Teaching Opinion

Response: Ten Principles for Vocabulary Instruction

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 07, 2015 14 min read
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(Today’s post is the last post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here)

This week’s question is:

What are the best instructional strategies for vocabulary development?

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

Part Two highlighted commentaries from Camille Blachowicz, Charlene Cobb, Katherine S. McKnight, Nicole Zuerblis and Susan Chenelle.

In today’s third, and final, segment, Laura Robb and Amy Benjamin share their thoughts, and I also include readers’ comments.

Response From Laura Robb

Laura Robb, teacher and coach, has written more than 20 books on literacy. She is the author of Vocabulary Is Comprehension: Getting to the Root of Complex Texts, Corwin, 2014:

A recent NAEP study demonstrates that one of the main reasons students read below grade level is due to vocabulary deficits. In addition, the Common Core finds that vocabulary instruction across disciplines is inconsistent, sporadic at best. There is an urgent need to teach vocabulary systematically in order to improve students’ reading skill so they can tackle complex texts. To develop proficient readers, I recommend that teachers across disciplines present ten to fifteen minute daily vocabulary lessons using The Big Ten.

The Big Ten Approach

In my book, Vocabulary Is Comprehension, I have identified ten principles, called The Big Ten, based in current vocabulary research that meet each Common Core Vocabulary Standard. The Big Ten help you build students’ vocabularies and reading expertise because the lessons use reading materials from your curriculum, giving you a way to consistently teach vocabulary while investing in students’ development as readers.


  1. Promote Meaningful Talk

Research on early childhood and vocabulary learning shouts the importance of talk, listening to others talk, and creating our own oral texts. Clearly, the value of talk at home and in school needs to be re-examined. Meaningful talk is crucial to language development and children’s ability to speak, think, understand, read, write, and communicate. Children learn words by hearing them used in diverse contexts, by asking adults questions about words to clarify their understanding, and by discussing them with peers and teachers.

  1. Study Word Parts: Roots, Prefixes, Suffixes

Knowing the meanings of Greek and Latin roots and constructing a set of words related to a root enlarges students’ vocabulary and knowledge of word relationships. From the Latin root spec, come words such as inspect, inspector, spectator, spectacle, perspective, circumspect, introspective, and retrospective. Tim Rasinski points out that students learn 1,000 to 4,000 words a year. The study of roots, prefixes, and suffixes can enlarge students vocabulary because they learn eight or more words related to a root and tip word learning closer to 4,000 than to 1,000 words annually. It’s crucial to bring this type of word study to all disciplines.

  1. Attend to Figurative Language and Connotative Meanings

Interpreting figurative language and the connotative meanings of words aids students’ comprehension of complex texts. Teach students how to use a text to validate their interpretation of figures of speech and to explain the shades of meaning or connotations of specific words in a text.

An understanding of figurative language in a text can help readers visualize an abstract idea by using an example from the real world. Figurative language assists readers with recall and deepens their comprehension of concepts. For example, in The Great Fire by Jim Murphy, the author tells readers that in 1871 Chicago was “bound by a combustible knot.” The metaphor of a knot, tying things securely together, heightened students’ visualization of Chicago, as a city with wooden buildings surrounded by wooden streets and sidewalks that was ready to ignite.

  1. Situate Words in Various Contexts

Once students have studied and discussed a word, talk about specific situations that a word works in. Knowing situations supports students writing to show their understanding of a word. For example, take a new word, gargantuan, meaning huge, very large: A list of situations where gargantuan can be successfully used include: describing Godzilla, the Yeti, a spaceship, airplane, mountain, an alien creature, an elephant, or skyscraper.

Providing model sentences that show students how you use a new and related word in a specific situation can help them craft their own sentences as well as gain additional insights into how a word functions.

  1. Use New Vocabulary in Writing

Students can write using words and pictures to demonstrate their knowledge of words’ meanings, of figurative language, and connotations, of how words work in diverse situations, and to show relationships and connections between and among words. When the English novelist E. M. Forster wrote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?” he called our attention to writing as thinking, analysis of ideas, and problem solving.

