Vocabulary Teaching

  • academic vocabulary
  • 16 August, 2015

Blast from the Past: This blog first posted August 16, 2015, and was reposted on September 25, 2021.This blog entry is an evergreen. What I mean by that I didn’t need to change a word. What it took to teach vocabulary effectively was as true then as it is now. It is important that students develop rich vocabulary. This is both an issue of knowledge of the world and language, since vocabulary is the connection between these key reading assets. This blog entry straightforwardly addresses what it takes to develop this resource in our students.

Teacher question: 

What do you recommend is the best way to teach vocabulary to struggling readers at the middle school level?  

Shanahan’s response:

          I know of no special ways of teaching vocabulary to that group of students. Vocabulary is one of the many areas of instruction that one doesn’t find much in the way of interactions. What I mean by that is that usually, when it comes to teaching, what works with some kids, works with all or most kids. Struggling readers tend to be a bit slower in picking things up and consequently they tend to benefit a bit more from explicit teaching and increased repetition—but the same patterns of success are to be expected from everyone.

          Vocabulary learning is incremental and there are more words that kids need to learn than we can teach. Kids need lots of opportunities to confront words in their reading and listening. Beyond that, teachers should focus attention on some of these words, by providing explanation of the words, or having the students explaining them from context themselves. Having kids read challenging materials—that is materials that use words they might not yet know, and then drawing their attention to these words through questioning, etc. is very important. That, in fact, should be a big part of the classroom context: understanding and communicating are important in this classroom and words are a big part of that. Students need to be encouraged to pay attention to words. 

          You can also teach some particularly important or powerful words explicitly to help accelerate student progress in vocabulary. Here are some recommendations about how that teaching can be successful:

Word knowledge is multi-dimensional. Students learn words best when they have opportunities to think of words deeply—rather than just through definitions. Focus on the encyclopedia description more than the dictionary definition. Consequently, one of my favorite vocabulary activities is to have students writing multiple “definitions” for words, rather than single definitions. 

           Say you wanted to teach the word rope. The dictionary definition is “a length of strong cord made by twisting together strands of natural fibers such as hemp or artificial fibers such as polypropylene.” But that’s not good enough. I would also want the students to come up with some synonyms for rope (e.g., cord, twine, string), and a real example (like “my mom uses rope for a clothesline in our basement” or “we have a rope that the girls play jump rope with during recess”). What category does rope belong to? Tools or things we can tie, perhaps. It’s a noun (a thing, specifically). How about a comparison? Rope is like stringer, but thicker and stronger because it is made of several strands. Let’s also have kids act this one out. Perhaps they’d pretend to climb a rope, or they’d have an imaginary “tug of war.” Drawing a picture of a rope would be another kind of definition or description and providing a sentence that uses a word in a way that shows that you know what it means is a good idea, too (“I tied the boxes together with a piece of rope”). [This exercise can be elaborated on lots of ways: using the words in analogies such as “rope is to cord as a street is to a lane”; listing different forms of the word by using various prefixes and suffixes, trying to use forms of the word in different ways grammatically as nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives etc. — “The cowboy is roping a calf.” “Since I started riding a bicycle, my muscles have gotten ropey.”]

            Word learning is social. Words are learned best when students have a lot of opportunity to interact and connect around words. For example, the multiple definition exercise described above is most effective when kids don’t do that by themselves. Have them work on that kind of assignment in teams. That requires that they talk to each other and help each other to figure out the word meanings and that they provide explanations of the words. Another possibility: instead of having everyone looking up 8-10 words in the dictionary, assign 2-4 words to each group (I usually overlap these, so that more than one group gets a particular word). Then have the groups take turn teaching each other the words.

            Words need to be related with other words. Words relate each other in lots of ways and understanding how they fit together can help. Many vocabulary programs group words together: words about using our legs (e.g., run, amble, leap, meander) words about talking (e.g., swore, vowed, yelled, recitation), health and medical words (e.g., exercise, diet, calories, cholesterol). That can be tough to replicate in a classroom setting, but this can be done effectively in retrospect, too. As students learn new words keep track of them (e.g., a word wall, a vocabulary bulletin board). Then have them trying to group words: which ones go together—building categories out of the relationships among the words that have been taught. Synonyms aren’t the only kinds of relationships either. Have students consider various relationships (for the rope example above, consider uses or functions (e.g., clothesline, rope climbing, rodeo—roping calves); parts (e.g., fibers, strands); who uses these (e.g., cowboys, gym teachers, campers, someone doing laundry).   

            Words need to be used in lots of ways. Organize your lessons so students have many opportunities to read the words of interest, to hear them orally, to use the words orally themselves, and to write the words in context (I’m not talking about just copying a word). Put vocabulary into the context of communication, learning, and language use—that means lots of speaking, listening, reading, and writing with the focus words.

            Words need to be connected to kids’ lives. Beck and McKeown’s “Word Wizards” is great for this. Have kids watch for their words in use and give them credit if they bring in evidence of having used or come across the words that they are learning.  

