Vocabulary Development Strategies

I’m not a Speech/Language Teacher. BUT I have many students how NEED way more language support than just a one-shot deal. Finding ways to embed extra language support without it taking up tons of extra that I just don’t have in groups is hard. This week I have collected a few ideas that I have helped me build more vocabulary and language support in my small groups.


The key weakness in all of these practices is the limited or rote interaction students have with the new word/concept. Here is a short list of these less effective approaches.

1) Look them up. Certainly, dictionaries have their place, especially during writing, but the act of looking up a word and copying a definition is not likely to result in vocabulary learning (especially if there are long lists of unrelated words to look up and for which to copy the definitions).
2) Use them in a sentence. Writing sentences with new vocabulary AFTER some understanding of the word is helpful; however to assign this task before the study of word meaning is of little value.
3) Use context. There is little research to suggest that context is a very reliable source of learning word meanings.
4) Memorize definitions. Rote learning of word meanings is likely to results, at best, in the ability to parrot back what is not clearly understood.

All of these less effective approaches is the lack of active student involvement in connecting the new concept/meaning to their existing knowledge base. Vocabulary learning must include active engagement in constructing understanding and not simply on passive learning of information from a text.


Reviewing the research literature on vocabulary instruction leads to the conclusion that there is no single best strategy to teach word meanings but that all effective strategies require students to go beyond the definitional and make connections between the new and the known. The research on effective vocabulary teaching as coming down to three critical notions:

Integration—connecting new vocabulary to prior knowledge
Repetition—encountering/using the word/concept many times
Meaningful use—multiple opportunities to use new words in reading, writing and soon discussion.

Increase the Amount of Independent Reading

The largest influence on students' vocabulary is the sheer volume of reading they do, especially wide reading that includes a rich variety of texts. The following strategies can help motivate reluctant readers:

  • Matching text difficulty to student reading level and personal interests (e.g. using the Lexile system)
  • Reading incentive programs that include taking quizzes on books read (e.g., Accelerated Reader, Reading Counts)
  • Regular discussion, such as literature circles, book clubs, quick reviews, of what students are reading
  • Setting weekly/individual goals for reading volume
  • Adding more structure to Sustained Silent Reading by including a 5-minute quick-write at the end of the reading period, then randomly selecting three or four papers to read/grade to increase student accountability.
  • Select the Most Important Words to Teach
  • Students with weak reading skills are likely to view all new words as equally challenging and important, so it is imperative for the teacher to point out those words that are truly important to a student's academic vocabulary base. (THINK--picture walk) 
  • Teaching vocabulary is teaching new labels or finer descriptions for familiar concepts. In contrast, teaching concepts involves introducing students to new ideas/notions/theories and so on that require significantly more instruction to build real understanding. 

Teachers can get more out of direct vocabulary work by selecting words carefully. More time-consuming and complex strategies are best saved for conceptually challenging words, while relatively expedient strategies can assist students in learning new labels or drawing finer-grained distinctions around known concepts. Making wise choices about which words to teach directly, how much time to take, and when enough is enough is essential to vocabulary building.

Tips for Selecting Words:
  • Distinguish between words that simply label concepts students know and new words that represent new concepts.
  • Ask yourself, "Is this concept/word generative? Will knowing it lead to important learning in other lessons/texts/units?"
  • Be cautious to not "accessorize" vocabulary (e.g., spend too much time going over many clever adjectives that are very story specific and not likely to occur frequently). Rather, focus attention on critical academic vocabulary that is essential to understanding the big ideas in a text (e.g., prejudicial: As students learn the meanings of pre- and judge, they can connect to other concepts they know, such as "unfair.")
  • Using State and Common Core Standards to see what is taught
  • Use Tiered Vocabulary
    • Tier 1 Academic Vocabulary: Basic words that commonly appear in the spoken language. Because they are heard frequently in numerous contexts and with nonverbal communication, Tier 1 words rarely require explicit instruction.Examples of Tier 1 words are clock, baby, happy and walk.

An Example:
I have a student who picks her own tough or challenging vocabulary as she reads.
She currently is an Instructional DRA K/20 and is a second language learning.
One task she has to complete while she reads is creating a list of 5 to 8 words she felt were hard.
She often has more than that but when I conference with her we talk about the words she found.
She then takes her 5 words, finds the pictures from Google or Bing, and creates a video to support
what she has learned.

Picture Walk Idea
“I Spy”: This activity is similar to reading books with your child. Label and point to pictures on the
pages of an “I Spy” book. Make it a game and see who can find the most objects on the page! Make
it more challenging by assigning specific items to you and your child that incorporate basic concepts
(“You find a small key and I’ll find a big one!”) You can also play “I Spy” without the book and find objects around the house or in your community.

Want to more ideas on Designing Effective Vocabulary Development Instruction Grab your Freebie
here. Click the image.

I’d love to hear what you do in your small groups to build in more language support in your groups.

Until Next Time,

About Me

Welcome to my all thing special education blog. I empower busy elementary special education teachers to use best practice strategies to achieve a data and evidence driven classroom community by sharing easy to use, engaging, unique approaches to small group reading and math. Thanks for Hopping By.

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