Teaching Vocabulary


The Tennessee State Standards place an importance on academic vocabulary.  Reading standard 10 says, “Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.”  While it may seem that vocabulary is a separate topic, it is important to recognize that a student’s lack of exposure to varied vocabulary is perhaps the most common roadblock for many students struggling to unlock a text’s complexity (Nelson, 2012).  In addition to Reading Standard 10, vocabulary is also emphasized in Reading Standard 4 and Language Standards 4-6.

      Vocabulary instruction is one of the most powerful ways to improve student achievement.  Research on the effects of direct vocabulary instruction show that the same student placing at the 50th percentile in reading comprehension, with no direct vocabulary instruction, placed at the 83rd percentile when provided specific instruction in academic vocabulary (Stahl and Fairbanks, 1986).  We also know that vocabulary is one of the primary causes of the achievement gap.  Many students from low-income households enter school with smaller vocabularies than their more affluent peers (Hart and Risley 1995, Biemiller 2010). Vocabulary instruction in the era of the new Tennessee State Standards needs to be more systematic, intensive, and efficient than it has been to date. 

Selecting Words for Vocabulary Instruction

Ongoing, solid vocabulary instruction is an essential component to help students develop skill in reading complex text. This instruction should focus not just on domain-specific words and phrases that describe the central concepts in the subject area, but also on general academic words. Effective vocabulary instruction usually provides a rich exploration of word meanings, in which students do more than just copy dictionary definitions—they consider synonyms, antonyms, categories, and specific examples for the words under study.

Selecting vocabulary words can be a difficult task, but understanding the three vocabulary tiers can assist us in deciding which words to discuss briefly and which words to choose for more intense study.

Tier I – The Words of Everyday Speech (breakfast, football)

Tier II – Words That Characterize Written Text But Are Not So Common in Everyday Conversations (accumulate, specify). 

Tier III – Domain Specific Words – Tier III words are most common to informational text and are usually defined in the text.  Often, Tier III words contain the ideas necessary to understand the topic. (lava, aorta)

*Tier II words require particular instructional attention.  Select words from this tier that will appear in many text or words that are part of word families.  Students need many encounters with tier II words spread out over time to increase retention.  Tier III words should be discussed in the ELA classroom when encountered in the text, but do not require extended study.

Six-Step Vocabulary Instruction

Robert Marzano proposes the following six-step process for teaching vocabulary:

1.  Provide a description, explanation, or example of    

     the new term.

2.  Ask students to restate the description,

     explanation, or example in their own words.

3.  Ask students to construct a picture, pictograph,

     or symbolic representation of the term.

4.  Engage students periodically in activities that

     help them add to their knowledge of the terms in

     their vocabulary notebooks.

5.  Periodically ask students to discuss the terms   

     with one another.

6.  Involve students periodically in games that                                       

     enable them to play with terms.


Marzano recommends using the first three steps when introducing a term to students.  Describe the term or tell an anecdote that illustrates its meaning.  In Steps 2 and 3, students try their hand at explaining the meaning of the term. They devise an explanation or an example from their own lives.  Next, they draw an image depicting what they think the term means (Step 3).  A few days later, review the new term using Steps 4, 5, and 6, which needn't be executed in sequence.



Reading Standard 4 

Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Reading Standard 10

Read and comprehend complex literary and informational text independently and proficiently.

Vocabulary Acquisition and Use:

Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.

Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.


Steps for Using Clues in the Context to Infer Meaning of an Unfamiliar Word

 Teach student the following steps for using context clues:

 1.  Underline the unfamiliar word.

2.  Read the sentences before and after the sentence containing the unfamiliar     word.

3.  Explain what you know so far.

Use what you know about the text and the sentence to infer what the word might mean.

4.  Read the sentence again and substitute your new word for the unfamiliar word.

5.  Decide if the word you substituted makes sense in the sentence.

6.  Your word may not have the exact meaning of the unfamiliar word, but by using the words in the context, knowing about what the word means can help you keep reading so as not to forget what you have already read.


      *When students generate their own explanation instead of copying the teacher's explanation or description of a term, cognitive retention of vocabulary improves. If students relate the term to their own lives, retention is even stronger.

          *When students represent their understanding of a new term by drawing a picture, pictograph, or symbolic representation, achievement soars.

         *Games provide an opportunity to review terms in a nonthreatening way. Games seem to engage students at a high level and have a powerful effect on students' recall of the terms.

           *Assessing vocabulary through use in sentences (even fill in the blank) requires a higher level of thinking than matching the term to its definition.