Effective Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

Because vocabulary knowledge is critical to reading comprehension, it is important that those working with young readers help foster their development of a large “word bank” and effective vocabulary learning strategies. There are several effective explicit (intentional, planned instruction) and implicit (spontaneous instruction as a child comes to new words in a text) strategies that adults can employ with readers of any age.

Pre-teaching Vocabulary Words

One of the most effective methods of helping children learn new vocabulary words is to teach unfamiliar words used in a text prior to the reading experience. Adults (either alone or with the child(ren)) should preview reading materials to determine which words are unfamiliar. Then these words should be defined and discussed. It is important for the adult to not only tell the child(ren) what the word means, but also to discuss its meaning. This allows the child(ren) to develop an understanding of the word’s connotations as well as its denotation. Also, discussion provides the adult with feedback about how well the child(ren) understands the word. After pre-teaching vocabulary words, the child(ren) should read the text.

Repeated Exposure to Words

It may seem common sense that the more times we are exposed to a word, the stronger our understanding becomes. However, repeated exposure to new vocabulary words is often ignored. Adults often forget a person (especially a child) needs to hear and use a word several times before it truly becomes a part of her vocabulary. Providing multiple opportunities to use a new word in its written and spoken form helps children solidify their understanding of it.

Keyword Method

Like pre-teaching, the keyword method occurs before a child reads a particular text. In this method, unfamiliar words are introduced prior to reading. However, rather than encouraging the child to remember a definition for a new word, the adult teaches him a “word clue” to help him understand it. This “word clue” or keyword might be a part of the definition, an illustrative example or an image that the reader connects to the word to make it easier to remember the meaning when reading it in context. The idea behind the keyword method is to create an easy cognitive link to the word’s meaning that the reader can access efficiently during a reading experience.

Word Maps

The word map is an excellent method for scaffolding a child’s vocabulary learning. Like the other explicit instructional methods, the adult (either alone or with the child(ren)) should preview reading materials to determine which words are unfamiliar. For each of these new vocabulary words the child (with the support of the adult) creates a graphic organizer for the word. At the top or center of the organizer is the vocabulary word. Branching off of the word are three categories: classification (what class or group does the word belong to), qualities (what is the word like) and examples. Using prior knowledge the child fills in each of these three categories. Word maps help readers develop complete understandings of words. This strategy is best used with children in grades 3-12.

Root Analysis

While root analysis is taught explicitly, the ultimate goal is for readers to use this strategy independently. Many of the words in the English language are derived from Latin or Greek roots. They either contain a “core” root (the primary component of the word) or use prefixes or suffixes that hold meaning. Adults should focus on teaching children the most commonly occurring roots, prefixes and suffixes. As each is taught examples of its use in common word should be shared and examined. The reader should see how the root helps her understand the word’s definition. Children should then be given practice analyzing words to determine their roots and definitions. When a reader is able to break down unfamiliar words into their prefixes, suffixes and roots they can begin to determine their meanings.

Restructuring Reading Materials

This strategy is particularly effective for helping struggling readers improve their vocabularies. Sometimes grade level materials are inaccessible to readers because there are too many unfamiliar words in them. Adults can restructure the materials in several different ways to help readers comprehend them more easily. A portion of the difficult words can be replaced with “easier” synonyms to help the reader understand the overall text. Vocabulary footnotes (definitions provided at the bottom of the page) can be added for particularly challenging words so that the reader can easily “look up” the word while still reading the text. An accompanying vocabulary guide can be provided for the text. Words that are included in the guide should be highlighted or printed in bold text to direct the reader to check the vocabulary guide if the word or its meaning is unfamiliar.

Implicit Vocabulary Instruction

Incidental Learning

Incidental vocabulary learning occurs all of the time when we read. Based on the way a word is used in a text we are able to determine its meaning. Consider this example: “Megan’s fluxoolingy hair reached all the way down to her knees”. While you may not know the word “fluxoolingy” you could determine that it has something to do with length since the rest of the sentence focuses on describing where Megan’s hair comes to on her body. Adults should model this sort of incidental vocabulary learning for children to help them develop their own skills.

