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word wall in first grade classroom filled with vocabulary words

Vocabulary: In Practice

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Here, you’ll dive deeper into word learning strategies, indirect vocabulary instruction, choosing words to teach, academic vocabulary, and more.

Teaching specific words

Imagine that your third-grade class is reading the novel Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White, the classic story of friendship between a young girl named Fern, Wilbur the pig, and a spider named Charlotte. When Fern’s father, Mr. Arable, wants to kill Wilbur because he is a runt, Fern insists this is unfair. “This is the most terrible case of injustice I ever heard of,” she says. Understanding the concept of injustice is important to understanding the story. So, before students begin reading the novel, talk about the word and what it means to them:

  • Engage students in a discussion of the concept of injustice; and/or
  • Read a sentence from the book that contains the word injustice and ask students to use context and their prior knowledge to try to figure out what it means

To solidify their understanding of the word, we might ask students to use the word injustice in their own sentences.

Academic word lists

When choosing which words to explicitly teach, include words from academic word lists. These words, typically conceptual words, cross academic disciplines. For example, this list of academic words (opens in a new window) (Coxhead, 2000) will occur in texts in language arts and in content areas. This presents a logical opportunity for explicit vocabulary instruction.

A full, rich understanding of these words supports reading comprehension across content areas and across grades. Words found on the list from Coxhead include 570 word families. For example, the word visual is listed, along with its family: visualize, visualization, visually, etc. Explicit instruction in academic language is especially important for struggling readers and English language learners.

Reference: Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2), 213-238.

Another useful source for these kinds of words is Biemiller’s Words Worth Teaching: Closing the Vocabulary Gap (opens in a new window), discussed further below.

Word learning strategies

Of course, it is not possible to provide specific instruction for all the words that students do not know. Students also need to be able to determine the meaning of words that are new to them but not taught directly to them. They need to develop effective word-learning strategies. Word-learning strategies include:

  • How to use dictionaries and other reference aids to learn word meanings and to deepen knowledge of word meanings
  • How to use information about meaningful word parts (morphology) to figure out the meanings of words in text
  • How to use context clues

Using word parts (morphology)

Morphology is the study of words, how they are formed, and their relationship to other words in the same language. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language. The smallest unit of meaning includes not only individual words (e.g., rabbit, go, tall) but also word parts that convey meaning. For instance, the word rabbits has two morphemes, the base word rabbit, and the final –s that conveys more than one rabbit.

Meaningful word parts include affixes (prefixes and suffixes), base words, and word roots.

Affixes are word parts that are “fixed to” either the beginnings of words (prefixes) or the ending of words (suffixes). The word disrespectful has two affixes, a prefix (dis-) and a suffix (-ful).

Suffixes are divided into two categories:

  • Inflectional suffixes minimally change the meaning of the base word. Examples of inflectional suffixes are -ing, -ed, and -s/es. The meaning difference between walk and walked is minimal. Walk and walked are similar enough that young students can easily comprehend the difference. Inflectional endings are easily taught to younger students.
  • Derivational suffixes change the meaning of the base or root word. Examples of derivational suffixes are -tion, -ous, -ite, and -or.   The meaning difference between govern and governor is significant. The part of speech changes from a verb (“to govern”) to a noun (“one who governs”).

Explicitly teaching the definitions and parts of speech for affixes dramatically enhances a student’s vocabulary. For example, teaching that dis- can mean “not” or “opposite of” makes it easier to remember the meanings of disrespect, disinterest, and even disgust.

Base words are words that are not derived from other words. They are the word from which many other words are formed. For example, many words can be formed from the base word migrate: migration, migrant, immigration, immigrant, migrating, and migratory.

Word roots are the words from other languages that are the origin of many English words. About 60% of all English words have Latin or Greek origins.

Knowing some common prefixes and suffixes (affixes), base words, and root words can help students learn the meanings of many new words. For example, if students learn just the four most common prefixes in English (un-, re-, in-, dis-), they will have important clues about the meaning of about two thirds of all English words that have prefixes. Prefixes are relatively easy to learn because they have clear meanings (for example, un- means “not” and re- means “again”); they are usually spelled the same way from word to word; and, of course, they always occur at the beginnings of words.

