h2>Every school year, strengthening student vocabulary is at the top of  my list of focus areas! 

I continue to read research that expresses the same results about acquiring vocabulary. When it comes to students who are struggling with reading, “vocabulary instruction must be deliberate, include direct instruction, and in some instances involve small group interventional instruction in order to adequately support and accelerate these students’ vocabulary development” (Massachusetts Reading Association, 2011).


An interesting fact from Christopher Bergland of Psychology Today (September 2014) states that there is a significant “vocabulary gap” between 3-year-old children in lower-income households versus children in more privileged households. 


The 3-year-olds from lower-income households have a vocabulary that includes up to 30 million fewer words.


To me, this is astounding!


Elementary students have shown little improvement (1%) in their demonstration of their understanding of words in informational and literary texts. This is based on the statistics provided in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress in Reading Report


Teaching effective vocabulary development is an important key to increasing reading comprehension.


I teach at a school where the majority of my students come from lower-income households. Vocabulary acquisition is a priority!

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 In Bringing Words to LifeIsabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan provide additional rationale for the need for a more “robust” vocabulary instruction. This is one of those books that I go to for help when it comes to teaching vocabulary.

A big part of why I am drawn to this book is that the authors include ideas and rationale for intermediate elementary and middle school students often.

It is not just about strategies for primary teachers.

Let’s get into some ways to include vocabulary into instruction…

  1.  Word Selection
  2. Present Words in Authentic Context
  3. Use Everyday Language to Explain Words
  4. Use a Word Tree
  5. Record the Words
  6. Analyze the Structure
  7. Use a Word Wall
  8. Play Vocab Doodle Game
  9. Do a Quick-Check
  10. Play Vocab-Bands Game

Word Selection

For your vocabulary lesson, select Tier Two words that are written most frequently in a variety of texts that may have multiple meanings.  For a little guidance on this selection process, view this FREE PRINTABLE.

Selecting Tier 2 words

 I also include my students in the word selection process. With sticky notes next to them while they read, I encourage them to jot down unknown words. They often list the same words that I have selected.

  • Which words will they encounter most frequently?


  • Which words will they need to learn in order to understand the text or academic topic? 

Present Words in Authentic Context

The days of expecting students to learn a list of vocabulary words by listing them, grabbing a dictionary to define them, then writing them in a sentence, before ever reading any text, are gone!


Reading the words in the context of a selection is now the place to start.


Once the words are found in context, define the word together.


Use the context clues by having students look back and look forward in the text for understanding. Not all words have context clues in the text. I typically have three or four different dictionaries available to use as reference, if clarification is needed (I also like to give them an old fashion “how to use a dictionary” lesson once in a while).


Use Everyday Language to Explain Words

Think about ways to communicate the meaning amongst your students in language they already understand. Use real world examples that students can relate to from their own experiences.


You can talk about the examples of the words, the shades of meaning of the words, and even non-examples of the words.


Discuss possible synonyms and antonyms for the words. Mapping the words gives additional connections to the meanings of the words.

Use a Word Tree

Discuss parts of the words that they already know. Greek and Latin root studies with word trees are a great way to connect words to each other. Click here for a FREE PRINTABLE of this word tree with an example included.

Greek Roots-word tree-vocabulary-affixes

Word Trees


I love patterns! This is part of teaching the students to decipher words when you are not around.


Teaching the students to think about the words in parts helps them with the pronunciation, as well as the meaning.


You know your students best and can determine how much scaffolding is necessary.


Record the Words

Provide word journals for students to record examples of the different ways the words can be used. By writing down different examples, it reinforces the meaning or meanings of the words.


Model a few sentences with the vocabulary words in them. Then allow students time to record some of their own in their journals. The sentences should provide information about the word. My own kids used to try to get away with writing a four or five-word sentence that gave the reader little information about the meaning. No skimping on context!


Providing sentence stems will assist your strugglers.

     i.e. “The dog was vicious when…”


Find the words in sentences of the text you are reading. Model a question about the word and the meaning to go with it.


For example: Can you think of an animal that might be described as vicious?


After modeling some examples of questions, have students pose questions to each other.

 Analyze the Structure

Teaching students about the structure of the means breaking it into parts. When students explore the origin of  a word and how the prefixes, suffixes, and root words together form the meaning of the word gives students a meaning to transfer to other words with similar parts. This is great reinforcement for English Language learners because many words in the English language came from other languages.


Use a Word Wall

I don’t mean just post the words for all to see. I mean to post the words and refer to them often. Play games with them, talk about them in conversation as often you can. I add my words and some of the words that the students have chosen on the word wall to be referred to throughout our studies. It is completely interactive because I point to the words as we use them in our questioning and discussions of the texts. We also play games with them as a review (see Vocab Doodle and Word-Bands below).


Give students the index cards and provide them with opportunities to write some of the words to post on the wall.


Play Vocab Doodle Game

This is my version of Pictionary with the words of the week. This can be done in pairs, whole group or in a small group. This is also a fun way to transition into reading. Using whiteboards, have the first student choose a word from your Word Wall to draw, while the others in the group guess the word from the word wall.


I usually have a deck of cards with the words on them that we have used up to that date and the students pick from my cards. That way they are not selecting the same vocabulary word to doodle each time.


The way to learn the vocabulary word is by using it! Practice and play with it! Students need exposure to the words multiple times before it is set into their memory. 


Do a Quick-Check

Oh, the number of ways we can assess! I assess in different ways at different times because I want to make sure they keep the words in their memory. This could be used as an informal way to assess students in a timely manner.

assessment-dry erase markers-eraser

White board for Quick-Check


I might do a “quick-check” on whiteboards  or in the student notebooks of the words that we discussed that week.


(I like the whiteboards with the lines, even though I work with intermediate students, because I insist on legible handwriting)


The results can be quickly recorded on whatever anecdotal note  you are keeping. Sometimes I am checking for spelling and I say the words I want them to write. Other times I give them a definition or an example sentence and they have to choose the word from the Word Wall. You could also give them the word and have them write a definition.


Play Vocab-Bands

I like to review all of the words from the previous 3 weeks or so by having the kids play “Vocab-Bands” with each other. It is another form of an informal assessment. In small groups, we sit on the carpet in front of the Word Wall.


vocabulary, activity, reinforcing vocabulary, word building


I use stapled sentence strips as the band to go on their heads (sits like a crown). I use a paper clip to attach a word card on to the top of the band. Students take turns describing each word for their classmates to guess. Each student gets one clue from a classmate and a chance to make a guess. Then the next player gets a turn. Each time a student guesses correctly, they hold onto their card and then get a new one.


If after a few tries the student doesn’t guess the word from the clues given by classmates, I assist with the clues.


The student with the most cards is declared the winner.


Students at all reading levels need to be exposed to vocabulary in various ways and in multiple contexts in order to retain words for a duration of time.


The way to learn vocabulary words is by using them repeatedly! Practice and play with the words! Provide students with direct and indirect opportunities to learn vocabulary.

Don’t be afraid to give students crossword puzzles, riddles, word searches, tongue twisters and any other activity that gives them extra practice with word play!

What are some fun ways that you teach vocabulary? 

Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below. I would love to hear them!