            Words don’t stick easily. Include lots of opportunity for review. Words need to accumulate across the entire school year, and that means going back to them again and again. The re-categorizing that I described above is a great review activity. If you test kids’ vocabulary with a weekly quiz, make it cumulative—continually recycle some of the older words. Set aside weeks where you don’t focus on new words, but on a larger number of the previously studied ones. And, of course, give kids lots of opportunity to re-confront the words in text.




See what others have to say about this topic.

Michael Kennedy Jun 13, 2017 02:06 AM


Dear Professor Shanahan,

I tried posting this earlier but it didn't seem to work - apologies if there is some sort of lag time and it showed up twice!

We met a few years back when I was one of Don Deshler's doc students at Kansas. I am now an Assistant Professor of Special Education at U.Va. Great job with your blog - very informative and useful!

I am writing to tell you about an intervention I've developed and tested that is relevant to this post on vocabulary for middle school students. The tool is called Content Acquisition Podcasts (CAPs). CAPs are short, multimedia-based instructional vignettes that deliver a package of evidence-based practices for learning vocabulary terms or concepts. CAPs are used in a supplementary role to the ideas you note in the blog. As an example, a student can watch a CAP (usually 2-3 minutes) at home, before class, or whenever they have access to a mobile device. Some teachers use CAPs as a way to flip the classroom. CAPs include practices you note, including using student friendly definitions, examples and non-examples, rich imagery, morphological tools (when appropriate), and connections to other terms. They also reflect Mayer's cognitive theory of multimedia learning, which helps instructors design instruction that is a good match for learner's limited cognitive resources.

I've developed and tested a series of CAPs for middle school science courses. Here is a sample: www.QMediaPlayer.com/?186. Note the CAP contains embedded comprehension questions that (a) help the teacher know the student actually watched the video, and (b) teachers collect formative learning data. We use a free site www.EdPuzzle.com to allow students easy and organized access to the CAPs and researchers/teachers with usage data. Readers can access more CAPs for free at www.Vimeo.com/MJK. I've also been developing CAPs for mathematics - here is a sample: www.QMediaPlayer.com/?501. These are a little different than the science videos, as they provide more examples and opportunities for embedded practice.

There are two published studies using CAPs for social studies terms - I'll put citations below if anyone is interested. We used our science CAPs this past spring in a big study and found they really supported student learning compared to learning using business as usual methods.

I hope this is helpful - And I would be interested in your thoughts on the CAPs! Keep up the good work.

Michael Kennedy, MKennedy@Virginia.edu

Kennedy, M. J., Deshler, D. D., & Lloyd, J. W. (2015). Effects of multimedia vocabulary instruction on adolescents with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 48, 22-38. doi: 10.1177/0022219413487406

Kennedy, M. J., Thomas, C. N., Meyer, J. P., Alves, K. D., & Lloyd, J. W. (2014). Using evidence-based multimedia to improve vocabulary performance of adolescents with LD. Learning Disability Quarterly, 37, 71-86. doi: 10.1177/0731948713507262

Timothy Shanahan Jun 13, 2017 02:06 AM


Thanks, Michael. I appreciate it. Yes, I’m familiar with that work. Keep at it.

Miriam A Giskin Sep 25, 2021 04:55 PM

Vocabulary through Morphemes by Susan Ebbers and Wordcracking by Bill Hansberry and Sally Andrew both seem useful to hitting the marks you mention above. Do you have thoughts on either, or both?

Harriett Sep 25, 2021 05:19 PM

I used word scales for the first time with my third graders yesterday, and I like the way it introduces multiple words for kids to learn and use to gain precision in their writing. I got the idea from Shira Lubliner's Getting Into Words. Yesterday, we worked with 'mad words' (annoyed, furious, upset, angry, irritated, livid). The students drew six steps in their word study journal and then we had a discussion as we ranked the intensity of being mad from a little at the bottom to a lot at the top. Some words like annoyed and angry everyone knew, but no one had heard of livid, which students then used in a sentence.

a andrew Sep 25, 2021 10:56 PM

I'll also give a shout out to Mrs. Wordsmith - no personal affiliation, but I find the concept of word associaion (what they refer to as "word pairs") to be very helpful.

Nancy Santucci Sep 25, 2021 10:57 PM

Refreshing and so important. I thought I was going to read about Tier 2 words, but instead, got real engaging and meaningful how to teach.

LEAH FALKOWSKI Sep 26, 2021 08:40 PM

What kind of vocabulary teaching can be used for toddlers or students in preschool?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 26, 2021 11:52 PM

What works very well is using book sharing (teacher read alouds) as a basis for introducing new words. See book, Bringing Words to Life (Beck, McKeown...). But also introduce science and social studies activities.

good luck.


Timothy Shanahan Sep 26, 2021 11:58 PM

The following information was sent to me by Andrew Biemiller, a colleague who has been doing cutting edge research on vocabulary for a long time. He gave me permission to post these remarks here. Thanks, Andy.

To summarize. In Study 1, words “used” by age 3 had mostly nonverbal meanings—perceivable, procedural, modificational, or functors (98.5% of 1335 words classifiable reported used in Hart and Risley, 1999).

