Why Teach Vocabulary?

Vocabulary is one of the five pillars of reading comprehension as set forth in No Child Left Behind legislation.  Is it really that important?  Assume for a moment that you are reading a law textbook.  You encounter words that you can easily read and maybe you have heard them used before.  The meanings of those words are unknown or you may have some idea of their meaning from the context.  Now you are going to be tested on the content of passages you have read.  As you can imagine, you would have difficulty answering questions.  This is what happens to students who do not have the vocabulary necessary to comprehend what they read.  Those students who learned to decode did well in the lower grades, but when faced with passages using more complex vocabulary they will fail unless we prepare them. 


Martha Speaks


Vocabulary Resources

Selecting Words for Instruction

Words can be divided into three groups.

  • Tier One consists of basic words that rarely require instruction.  Words such as dad, toy, and car are Tier One words.
  • Tier Two words are high frequency words that occur in literature and adult conversations.  Students need to know these words for academic success.  Words such as rapid, scruptious, or dozing are examples.
  • Tier Three words come from specific content areas such as math or science and are heard infrequently.  Aquifer, perimeter, and igneous are examples.

Questions to Ask When Selecting Words from Read-Alouds (Graves)

  • Is understanding the word important to understanding the selection?
  • Does this word represent a specific concept students definitely need to know?
  • Are students abel to use context or structural-analysis skills to discover the word's meaning?
  • Can working with this word be useful in furthering students' context structural analysis or dictionary skills?
  • How useful is this word outside of the reading selection currently being taught?

Suggested Procedure for Teaching Word Meaning Aquisition

Select a short narrative fiction text that contains about 20 words with meaning that might be unfamiliar to students.  Word meanings can most effectively be acquired by reading the same book four times rather than once or twice. (Kearns and Biemiller)

  • The first day read the book once without stopping to define any words.  
  • The next three days read the same book again.  Each day briefly define about six different unknown words using one or two sentences as they come up in the reading.  After three days about 20 words.will have been defined.  Students may occasionally determine the meaning of some words from the context.  In these cases, simply draw the students' attention to the words.
  • On the fifth day, review each of the 20 or so words taught  by having the students actively involved.  Students could be evaluated on their vocabulary aquisition on this day if desired..

Assessing Vocabulary Acquisition 

  • Write two questions for each vocabulary word being tested, one with a "yes" answer and one with a "no" answer.  See example questions below.
  • Rearrange the questions so that they are in random order.
  • Use the student answer sheet.  Say the number and the picture for each question.  Give students time to circle yes or no.


Example Questions



Student Answer Sheet

Word Study  Student activities include having students restate definitions in their own words, drawing a picture or graphic representation, discussing meanings with learning buddies, or playing games to review the terms. These worksheets can be used to involve students in learning vocabulary.




Students draw 3 things that illustrate the concept and one that does not (examples/non-examples).  Classmates gues what does not belong.



 Students illustrate four examples of a given category.  For example they might write solids in the middle and draw four different solids.                                                          


word study record sheet 

Students use this sheet to write the vocabulary word, write the definition, illustrate the word, and write a sentence using the word.




This sheet is good for above grade level learners who are reading independently.  It is a nice way to focus on increasing vocabulary.




The Frayer Model is a graphic organizer for vocabulary building.


Definition Map

Students write the word, the definition, properties, and give examples.


Properties of Objects

Students observe 4 different items and determine the properties of each.  This is a worksheet that works for reading in describing different characters or setting.  It is also a sheet that can be used in science when looking at the properties of different matter.


Semantic Features Analysis 

This is an example of semantic feature analysis.  It is a great way for students to organize their thinking and make comparisons about the features of different things.  It can be used for a variety of topics such as comparing the properties of rocks or geometric shapes, different kinds of tide pool animals, different bodies of water, etc.



Students write the word, illustrate it, write the opposite, write the definition, and write a sentence using the word.


Word Maps  Word maps are diagrams that include the category to which the concept belongs as well as features that distinguish it from other members of that category.  Word maps can be very simple or more complex depending on the level of the learner, but they help the learner make connections.

This word map was made during our study of matter.  The distinguishing characteristics were identified first and written on our chart.  Students were given sticky notes on which to draw and label a solid.  Students worked in pairs but were told to think of 2 different solids.                            Screen_Shot_2014-01-07_at_10.50.59_AM.png      

This is an example of a more complex word map.  Put the word in the center oval. Enter the category that the word belongs to above.  Then add characteristics of the word.  More lines can be drawn is needed.  Put examples of the word below.  More lines can be added if needed. Model this with the students and they copy the work onto their papers.  Students illustrate the examples at the bottom.



Pool Word Map