How to Help Students Increase Vocabulary Knowledge

“One of the key indicators of students’ success in school, on standardized tests, and indeed, in life, is their vocabulary.” (Marzano & Pickering, 2005).

Vocabulary knowledge is crucial to reading achievement. When students do not know the meaning of the words, they will not be able to make meaning of the text. A student’s background knowledge and prior experiences play a large role in vocabulary development.  I can see such a huge difference in the kindergarten and first grade students who have had rich experiences with reading and being read to at home. These students enter school with a wealth of vocabulary knowledge, and they really take off in reading. Yet, so many of our students don’t have this vocabulary rich home experience, and it is crucial that teachers work hard to build vocabulary knowledge for all students. These are some traditional vocabulary methods which have proven to be very unsuccessful in helping students really learn and retain new vocabulary words:

  • Looking up words in the dictionary without explicit instruction
  • Writing sentences for new words before the word has been learned and studied
  • Memorizing definitions

Here are some highly effective strategies for building and retaining vocabulary knowledge:

1. Wide reading – Of course the best way to build vocabulary is with lots of reading; shared reading, guided reading, independent reading, buddy reading and reading aloud.  It stands to reason that the more exposure to words the students have, the more words they learn. Reading aloud to students is an excellent way to teach them vocabulary words they might not even be able to read yet. It’s also important to encourage students who read independently. Reading outside of school just 30 minutes a day can greatly increase vocabulary.

2. Direct Instruction – Teachers need to choose the important words students need to know from the text and then directly teach those words in context with specific explanations and pictures. Model how to use the word in real life situations. Have students restate the explanation in their own words. Basically make sure the students have a deep understanding of the word meaning.

3. Make Connections – Have students make connections with the words by classifying the word with other words or looking for known word parts, and brainstorming synonyms and antonyms for the words. Students can also make personal connections to the words by relating the word to their own experiences through discussion and writing.

4. Active Engagement – Allow students to actively interact with words by playing games, creating projects, acting out word meanings, writing and drawing.  Vocabulary activities can be fun and also rigorous.  After all, what we learn with enjoyment we tend to remember longer!

5.  Multiple Exposure – Students need to interact with a word 10-12 times before they own it. Provide multiple exposure by storing word maps and word lists in a word book.  You can use a three ring binder with a clear view cover, so students can personalize the cover.  Students can continue to add words to their books from class lessons or from their independent reading.

Click on the image to download this vocabulary word map.