Research and best practices for teaching vocabulary in the elementary classroom.

I’m back this week linking up with #TeacherMom for her Building Back to School series.  This week we’re talking about language tools.  I’ve done some digging to see what research tells us about teaching vocabulary.  Here’s what I found:


What Every Teacher Should Know About Teaching Vocabulary

A Strong Vocabulary Is a Big Deal

We can all surmise that a strong vocabulary is important for students.  Students have a better chance of decoding words and understanding text if they can draw from a large vocabulary.  Many research studies indicate that vocabulary is an accurate indicator of success in school (Elley, 1988).


Indirect vs. Direct Vocabulary Acquisition

I was surprised to learn that students acquire most vocabulary indirectly (National Institute, 2000).  That is, through conversations with others, by listening to adults read aloud, and through their own independent reading.  Isn’t it nice to hear that the read aloud you use to get everybody simmered down after recess is also pumping up your students’ vocabularies?

Some words need to be taught directly such as words that represent tricky concepts which aren’t part of students’ experiences.  Direct vocabulary instruction involves teaching specific words but also teaching word learning strategies (more on that, later).


Choosing Words

Obviously, we don’t have time to teach students every tricky word they’re going to encounter.  So how do we choose words to teach?  Isabel Beck (2002) splits words into three tiers.  Tier 1 words are simple and familiar to students (words like door, house, book).  These words rarely require focused instruction.  Tier 2 words occur frequently and across a variety of domains.  They are considered mature, academic language (words like coincidence, reluctant, analysis).  Beck believes teachers should spend the most time teaching tier 2 words.  Tier 3 words are rarely used and are limited to specific fields of study (words like isotope, Reconstruction, Buddhism).


Elements of a Good Vocabulary Instruction Program

Alright, so what do we actually need to be doing to build students’ vocabulary?  Michael Graves (2000) identifies four components of good vocabulary instruction:

  1. Independent reading: Students should read widely and extensively to build their vocabularies.  Independent reading is a great go-to activity for when students finish their work or while the teacher is working with a small group (plus it’s quiet and doesn’t make a mess!).
  2. Instruction in specific words: The goal here is to aid students’ comprehension of a particular text.  Going through a list of words that aren’t connected to a concept or a text the class is studying isn’t helpful.
  3. Word learning strategies:  These include recognizing and using prefixes, suffixes, and root words.
  4. Word consciousness:   This is the ability to reflect upon and manipulate words.  It involves knowing how word parts and word order affect meaning.  It also includes an understanding of synonyms, antonyms, metaphors, and figurative language.

Honestly, I had no idea why teaching opposites was even on the standards.  Now I get it: students have a stronger understanding of a word’s meaning if they know that word’s opposite (or antonym).


synonyms and antonyms anchor chart, synonym cinnamon bears, and antonym ants

Synonym cinnamon bears and antonym ants anchor chart


root words anchor chart, vocabulary instruction

Root words anchor chart from Book Units Teacher


Degrees of Knowing Words

It is not the case that students either know or do not know words. Rather, they know words to varying degrees. If a word is unknown, they have never seen or heard of it before. If they have seen or heard of it but don’t know exactly what it means they are acquainted with the word.  If they are very familiar with a word and can use it accurately then they have an established understanding.


Word Learning Strategies

What about all the words that you will never have time to teach your students?  How will they navigate them?  That’s where word learning strategies come into play.  Looking at the list of word learning strategies was an “ah-ha!” moment for me.  Finally, I understood why teaching standards include nitty gritty stuff like separating affixes and root words.  It all leads to students being able to pick out word parts and at least make a good guess at a word’s meaning.

These are word learning strategies you should be teaching your students

  1. Dictionary skills – Looking words up is a lot easier these days with electronic dictionaries but it’s still important for students to see how multiple meanings and parts of speech are identified in the dictionary (electronic or otherwise).
  2. Using Word Parts – This includes prefixes, suffixes, and Greek and Latin roots and knowing how they make up the meaning of a word
  3. Context Clues – This one is tricky.  Context clues aren’t always reliable but students should have this strategy in their back pocket because it frequently comes in handy.


using context clues to understand new vocabulary, an anchor chart

Here is an excellent anchor chart about using context clues from Crafting Connections


Repeated Exposure

Focusing on a new word for a day or even a week probably isn’t going to be enough.  Students need extended instruction with several exposures to a new word across a variety of contexts.  One way to do this is to have a vocabulary word wall that you refer back to frequently.



vocabulary word wall

Vocabulary Word Wall, read more at Resources With Altitude

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What Every Teacher Should Know About Teaching Vocabulary


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Elley, Warwick B. (1988). New Vocabulary: How Do Children Learn New Words? Research Information for Teachers, 1, 2-5

Graves, M.F. 2000. A vocabulary program to complement and bolster a middle-grade comprehension program. In B.M. Taylor, M.F. Graves, and P. Van Den Broek (eds.), Reading for meaning: Fostering comprehension in the middle grades. Mew York: Teachers College Press.

National Institute for Literacy. (2000). Put Reading First. Jessup, MD: EdPubs.


Norton the Bookworm clip art from Sarah Pecorino Illustration


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Hannah Braun
Hannah Braun
Hannah Braun is a former teacher with 8 years of experience in the classroom and a master's degree in early childhood education. She designs engaging, organized classroom resources for 1st-3rd grade teachers.


  1. Excellent post that gets at the heart of teaching vocabulary. I really agree with your point that it’s not a question of students knowing or not knowing a word. I used to have my middle school students rate in their vocab notebooks how well they knew the new target words they were learning. Then we’d have a discussion about the ones they weren’t very sure of. The students got any confusion or lack or understanding cleared up and I got to see which words were more difficult for them.

    The ESL Connection

  2. Wow, what an informative post! We are focusing our teaching on more word study this year since 3rd grade is the first grade to take the state tests (SOLs in VA). I will share this post with my team! Thanks for the info!

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