Teaching Opinion

Response: Strategies For Vocabulary Instruction - Part One

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 28, 2015 14 min read
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(Today’s post is the first in a three-part series)

This week’s question is:

What are the best instructional strategies for vocabulary development?

All educators in all subjects have to teach vocabulary. If our students don’t know the meanings of the words they’re reading, hearing and, eventually, using in class, it’s going to be pretty difficult for them to understand the lessons.

This three-part series will be sharing a wide-range of instructional strategies to help our students acquire the vocabulary necessary to become successful in school and in life.

We’ll start off with suggestions from Katie Brown, Jane Fung, Marilee Sprenger and Karen Bromley. You can also listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Katie and Marilee about this topic on my BAM! Radio Show.

I have also compiled a substantial collection of related resources at A Collection Of “Best...” Lists On Vocabulary Development. In a few days - coincidentally - the British Council (the largest organization in the world assisting English Language Learners) will be publishing a post I’ve written sharing several specific ideas on vocabulary development. You’ll be able to access that article here.

Now, to today’s guests:

Response From Katie Brown

Katie Brown is an ELL Specialist, Instructional Coach, and the 2014 Washington State Teacher of the Year. She currently works at Shuksan Middle School in Bellingham, Washington where she supports students, families and teachers. You can access more resources from Katie at her website:

The best instructional strategies for vocabulary development, hands down, are those that involve oral language practice. The only way for students to use and retain academic vocabulary is if they have multiple opportunities to talk, argue, problem solve, and listen to their peers use new words in different contexts.

Here are three simple ideas to increase oral language in any classroom:

1) Insist that students use academic vocabulary when they speak.

Sometimes we let students get away with saying things like, “Draw the dot there,” instead of “Draw the point on the x-axis.” Or students will say, “use that key to move that in,” instead of, “use the tab key to indent your paragraph.”

When students are working, I like to walk around and listen to their conversations. When I hear a vague, non-academic term being used, I ask students to repeat what they are saying using proper vocabulary. I also list the vocabulary words I want to hear students using on the board, or on a presentation slide for students to see. As they work in groups, I (or a student) put a check mark next to the word when I hear it being used. This often motivates others to try using the vocabulary. Students can also take this role in a small group. Their job is to listen for the academic terms and ask their peers to rephrase when needed.

2) Explicitly teach academic discourse.

In addition to content words, students are faced with a whole set of vocabulary terms that we use in school to complete tasks and discuss ideas. Identify, predict, summarize, generalize, argue, compare, and cause and effect are just a few examples. Students often need specific guidance on how to use this language correctly and in different situations.

Let’s say we are asking students to talk about the cause and/or effect of a historical event on society. What words and phrases do we use when we talk about cause and effect? We might say things like, “_________occurred due to____________,” or “As a result, _____________.”

It’s important to think about how we expect students to talk and write and then provide explicit examples and modeling. Here is an example of a word bank of phrases I display or print out for students for cause and effect:

3) Provide time to play with words.

One of my favorite vocabulary activities is to give students a small zip lock bag full of 10-20 words we have been learning. The only directions are, “Sort them in a way that you think works.”

This open-ended approach leads to authentic student conversations about how the words are related. Students immediately start to justify their thinking about why certain words should be grouped together while their ideas are challenged by their peers who think the words should be grouped differently.

I also like to throw a few twists with word sorts such as sorting math terms by vowel sound, sort winter words vs. summer words, or create a narrative story using at least 6 of the terms. After sorting, students walk around to see how other groups clustered their words and we end with a group debrief.

This activity can also be done with pictures instead of words. For additional ideas on building academic vocabulary, go to my website and look at the activities under “Vocabulary.”

Response From Jane Fung

Jane Fung has been teaching and learning in Los Angeles public schools for the past 27 years. She is National Board Certified, a Milken Educator and a member of the Center for Teaching Quality:

As a teacher of English Learners, vocabulary development is essential in helping my students acquire English. I have a list of words I need to teach each week from our reading program, but I also incorporate words from math, science, and other areas of the curriculum. A simple strategy I use for vocabulary development is read it, feel it, use it, practice it... make it yours!

