Teaching Vocabulary

› Vocabulary

Effective vocabulary instruction is both direct and indirect, and provides multiple opportunities to use a word in a variety of ways.

Vocabulary is the cornerstone of comprehension.  Many of our kids have difficulties in this area due to a poorly developed vocabulary.

Teachers can increase comprehension skills by teaching vocabulary in a variety of ways.  They have to include opportunities for receptive and productive learning to occur.

how to know when a student really understands a wordReceptive to Productive Stages of Vocabulary Development
Pin It

Receptive learning means that a student will instantly recognize a word (heard and seen).  Teaching strategies for receptive learning can include instruction on word parts (prefixes and suffixes), learning word lists and playing games.  These strategies are critically important for students who come to school with a lower working vocabulary than their peers.

Productive learning happens when a student is using words correctly through speech and in writing. 

To often teachers jump into productive learning while not taking sufficient time to develop receptive learning, which is often where knowledge gaps are.




Nearly all people have larger receptive vocabularies. We know many words that we do not often use. 

What this means for our students is that they can often get the gist of a word by the context of the sentences around it.  The difficulty arises when they have to move into the productive stage and use words according to its nuances (shades of meaning).

Try this little test for yourself (I made up this word, by the way):

The ladies obstuficated in front of the king.

You can likely pick up that it is a verb, so you can make a fairly good guess at the meaning.  You are in receptive control of the nonsense word because you are making connections to it by the context of the sentence. 

But if I tell you that it means they curtsied, then you can now correctly use my nonsense word in other sentences.  You are in productive control of it.

To build both receptive and productive skills, try these activities:


Teaching academic vocabulary

To develop academic vocabulary, teachers need to provide lots of opportunities for students to talk about the words. This also means explicit instruction is necessary.

Consider what the actual use of the word to be taught is. Words should be grouped into three tiers:

Tier 1


Basic words. These are words that do not need explicit instruction except for severe learning disabled students. Examples of these types of words are girl, water, book, or bread.  These are receptive words.

Tier 2
Often used words that are necessary for understanding a text. Examples of these types of words are: traditional, related, thinking, or upset. Many students do not understand synonyms so they lose comprehension when these types of words appear.

Tier 3
Infrequently used words that are associated with specific things, such as math or science. Examples of these are: isometric, podiatrist, equilateral or glandular.  Rarely are these words part of a child's receptive language, yet we expect them to use them productively.


Activities for Teaching Vocabulary

Tier 2 and 3 vocabulary are the ones students have the most difficulty learning.

These are some of the ways to teach vocabulary that I have found work really well with primary students, although I have also used them with middle school students (12-14 year olds).

These strategies really hit on building academic vocabulary as well as taking students into deeper comprehension of word parts and meanings.

teaching vocabularyVVWA Graphic Organizer
Pin It


Semantic Mapping

Mapping vocabulary words means making a web that supports understanding of the key features of a word or concept.


Create a chart or vocabulary graphic organizer that has the targeted teaching vocabulary word in the center and four boxes around it.

Each box has a different activity associated with the word, such as Writing Synonyms, Writing Antonyms, Illustrate the Word, Write the Definition, Use it in a Sentence.



Teaching Word Parts


Explicitly teaching parts of words is one of the best activities for teaching vocabulary. When you teach parts of words such as the root (or base), prefixes and suffixes, you are teaching a skill that covers both Tier 2 and Tier 3 words. Students learn to use word parts to recognize unfamiliar, or rare, words and to construct meaning from them.

I teach word parts every day during our morning group time. I do this by introducing the Word of the Day, which is always a word that has either a suffix, a prefix, or both.

For example, one word is careful.We discuss the suffix "ful," how it relates the root word, apply it to other root words, then add another suffix on, such as "ly."



Index Card Vocabulary Game

If you are introducing Tier 3 words, this activity makes teaching vocabulary fun for the students and you.

Label index cards with the words requiring direct teaching - one card for each word. On the front of the card write the word. On the back, put VERY limited and specific information about the vocabulary word (only what the students really need to know). Hand out these cards in class along with a paper that has all the words listed on it.

Tell the students they are each now a special math word, science word, whatever you are studying (the one on their card) and they will need to visit their friends to find out who everyone is and important information about them. As students visit with each other, they write down the essential information each person tells them (from the back of their card) beside the correct name on their paper. For a math lesson, it could look like this:

Angle: two rays that meet at an end point
Colinear: in the same line
Enneagon: a nine-sided polygon

What a great way to get that kinesthetic modality involved, have kids working together and making difficult vocabulary accessible! Remember, it is always necessary to have students talking about learning in order to solidify it.


Example or Not

Write a vocabulary word on the board, read it with the students and discuss it. Ask them for examples of what the word means.

Then show pictures that represent examples of the word and pictures that show the opposite meaning of the word. For example, if the word was miniature, you can show pictures of tiny dogs, teacups, dolls, etc. For non-examples, show pictures of dinosaurs, elephants, or large boats.

These types of strategies for teaching vocabulary are excellent for ESOL learners.


Figures of Speech: Teaching Idioms

These figures of speech are really fun for students to work with as they represent meaning that is opposite of what is said. ESOL learners particularly need direct instruction with idioms. The difference between the actual words and the meaning often gets lost in the translation gap.

Explain that idioms are used to make our writing or speech more colorful, or to help us visualize something in a different way.

Using a pocket chart or Smart Board, show the students a card with an idiom written on it, such as "all thumbs". Discuss with the students what they think it means to be "all thumbs."

On the board, write a sentence that uses context clues to explain the meaning.

"Joe was all thumbs with the dishes. When he put them away, he dropped one of them!"

Let the students share their own experiences about being "all thumbs." This allows them to internalize the meaning. You can extend the activity by having them illustrate the literal meaning one side of a piece of paper, and draw the inferred meaning on the other side.

Scroll back up and click on one of the links for more vocabulary activities!


Like what you Read?  Share.