The litmus test for whether students have absorbed words into their long term memories is this: Can they think and talk with these words and use them in essays and stories? A goal of comprehensive, consistent vocabulary instruction is for words to become part of students’ DNA so they use them to analyze, think, and problem solve.

  1. Build Concepts

Learning words involves more than knowing a definition and how to use a word to show understanding. Effective word learning includes being able to categorize or group words to show the relationship between words and a concept. For example, instruments, is a concept with diverse categories. One category of instruments relates to the orchestra: percussion, strings, brass, and woodwind instruments. These four categories can be subdivided into the kinds of string, percussion, brass, and woodwind found in orchestras. Concept connections can also look at the instruments included in baroque, symphonic, chamber, or jazz orchestras.

Another way to categorize the concept of instrument is to think of specific professions. A surgeon uses instruments: scalpels, lasers, scissors, clamps, staples, and needles. A carpenter uses instruments: saw, screwdriver, hammer, nails, levels, and pry bar. The ability to categorize words by concept is complex and students benefit from practicing this skill.

  1. Make Connections

Connections or associations can help learners remember new words. This strategy is especially helpful for English language learners. Encourage students to make as many connections as they can because these connections will construct deeper understanding and support recall. Take the word enervating, meaning to weaken or exhaust: connections can include noting synonyms--to drain energy-- and antonyms--to add energy or strengthen. Students can list things that enervate and connect the new word to their prior knowledge: the flu, running a marathon, extreme heat, dehydration, a high fever, or associate a personal experience such as feeling enervated after taking a long exam.

Discussing and understanding denotative and connotative meanings foster connections beyond literal meanings and improves visualization and close reading to explore multiple meanings in a complex text.

  1. Tap Into Technology

Since technology is an integral part of students’ lives, students should use technology to learn words and their multiple meanings. Using twitter, blogs, wikis, and interactive computer word games asks students to play with words. Playing word games deepens their knowledge of how specific words are used in texts and nudges students to move beyond contextual meanings to understanding words’ multiple meanings and relationships.

  1. Promote Independent Reading

Research shows that students who have rich independent reading lives and read long, diverse texts grow large vocabularies and build extensive background knowledge. Independent reading enlarges students’ word knowledge as readers repeatedly meet the same words in diverse contexts over long periods of time. In addition to instructional reading, students need to read 40 to 60 books a year and share favorites in book talks, book reviews, and in discussions with peers.

  1. Deliver Daily Read Alouds

When teachers read quality literary texts aloud, they tune students’ ears to complex syntax, new vocabulary, and at the same time build students’ listening capacity and background knowledge of a genre and a topic. Moreover, teachers can raise students’ word consciousness, an awareness of and interest in words and their multiple meanings, by briefly pausing to discuss figurative language or an unusual word.

Closing Thoughts

As you plan daily vocabulary lessons keep The Big Ten at the forefront of your mind. Help students develop word consciousness. Be diligent in encouraging independent reading, as nonstop reading is the best way to enlarge vocabulary. The big payback is that as you improve students’ vocabulary you will be moving them closer to reading and comprehending grade-level, complex texts.

Response From Amy Benjamin

Amy Benjamin is a teacher, educational consultant, and author whose most recent book is Big Skills for the Common Core (Routledge). Visit her website here:

When considering how you teach words, ask yourself three questions: 1) Does my strategy remind me of how a toddler learns words? 2) Does my strategy remind me of the best methods that were taught to me when I learned a foreign language? and 3) Is my strategy going to be fun and social?

If you can answer these questions affirmatively, then your strategies for vocabulary growth probably comport with natural language acquisition, which means you should rely on them. After all, learning vocabulary is one of the best things that the human is good at. Great at. Comfortable with. Enthusiastic about.

Yes, we need dictionaries. But think about how you, as an adult, use a dictionary. Do you just look up words that have been given to you out of context, copy out the definition, and then make up a sentence whose only purpose is to create a sentence that has that particular word in it? That paradigm, still in practice despite its known near-uselessness, does not accord with what real people like you and me actually use a dictionary for: When we go to a dictionary, it is because we have encountered a word in context. Usually, we have some idea of what the word might mean, and the dictionary affirms, alters, or contradicts what we thought. Dictionaries and definitions are only one part of vocabulary learning.

