
  • Vary the activity by setting up a continuum scale, place a new word at one end and list others with the same root, suffix or prefix along the line. Talk about how those words' meanings relate to the key term.

Vocabulary instruction is like any other part of reading, combining proven practices for a balanced approach works best. The strategies can guide vocabulary instruction with students from kindergarten through high school. Not only will you be building vocabulary, you'll also be impacting comprehension, the real reason we play with words in the first place.

Further Reading

* Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice, by James F. Baumann and Edward J. Kame'eumi, Guilford Press, New York, NY, 2003
* Bringing Words to Life, by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan, Guilford Press, New York, NY, 2002
* The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction, by Michael Graves, Teacher's College Press, Williston, VT, 2005

Online Resources
* The Clarifying Routine: Elaborating Vocabulary Instruction (LD Online)
* Promoting Vocabulary Development: Components of Effective Vocabulary Instruction (The Texas Education Agency)
* Vocabulary: The Most Common Words in the English Language

Education World Pages
* Vocabulary Fun
* Puzzling Clue Vocabulary

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.