Read It! Write or show the word. We read the word together and discuss the letters, sounds, and relevant word parts such as prefix or endings. Students share what they think the word means, where they have seen the word before, and then we discuss the definition. Once word is introduced, it is posted in the classroom to reference (See: word bank/wall).

Show It! Next students either act out and/or illustrate the word. Last year students made a lot of commotion to help understand the word, and illustrated a sunset and sunrise, while creating movement for the words. Movement and visuals helps students connect and understand new words.

Feel, Taste, See, Smell, Hear It! Provide opportunities for students to experience the word using their senses. Students could benefit using their senses to learn words such as porridge, bitter, tart, moccasins, tempo, artifact, and makes words come to life

Use It! Throughout the day or week, we would play quick vocabulary games incorporating the words in other learning. Challenge students to: use word in a sentence, list words that rhyme with word, find the synonym/antonym, scramble the letters in the word and make new words from it, alphabetize the word, etc.

Practice It and Make It Yours! I encourage students to practice using the new words in context once they have learned it. I recognize students for using their new words in speaking, writing, or when they find the word in text. The more a word is practiced and used, the faster it is learned and becomes a part of students’ everyday vocabulary!

Word Walls/Banks: Once words are introduced to students, I post them somewhere around the room so that they serve as a visual and resource for students to access. I usually don’t post all the words together, but rather in categories, by subjects. That way if I student needs to use a science word, they can easily look towards the Science Wall, and if they need to reference a word from their literature selection, they can look towards the reading board. If you are limited in space or would rather keep vocabulary words in a central location, think about sorting them into subject matter.

Response From Marilee Sprenger

Marilee Sprenger is a veteran teacher, education consultant, and author of five ASCD books, including Vocab Rehab: How do I teach vocabulary effectively with limited time?, Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core: 55 Words That Make or Break Student Understanding, and Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age. She believes in teaching the whole child and providing brain-compatible learning environments:

There are hundreds of vocabulary games and strategies, but there are some basics to follow when teaching your students new words. I follow these steps to help students really know a word.

  1. Articulate: Say each word distinctly and have students repeat. Students are more likely to pursue word knowledge if they feel confident in saying (and writing) the word.
  2. Translate: You and your students translate the word. You may provide a student friendly definition or the students may be able to define or describe the word in their own words through context clues and discussion.
  3. Memory “stickers": As students read and encounter a word they don’t know and can’t figure out with context clues, have them take a small sticky note and write the word or just a question mark and stick the note on the word before continuing to read. After reading, have students go back to look at the word again, decide if the rest of the context helps them understand the word or have students pair up, compare their words, and help each other with the meaning of the word in the text.
  4. Illustrate: Draw pictures that specifically show the meaning of the word; draw pictures that show the opposite of the word.
  5. Demonstrate: Have students act out the word.
  6. Elaborate: To get words and definitions into long-term memory, practice in multiple ways. Here are a few of my favorite activities:

* Just in Times Word Searches: For ACT or SAT practice or for learning cognitive verbs at any grade level, go to the online versions of quality newspapers like The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, or The Washington Post. On the home page of each site, you will find a search box; have students type one of their vocabulary words into it. Several articles are likely to appear. Have students click on each article and read how their word is used in each. This activity will help students increase their word knowledge while also keeping them abreast of current events.

* Word Windows: Using erasable markers let students write confusing or difficult words from their readings on the windows. Word Walls are fun, but writing on the windows is awesome!

* It’s a Match! Write five vocabulary words on the board. One by one, have each student pick up a definition that is written on construction paper or an index card and place it under the correct word, saying both the word and the definition aloud. After all of the words and definitions are matched, challenge students to write a sentence using the words.

  1. Communicate: Use academic vocabulary in your lessons. The more students hear them, the more likely the words will become part of their vocabularies. Ask students to use the word in both writing and speaking. By this step, see if students can use the word in a complex sentence that shows that they know the meaning.

