Vocabulary Learning: Words, Words, Words

  • 21 July, 2008

Blast from the Past: I’m taking Independence Day weekend off but thought this previously released blog entry would be a good reminder of some of the great vocabulary resources that are available online. Teachers, parents and kids can benefit from these—even during the summer months.

Okay, the National Reading Panel found that vocabulary instruction improved reading achievement, especially for older readers. And, research has been showing a clear, substantial empirical link—especially for older kids—between vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension (both within reading and readability research) for almost a century. The National Literacy Panel for Language Minority Children and Youth found an even bigger impact of vocabulary teaching with children who were learning English as a second language, and the about-to-be-released National Early Literacy Panel report indicates that vocabulary seems to be a proxy for even more sophisticated oral language skills in reading development. Whew, that’s a lot of research support (especially when one considers that those syntheses, for the most part, were looking at different studies).

For years, I was strictly a contextual reader. I never looked words up in dictionaries, except to do the silly assignments my teachers gave me. Consequently, I read a lot but didn’t understand a sufficient amount. Finally, when I decided to go to graduate school and had to prepare for the entry tests, I started teaching myself word meanings (literally teaching myself the meanings of hundreds of words). Every time I came to an unknown word, I would write it on a card, look up the word in the dictionary so I could record the meaning on the back of the cards, and then I practiced… while driving, while supervising recess at school, etc. As my vocabulary improved, so did my understanding (in other words, I believe the research on this one, in part because of my personal learning experience—though, with this much research, there is no real reason to depend on experience).

 Like most educators, I think teaching students word meanings is a great idea, and I’m finding the Internet to be an incredible resource for teaching activities. I know there are lots of sites out there, but here are three of my very favorite ones. I think these are must haves for teachers, as they include some pretty cool stuff.

One Look


This is the online dictionary that I have programmed into all my computers. It is on the favorites list of everyone. And for good reason. One Look includes 109 different dictionaries and word lists. You can look words up in English or in other languages. You can see alternative definitions across dictionaries, there is a reverse dictionary, and it pronounces the words. When you are searching for child-friendly definitions, having so many choices can really help. This is the source that Cyndie and I use to settle our semantic arguments at dinner! This not only has lots of information it is easy to use. (There are some things the Oxford English Dictionary can do better than this one, etymology for example, but OED is proprietary. I can get it through my university, but it isn’t available on the net without cost. One Look will likely be sufficient for most purposes, and it is free.)

Visual Thesaurus


Okay, this one isn;t exactly free. You can run some free trials, but then you have to buy a site license (which isn’t very expensive—about $20 per year). If I had an alternative to this wonderful site, I would not be encouraging it. Yes, I know there are perfectly good thesauri available online, but this one is exciting because it provides semantic maps for the words. What a great teaching aid. Take this week's vocabulary words and you can see in an instant what other words they are linked to. This is almost a toy it can be so much fun to play with, and it has lots of information about words, but the real stuff here is the visual thesaurus, that reveals and explains the various links among words.

World Wide Words

This site is not one that I would turn over to the kids. I like this one because it provides lots of explanations of idioms and peculiar words. My friend, Don Bear, of Words Their Way fame, is always pushing for teachers to show kids an active curiosity about words and language (and spelling), and this is one great site for exploring that kind of stuff. Lots of morphological expeditions here—I always come away knowing more about the language as a result of spending time at this great site.

Hope these help parents and teachers to support their kids’ vocabulary development! I think they will.


See what others have to say about this topic.

Deb Jul 07, 2019 02:03 AM

I think teaching vocabulary is an underrated endeavor. I, too, did not have a great vocabulary as a teenager and, consequently, my comprehension definitely suffered. I am fascinated by words and their origins and love learning new ones as an adult. I always felt a bit behind the eight ball, though, compared to my peers in higher level classes in high school. Where I saw the biggest difference was between kids who took Latin and/or were taught morphology (roots and affixes) and kids (like me) who did not have those opportunities. If I could bring back one class to all high schools it would be Latin (though, taught in an updated and more relevant way). What I have been able to do, though, as a literacy specialist is model and encourage the teaching of morphology in order to give students a better chance of parsing words and determining their meaning, both for comprehension and oral and written expression. Thanks for the resources!

Ann Jul 08, 2019 03:44 AM

Vocabulary is learned through many instructional strategies. I have extended the vocabulary of kindergarteners with what I call hands-on/words-on. While playing Legos, an ELL asked, “What is different between invisible and invincible?” There has to be intentional talk around everything we do and developing word awareness is much like developing print awareness. Kiddos have to notice unfamiliar words and ask about them.

Sam Bommarito Jul 10, 2019 03:32 PM

Thanks for this and the links. Doing inservice work in August and will definitely include a link to this (& other resources you have on line).

Ronnie Schlinker Feb 24, 2022 04:53 AM

Online dictionaries and thesauruses are a good way to go beyond just strict contextual reading,

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Vocabulary Learning: Words, Words, Words


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