I tell the teachers in my vocabulary workshops to keep in mind 4E’s that guide vocabulary instruction that is to result not only in durable word growth, but also in an interest in words: what they mean, how they are used, and what their stories are.

E is for Exposure: We grow our vocabulary as toddlers, as children, as teenagers, and throughout our lives because of repeated exposure to words in rich, varied contexts. When students are in your class, you, in a way control their vocabulary. If you use any given word enough, surrounding it with enough known context (“comprehensible input”) then that word will find its way into the unsuspecting student’s mind. This phenomenon of natural language acquisition refers more to generic words than to technical terminology. When it comes to technical, domain-specific words, learners still need repeated exposure, but they also need dedicated, explicit instruction.

E is for Explanation: Contrary to popular assumption, a definition alone is not sufficient for full-range knowledge about a word. A definition isolates a word like a lepidopterist pins down a butterfly, places it within a group, and then distinguishes it from other members of that group. The ability to memorize and recite a definition is not the same as the ability to use the word accurately, flexibly, and fully. The teacher who provides thorough instruction on a word includes not only the definition, but also examples, near-examples, non-examples, forms of the word, spelling, pronunciation, and collocation (other words that are generally used along with the target word). In the course of the explanation, the teacher is repeating the word in various contexts and forms.

E is for Etymology: By knowing a word’s pedigree, we deepen our understanding of the word, make it less random, and make it more likely to be remembered. Above, I used the word lepidopterist in a context that I hope revealed its meaning, a bug-studier (entomologist) specializing in butterflies and moths. The word is a marriage of the Greek lepido-, meaning flake or scale, and ptero, meaning wing. Etymology puts the world of words in order. A chaotic, unpredictable world is intimidating and overwhelming. In a chaotic world, we are out of control. But an orderly world is learnable. The etymology of many words tells a story. Eponyms are words derived from the names of actual people or characters from legends. When you hear the story of John Boycott, it is easier to remember what a boycott is.

E is for Enthusiasm: Your love of words and joy in sharing them and their stories is contagious. The linguist Steven Pinker said, “I’ve never known anyone who is not interested in words.” I believe that. You will be more enthusiastic about the words you teach if you take a little time to learn their stories, choose your own words to teach rather than being a “workbook monkey,” and give students a chance to have fun with words through games and puzzles. (Incidentally, the word enthusiasm, derived from Greek entheos, meaning “divinely inspired, possessed by a god. I love how the root theos, god, hides in enthusiasm.)

Finally, I recommend vocabulary.com, a free resource with a student-friendly dictionary, fascinating articles about words and language, zillions of self-correcting, self-regulating vocabulary questions, and even a simple DIY list-making feature.

Responses From Readers

Joanne Yatvin:

Don’t bother teaching vocabulary. If the students don’t use the words you teach in their everyday speaking and writing, they will quickly forget them. The best way to help students expand their vocabularies is through extensive reading and discussions about what they’ve read. It also helps to read a few books on similar topics. When words reappear in several contexts, there is a good chance that students will make them their own.

David Hochheiser:

I favor focusing on those tier2 words, the ones that are applicable to multiple situations and ought to be part of a daily, literate life but may be new to students. As they come up in class discussion and text, I’d keep a running list of them either on the side of the board or on a separate Smart Board screen.

Assessments would come two ways: 1) at the end of the text, week or unit (whichever is most appropriate), I’d ask them to write about the themes we’ve been discussing using a certain amount of the words and 2) I’d give them an agreed upon amount of time to either find the word(s) in text other than the one(s) we’ve been studying and/or use the words in other classes and/or outside of school.


Definitely depends on the student, both in terms of how extensive their vocabulary already is (i.e. how intense you need to be in order to give them a grip on a good vocabulary) and how motivated they are (i.e. will they tolerate the more efficient, but also more boring, methods of learning new vocab).

Thanks to Laura and Amy, and to readers, 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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