  1. Celebrate! Increasing vocabulary is an accomplishment. Celebrate mastery of every word!

Response From Karen Bromley

Karen Bromley is a Distinguished Teaching Professor in the School of Education at Binghamton University where she is Director of Graduate Studies and the America Reads Program, and teaches literacy courses. Her research interests include classroom practices and strategies for improving reading and writing. She was a third grade teacher and reading specialist in New York and Maryland, and has written articles for professional journals and several books for teachers on topics related to comprehension, writing, and vocabulary. She is the author of The Next Step in Vocabulary Instruction and several other titles published by Scholastic:

Of the hundreds of vocabulary teaching strategies used today, it is difficult to identify any “best” strategies. But, there are some good practices to follow if you want to help your students learn words painlessly. First, help students understand why it’s important to have a large vocabulary. Jessica tells her fifth graders “The more words you know the more successful you will be in school and in your future job.” She says “No matter what you do, it’s critical to know what words mean and how to use them correctly when you talk and write.”

Jessica’s practice seems like an excellent way to begin. However, the specific teaching strategy you use on any given day should depend on your students, who they are, how they learn, and your purposes. Here are five guidelines from my book The Next Step in Vocabulary Instruction (2012) to consider as you decide how to teach new words;

  1. Limit the number of words you teach. Check to see which words students already know (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002). Have students respond to prompts like; “I know it well,” “I’ve seen or heard it,” and “I don’t know it at all.” Don’t bother to teach the words students know. But, teach a word like “neurosurgeon” well. Tell students that “neuro” comes from Latin and means “nerve,” and use the word in a sentence that shows the word’s meaning. Have students make up sentences using the word so they become even more familiar it.
  2. Choose important words students will need in the future. Don’t bother to teach words that have no utility beyond today’s lesson or unit. But, do take time to teach words that cross content areas and words students will need to know in the future. For example, don’t spend time teaching “lordosis” (the natural curve of the spine in the lower back). But do spend time teaching “neurosurgeon” (a doctor who performs surgery on nerve related disorders) since this is a word that will have future utility.
  3. Connect new words to what students already know. Use the KWL strategy (K- Know, W- Want to know), L- What I learned). Most students will know the word “surgery” and that a “surgeon” performs operations in a hospital. They have undoubtedly heard of heart surgeons and may have relatives who have had surgery. But, they will probably want to know what “neuro” means. KWL lets students identify their own questions and purposes for learning a new word, and it gives them a personal stake in word leaning.
  4. Engage students actively in learning words together. Students learn best when they are mentally and physically involved in a task. When students interact with each other and share how they learn words they begin to take ownership for their learning and stop relying on the teacher’s direction. An important quote for effective vocabulary teaching follows; “Words need to be pulled apart, put together, defined informally, practiced in speech, explained in writing, and played with regularly” (Kelley, Lesaux, Kieffer, & Faller, 2010; p. 13).
  5. Share your love of language and word learning. There are no “best” strategies for learning words. But, showing students that you are interested and passionate about learning new words is one way to get them excited. For example, Jessica spent a few minutes sharing with students the word “piloxing” (a sport that is a fusion of “pilates” and “boxing”). Jessica heard the word at her gym and inquired about its meaning. She told students “Every day there are new words in the environment we can learn if we are curious. This helps us become independent word learners.”

So, as you decide which vocabulary teaching strategy to use on any given day, you might consider how the strategy stacks up against these guidelines. And, remember to tell your students that a rich vocabulary demonstrates their knowledge and gives them confidence as they interact with others.


Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.

Bromley, K. (2012). The next step in vocabulary instruction (2012). New York: Scholastic.

Kelley, J. G., Lesaux, N. K., Kieffer, M. J., & Faller, S. E. (2010). Effective academic vocabulary instruction in the urban middle school. The Reading Teacher, 64 (1). 5-14.

Thanks to Katie, Jane, Marilee, and Karen for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post. I’ll be including readers’ responses in Part Three.

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