In Study 2, we wanted to look at word meanings between pre-kindergarten (about age 5) to grade two. We used a sample of word meanings from the Living Word Vocabulary, including 59 words known at grade levels 2, 4, 6, 8, 10, and 12. 30 were rated nonverbal meanings and 29 rated verbally-based. The students in this laboratory school were mostly advantaged. At the end of pre-kindergarten, many fewer word meanings could be supplied than at later ages, and almost all were nonverbal. In kindergarten, 9 nonverbal meanings sampled from LWV were known by some of our kindergartners, but only 1 verbally-based meaning. But by grade two, 24 of 30 nonverbal meanings were known by most or some students, as well as 6 verbally-based meanings. Thus, there was growth both in knowledge of nonverbal meanings and some verbally-based meanings during the primary grades.

In Study 3, we used a larger sample of word meanings from the Living Word Vocabulary—117 word meanings—conducted with representative English-speaking students. In grade two, most or some knew 42 of 62 nonverbal meanings, and 12 of 55 verbally-based meanings. By grade five, most or some knew 50 of 62 nonverbal meanings, and 26 of 55 verbally-based meanings—a large increase. In short, relatively few verbally-based meanings were acquired in the primary grades, but many by grade five.

What early-acquired vocabulary is important for later comprehension? Does simply expanding the number of nonverbal (indexical) meanings both prior to and after age 5 ensure the development of more advanced verbally-based (symbolic) language? Several studies show that a larger PPVT vocabulary “in kindergarten” is predictive of reading comprehension—especially at grade three and later. (There is a lot of variation in decoding skill in kindergarten, grade one, and grade two that obscures the effect of kindergarten vocabulary on reading comprehension. By grade three, reading comprehension is predicted better by earlier vocabulary.)

My best guess is that both a larger nonverbal vocabulary by age 5—and continuing exposure to “appropriate” nonverbal vocabulary and instruction is needed for fostering verbally-based vocabulary after age 5 are necessary. These initial verbally-based meanings are probably “basic dimensional meanings” (Case, 1985)—e.g., height, weight, speed, time, color, size, number, social class, etc.

The number of nonverbal meanings known is substantially correlated with knowledge of verbally-defined meanings—up to 50% of variance within a grade. If a child knows more nonverbal meanings, it is very likely that child will also know more verbally-defined meanings.

Further implications for vocabulary instruction. In Words Worth Teaching, I defined “priority words” for instruction as those known by children with large vocabularies but often not by those with smaller vocabularies at the same age (Biemiller, 2010). I now suspect that the verbally-based “priority” word meanings may be more important than words with nonverbal meanings. The latter can be learned easily (if objects or pictures are present), while verbally-based meanings require more explanation by others. (E.g., tally, react, secure [emotionally].

In pre-kindergarten and to some extent in kindergarten, most new word meanings acquired will be nonverbal. (In kindergarten, numeracy-related words can begin to be learned. These will be more verbally-based meanings—partly involving other words to form meanings. Basic “dimensional” terms could be introduced and taught (e.g., height, size). Among other verbally-based meanings for kindergarten are literacy-related word meanings: sentence, word, rhyming words, etc.) By grades one and two, I suspect that many or most priority word meanings for teachers to teach will be verbally-based. These are typically harder to learn, and less likely to be acquired by less-advantaged children. Less advantaged children are probably less likely to encounter verbally-based words outside of school.

In addition, I suspect that less advantaged children may acquire fewer functors by age 4 or 5. I suspect these may be necessary to facilitate acquiring other verbally-based word meanings. Unfortunately, we did not test many of them in Biemiller and Slonim’s study of vocabulary acquisition nor for Words Worth Teaching.

Re word priorities. Hadley and Mendez (2021) wrote:

“Researchers prioritized unknown words and words described as Tier 2 when selecting words. The most frequently selected word type was concrete nouns; more than half of all words selected were concrete (nonverbal meanings—AB) in nature. A small percentage of target words appeared on published lists of words recommended for instruction. Word selection varied by context, with different types of words selected for science content vs. narrative/fiction. Finally, there were few relationships between child characteristics and word characteristics.”

It appears to me that these lists focus too much on nonverbal meanings—that are probably learned more easily. Furthermore, it may be necessary to find or construct texts that allow context and attention for needed verbally-based meanings.

Lawson-Adams and Dickinson (2020) emphasize teaching word meanings in the elementary years, noting that nonverbal referents (e.g., pictures, short videos, action) may be needed for nonverbal meanings, and possibly also with some verbally-based meanings.

For further research. While we know that larger nonverbal vocabularies by age 6 (end of kindergarten) is predictive of better reading comprehension by age 9 and later, we do not know if some words are more important than others. We know that word meanings are acquired roughly in a predictable order. But which—if any—specific meanings are more helpful for building later vocabulary?

Timothy Shanahan Sep 26, 2021 11:59 PM

I'm sorry I don't know either source so have no comments.



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Vocabulary Teaching


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