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Teacher question

Could you recommend a strong vocabulary curriculum that my school could adopt?

Shanahan’s response

Because I work with various companies, I never recommend particular programs.

However, while there are vocabulary programs, this is an area where teachers are often expected to go their own way. Given that, let me suggest the scope of an outstanding vocabulary curriculum. My focus here is on what needs to be taught, rather than on the instructional approaches needed to accomplish this.

Overall, an ideal vocabulary curriculum would encourage the teaching of six things.

Word banks

First, the ideal vocabulary curriculum would aim to increase students’ knowledge of the meanings of specific words. Vocabulary knowledge is closely correlated with reading comprehension (Nation, 2009), and there are studies in which words have been taught thoroughly enough to raise reading comprehension (NICHD, 2000). Knowing the meanings of words matters.

Vocabulary can be learned both from explicit teaching and implicitly from any interaction with language, and reading can be an especially target-rich environment for that. A curriculum, of course, would mainly focus on the explicit part of the equation. It would specify the words thought to be valuable for kids’ learning — the ones we’d monitor to see if progress was being made.

This part of a vocabulary curriculum would include collections of words. The words in these collections should be worth learning (that simply means they should appear in print frequently so that knowing them is advantageous), and they should be worth the instructional time (which means that students at this grade level wouldn’t know them already). There needs to be a scope and sequence of these words so that teachers at different grade levels won’t keep teaching and reteaching the same words over and over.

Given the length of a school year, the numbers of words students are likely to retain, and the demands of review, I’d aim to teach about 150 words per year (students will learn more than that due to implicit learning).


Second, an ideal vocabulary curriculum would include a list of key morphemes to be taught; prefixes, suffixes, and combining forms. Research supports the value of such teaching (Bowers, Kirby, & Deacon, 2010). But, unfortunately, it doesn’t provide clarity with regard to how many such elements to teach, so I can’t estimate as I did with words.

As usual, it makes the greatest sense to teach those morphological elements that are most frequent and there need to be grade level agreements so everybody isn’t teaching pre- and -able while no one familiarizes the kids with -re and -ment.


Third, an important part of vocabulary learning is developing an ability to use context to determine meanings of unknown words. Good readers can both figure the meanings of words they’ve never encountered previously, and they can decide which of a word’s meanings is the relevant one in a given context (you don’t want kids thinking that the Gettysburg Address refers to where Lincoln stayed when he visited Pennsylvania).

Most reading programs don’t do enough with this, so we should not be surprised that students do such poor job of it. Research (Schatz & Baldwin, 1986) found that odds of students getting words right from context was pretty random. Middle schoolers were as likely to light on an opposite meaning as they were a correct definition! A word like “ebony” was interpreted as meaning white as often as black.

Basically, we spend too much time preteaching words before reading, but not enough on close questioning to determine whether they’ve interpreted a word correctly. We certainly do not invest enough in showing students how to use context when reading. That would be an important part of an ideal vocabulary curriculum, and it would be taught during the various forms of guided or directed reading activities.


Fourth, whatever happened to the dictionary? One key element in learning to deal with vocabulary is the learning how to find out the meanings of a word. These days that’s a bit more complicated than when I was in school, given the availability of multiple online dictionaries, pop-up dictionaries, and the like. Students should be taught to use these resources throughout the elementary grades as appropriate. There are also specialized dictionaries, like science dictionaries or history dictionaries; those should be the province of high schools.

Dictionary instruction appears to be a lost art. Students need to know how dictionaries work, how to identify the appropriate definition from a dictionary entry, what to do when they don’t understand a definition, and so on.

Word choice

Fifth, students need to develop a sense of diction, both as readers (or listeners) and as writers (or speakers). Words are complex and nuanced. They not only carry the declarative meanings that appear in dictionaries, but they convey attitudes and feelings. It matters whether you “question” your students or if you “interrogate” them.

As with the teaching of use of context, this part of the instruction is likely to make the greatest sense if it is linked to comprehension or communication. Students need to improve in their ability to discern author’s perspective or shades of meaning based on the author’s choice of words and for older students it is critical that they come to recognize how word choice influences bias. Such learning may not entail the development of new vocabulary, but the ability to implications of vocabulary already known.

Word consciousness

Sixth, students need to develop word consciousness (or they need to learn the metalinguistic aspects of vocabulary (Nagy, 2007)). Here, I can’t tell you much from research. However, as someone who regularly reads text in a language that I cannot speak and who reads in many fields of study that I’m not especially well versed in (e.g., economics, physics, chemistry, biology, communications, political science), I have become quite aware of the importance of vocabulary consciousness.

Good readers — in this case, readers who handle vocabulary well — need to be aware of when they do not know the meaning of a word. If you aren’t conscious that you don’t actually know a word’s meaning, then you are going to have comprehension problems (for instance, do you really know what “accost” or “voluptuous” mean?). If you are unaware of your ignorance, then you won’t be skeptical of your use of context, you won’t know when to turn to the dictionary, or that morphological analysis might be a good idea.

Word consciousness also includes recognizing when it’s okay not to worry about a word meaning. Often, I can gain understand what I need from a text, without knowing the meaning of every word. Recognizing when I can safely (and ignorantly) proceed, and when I’d better do a bit more work, is an important distinction that good readers make.

This aspect of vocabulary knowledge also governs what I do when I don’t know all the words and have no tools to solve them. Sometimes readers just need to power through, making sense of as much of a text as possible, accepting that they aren’t getting it all since they don’t know all the words. Sometimes 50% understanding just has to be better than 0%. Too many readers encounter a couple of unknown words and call it day. Vocabulary consciousness includes the development of reading stamina in low vocabulary knowledge situations 

All six work together

Of course, this sounds like six discrete areas of learning, but there is nothing discrete about them. Those words that are taught explicitly could also be the source for morphological study. Words the students struggled to figure out from context could be added to the memorization list and any words that students know could become the focus of lessons on diction. Any of these can be confronted in reading, writing, or oral language instruction, too, and simply encouraging an interest in words belongs here, too.  

What would be the ideal vocabulary curriculum? One that increases the numbers of valuable words that students know, that increases their ability to define words from morphology and context, that fosters an awareness of meaning and diction, that enhances the ability to use appropriate reference tools, and that encourages metalinguistic awareness and sensitivity when dealing with word meanings.    

About the Author

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy (opens in a new window).

Publication Date
June 16, 2020

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