Learning suffixes can be more challenging than learning prefixes. This is because some suffixes have more abstract meanings than do prefixes. For example, learning that the suffix -ness means “the state or quality of” might not help students figure out the meaning of kindness. Other suffixes, however, are more helpful, for example, -less, which means “without” (hopeless, thoughtless), and -ful, which means “full of” (hopeful, thoughtful).

Latin and Greek word roots are found commonly in content-area school subjects, especially in the subjects of science and social studies. As a result, Latin and Greek word parts form a large proportion of the new vocabulary that students encounter in their content-area textbooks. We should teach the word roots as they occur in the texts students read. Furthermore, we should teach primarily those root words that students are likely to see often.

Here are some examples of how to use word parts in teaching vocabulary:

  • A second-grade teacher wants to teach her students how to use the base word play as a way to help them think about the meanings of new words they will encounter in reading. To begin, she has students brainstorm all the words or phrases they can think of that are related to play. The teacher records their suggestions: player, playful, playpen, ballplayer, and playing field. Then she has the class discuss the meaning of each of their proposed words and how it relates to play.
  • A third-grade teacher identifies the base word note. He then sets up a “word wall” and writes the word note at the top of the wall. As his students read, the teacher has them look for words that are related to note and add them to the wall. Throughout their reading, they gradually add to the wall the words notebook, notation, noteworthy, and notable.

Using dictionaries and other reference aids

Students still need to learn how to use dictionaries, glossaries, and thesauruses to help broaden and deepen their knowledge of words. The most helpful dictionaries include sentences providing clear examples of word meanings in context.

As his class reads a text, a second-grade teacher discovers that many of his students do not know the meaning of the word board, as in the sentence “The children were waiting to board the buses.” The teacher demonstrates how to find board in the classroom dictionary, showing students that there are four different definitions for the word. He reads the definitions one at a time, and the class discusses whether each definition would fit the context of the sentence. The students easily eliminate the inappropriate definitions of board and settle on the definition “to get on a train, an airplane, a bus, or a ship.”

The teacher next has students substitute the most likely definition for board in the original sentence to verify that it makes the most sense: “The children were waiting to get on the buses.”

Learn more in this blog post from literacy expert Tim Shanahan: The Place for Dictionary Skills in Vocabulary Instruction. (opens in a new window)

Using context clues

Context clues are hints about the meaning of an unknown word that are provided in the words, phrases, and sentences that surround the word. Context clues include definitions, restatements, examples, or descriptions. Because students learn most word meanings indirectly or from context, it is important that they learn to use context clues effectively. NOTE: Do not use context clues as a substitute for decoding and word recognition.

Not all contexts are helpful, however. Some contexts give little information about a word’s meaning. An example of an unhelpful context is the sentence “We heard the back door open and then recognized the buoyant footsteps of Uncle Larry.” A number of possible meanings of buoyant could fit this context, including heavy, lively, noisy, familiar, dragging, plodding, and so on. Compare this unhelpful context with a much more helpful one: “The inner tube was so buoyant that it immediately popped back up to the surface of the lake.” Instruction in using context clues as a word-learning strategy should include the idea that some contexts are more helpful than others.

Extended and active engagement with vocabulary

A first-grade teacher wants to help her students understand the concept of jobs, which is part of her social studies curriculum. Over a period of time, the teacher engages students in exercises in which they work repeatedly with the meaning of the concept of jobs. The students have many opportunities to see and actively use the word in various contexts that reinforce its meaning.

The teacher begins by asking the students what they already know about jobs and by having students give examples of jobs their family members may have. The class might have a discussion about the jobs of different people who work at the school.

The teacher then reads the class a simple book about jobs. The book introduces the idea that different jobs help people meet their needs, and that jobs either provide goods or services. The book does not use the words goods and services, rather it uses the verbs makes and helps. That is, it explains the concept of jobs using language that first graders are likely to understand.

The teacher then asks the students to make up sentences describing their parents’ jobs by using the verbs makes and helps (e.g., “My mother is a doctor. She helps sick people get well.”).

Next, the teacher asks students to brainstorm other jobs. Together, they decide whether the jobs are “making jobs” or “helping jobs.” The job names are placed under the appropriate headings on a bulletin board. They might also suggest jobs that do not fit neatly into either category.