Context Skills

Context skills are the strategies that a reader uses for incidental vocabulary learning. Texts are full of “clues” about the meanings of words. Other words in a sentence or paragraph, captions, illustrations and titles provide readers with information about the text that they can use to determine the meanings of unfamiliar words. These features are often referred to as “context clues” because they are contained within the context of the piece of writing rather than outside it. Young readers should be taught to find and use context clues for learning new vocabulary words. Adult modeling and practice are key for helping children develop this important reading skill.

Vocabulary Basics

Knowing the meanings of words on the page is essential for reading comprehension. While few would deny this fact, the role that vocabulary plays in reading is often ignored or overlooked in reading education. A strong vocabulary is one of the pillars of reading comprehension.

What Exactly is Vocabulary?

In its simplest terms vocabulary is words. Your vocabulary is the words you know and can use. While children often have extensive oral vocabularies (words they use in speech) translating these to print often poses challenges. Vocabulary, as it applies to reading, is not only a person’s knowledge of words, but also his ability to recognize these words in print. Learning new vocabulary involves connecting the oral and print versions of the words and integrating them into our vocabulary “knowledge base”.

Vocabulary is multifaceted and complex. Each new word a person learns has denotation(s) and connotation(s). A word’s denotation is its literal definition. For example the denotation of “frugal” is economic in use or spending. Connotations, on the other hand, are the implied meanings of words. Consider the connotations of the word “frugal”. Calling someone “frugal” is usually a compliment meaning that the person is careful and conservative in her spending. If you were to change the word “frugal” to “cheap” the connotation would be different. While “frugal” and “cheap” have essentially the same dictionary definitions, their connotations are very different.

Relationship Between Comprehension and Vocabulary

Vocabulary is inextricably linked to comprehension. Simply put: you cannot comprehend a text if you do not understand the words being used in it! Vocabulary knowledge is the greatest single predictor of a reader’s ability to comprehend a text. When a reader comes to a text with knowledge of its vocabulary or is able to use strategies to determine the meaning of unfamiliar words while reading he is very likely to be able to understand what the piece is saying. This is why vocabulary is often used to determine the difficulty of a text. The proportion of challenging words in a piece of writing is the standard measure for determining a text’s difficulty.

Methods for Acquiring New Vocabulary

There are four standard ways that we learn new vocabulary words: through explicit or implicit instruction, multimedia and through association. Explicit instruction of vocabulary is the pre-teaching of words or root analysis strategies prior to a reading experience. Implicit instruction, on the other hand, occurs naturally and spontaneously during reading. When a reader comes to an unfamiliar word she is taught the word or discovers the meaning using independent strategies such as context clue identification and analysis. Multimedia learning occurs when the reader uses a non-print source to discover the meanings of unfamiliar words. Pictures, hypertext and American Sign Language are common methods for teaching and learning vocabulary through multimedia. Finally, learning through association happens when a reader is able to connect a new word to prior knowledge. This connection allows her to add the new word to her reading vocabulary.

Any or all of these methods can be used alone or in combination for any reading task. Ultimately, readers should be able to apply vocabulary learning methods flexibly and independently.

Impact of Vocabulary on Reading Ability

It is not surprising that vocabulary knowledge increases reading comprehension. This is especially true when new words are taught prior to the reading experience and the reader has multiple exposures to the words.

Vocabulary knowledge is not only essential for reading comprehension it is also critical for academic success. Because reading is an important component of every instructional program, regardless of the content focus, vocabulary knowledge plays an important role in a child’s academic performance. Each content area has its own set of vocabulary that is essential for understanding its concepts and ideas. Vocabulary knowledge is thus a predictor of a child’s general academic success. Furthermore researchers have found that students coming into 4th grade with significant vocabulary deficits not only have difficulty with reading comprehension, they also are unlikely to catch up with their similar aged peers.