The teacher might then ask the students to share whether they think they would like to have a making or a helping job when they grow up.

The teacher next asks the students to talk with their parents about jobs. She asks them to try to bring to class two new examples of jobs — one making job and one helping job.

As the students come across different jobs throughout the year (for example, through reading books, on field trips, or through classroom guests), they can add the jobs to the appropriate categories on the bulletin board.

Repeated exposure to words

A second-grade class is reading a biography of George Washington Carver. The biography discusses Carver’s important role as a scientist. The teacher wants to make sure that her students understand the meaning of the words science and scientist, both because the words are important to understanding the biography and because they are obviously very useful words to know in school and in everyday life.

At every opportunity, therefore, the teacher draws her students’ attention to the words. She points out the words scientist and science in textbooks and reading selections, particularly in her science curriculum. She has students use the words in their own writing, especially during science instruction.

She also asks them to listen for and find in print the words as they are used outside of the classroom — in newspapers, in magazines, at museums, in television shows or movies, or on the Internet.

Then, as they read the biography, she discusses with students the ways George Washington Carver was a scientist and what science meant in his time.

How can I help my students learn words indirectly?

We can encourage indirect learning of vocabulary in two main ways. First, read aloud to our students, no matter what grade we teach. Students of all ages can learn words from hearing texts of various kinds read to them. Reading aloud works best when we discuss the selection before, during, and after we read. Talk with students about new vocabulary and concepts and help them relate the words to their prior knowledge and experiences.

The second way to promote indirect learning of vocabulary is to encourage students to read extensively on their own. Rather than allocating instructional time for independent reading in the classroom, however, encourage students to read more outside of school. Of course, our students can also read on their own during independent work time in the classroom — for example, while we teach another small group or after students have completed one activity and are waiting for a new activity to begin.

Teach words in categories — morphological and semantic families

Teaching words in categories helps develop a deep understanding of words. For example, teaching adverbs that end in –ly supports the understanding that these words are describing the action in text. Teach words that can be arranged by their semantic similarities and differences (opens in a new window). Teach words that can be arranged by their relationship with one another. This is especially helpful in teaching the subtle differences between words (opens in a new window).

Multiple meanings

Words with multiple meanings are particularly challenging for students. Students may have a hard time understanding that words with the same spelling and/or pronunciation can have different meanings, depending on their context. Looking up words with multiple meanings in the dictionary can cause confusion for students. They see a number of different definitions listed, and they often have a difficult time deciding which definition fits the context. We will have to help students determine which definition they should choose.

Examples of words with multiple meanings

Words that are spelled the same but are pronounced differently:

  • sow (a female pig)
  • sow (to plant seeds)  
  • bow (a knot with loops)
  • bow (the front of a ship)

Words that are spelled and pronounced the same, but have different meanings:

  • mail (letters, cards, and packages)
  • mail (a type of armor)  
  • ray (a narrow beam of light)
  • ray (a type of fish)
  • ray (a line or stretch of something)

Idiomatic expressions

Idiomatic expressions also can be difficult for students, especially for students who are English language learners. Because idiomatic expressions do not mean what the individual words usually mean, we often will need to explain to students expressions such as “hard hearted,” “a chip off the old block,” “drawing a blank,” or “get the picture.”

How well do my students need to “know” vocabulary words?

Knowing the meaning of a specific word is not an all-or-nothing phenomenon. Rather, students know words to varying degrees. They may never have seen or heard a word before. They may have heard or seen it but have only a vague idea of what it means. Or they may be very familiar with the meaning of a word and be able to use it accurately in their own speech and writing. These three levels of word knowledge are called:

  • Unknown: The word is completely unfamiliar, and its meaning is unknown.
  • Acquainted: The word is somewhat familiar; the student has some idea of its basic meaning.
  • Established: The word is very familiar; the student can immediately recognize its meaning and use the word correctly.

As they read, students can usually get by with some words at the unknown or acquainted levels. If students are to understand the text fully, however, they need to have an established level of knowledge for most of the words that they read.

Are there different types of word learning?

Four different kinds of word learning have been identified:

  1. Learning a new meaning for a known word 
    The student has the word in her oral or reading vocabulary, but she is learning a new meaning for it. For example, the student knows what a branch is and is learning in social studies about both branches of rivers and branches of government.
  2. Learning the meaning for a new word representing a known concept 
    The student is familiar with the concept, but he does not know the particular word for that concept. For example, the student has had a lot of experience with baseballs and globes but does not know that they are examples of spheres.
  3. Learning the meaning of a new word representing an unknown concept 
    The student is not familiar with either the concept or the word that represents that concept, and she must learn both. For example, the student may not be familiar with either the process or the word photosynthesis.
  4. Clarifying and enriching the meaning of a known word 
    The student is learning finer, more subtle distinctions, or connotations, in the mean

Choosing words to teach

All students need direct teaching of vocabulary as part of a good English/language arts program. It is not possible for educators to directly teach the meaning of every single word that students will encounter in reading there are too many of them! Therefore, an important consideration involves how to choose the words to use in direct instruction. One helpful source for words involves lists of words by grade level that are important for children to learn, such as Biemiller’s Words Worth Teaching: Closing the Vocabulary Gap (opens in a new window) and Coxhead’s Academic Word List (opens in a new window).

Isabel Beck’s distinctions among three types (or tiers) of vocabulary words also is very helpful to consider in making choices of specific vocabulary to teach:

  • Tier 1 words: These are very common words found across a wide range of texts. For a typical third grade class, Tier 1 vocabulary words might be words such as house, boy, jump, and yellow. Normally we would not want to target these kinds of words for vocabulary instruction, because most students would already know them. However, it is important to be aware that some students — such as English learners who are at early stages of learning English — might not know even these very common words. These children’s needs would generally be best met in differentiated or individualized vocabulary instruction.
  • Tier 2 words: These are less common words that many children might not know but that still might be found across a wide range of texts. Examples of these kinds of words for typical third graders might be limped, crimson, flutter, and fortunate. These words are particularly useful to target in vocabulary instruction, because they will be new to many children and useful in understanding a range of texts.
  • Tier 3 words: These are unusual words, often content-specific vocabulary, which many children will not know but that do not necessarily have wide generalizability across texts. For typical third graders, examples of such words might include vocabulary from a science unit on the solar system such as orbit, asteroid, and comet. These words should also be taught, in connection with content learning or to help children understand a specific text (like a science text), but they would not be the primary emphasis of vocabulary instruction in an English/language arts program.

Vocabulary intervention

For some students, the usual vocabulary instruction provided as part of the classroom curriculum will not be sufficient. These children will need intervention in vocabulary. This type of intervention may be necessary, for example, for English language learners, children from poverty backgrounds, and some struggling readers. As Isabel Beck writes in Bringing Words to Life (opens in a new window): “Struggling readers do not read well enough to make wide reading an option. To acquire word knowledge from reading requires adequate decoding skills, the ability to recognize that a word is unknown, and the competency of being able to extract meaningful information about the word from the context. Readers cannot be engaging with the latter two if they are struggling with decoding.”

The solution, then, is to select words from the text being taught and explicitly preteach the meaning of key words. Enhance instruction by teaching words’ semantic features, their morphological features, and the words’ meaning in relationship with the context. For example, when teaching about the solar system, explicitly teach the scientific terms (e.g., orbit). In addition, teach the academic words required to understand the content. It also means teaching words like rotation, flare (as in solar flare), relative (as in relative size), and diameter.


Beck, I. L. & McKeown, M. G. (2007). Increasing young low-income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. The Elementary School Journal, 107, 251-271.

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

Biemiller, A. (2009). Words worth teaching: Closing the vocabulary gap. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Hayes, D. P., & Ahrens, M. (1988). Vocabulary simplification for children: A special case of ‘motherese’. Journal of Child Language, 15, 395–410

Vocabulary instruction

Literacy expert Isabel Beck (co-author of Bringing Words to Life (opens in a new window)) talks about what good vocabulary instruction looks like.

Browse our vocabulary resource library

Learn more about how to help children build their “word banks” through our articles, tips for parents, video, FAQs, and research briefs. Visit our Vocabulary section