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March 1, 2011

A Word for the Words

How do we know effective elementary school vocabulary instruction when we see it?

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In a periodic review of "What's Hot and What's Not" in literacy instruction (Cassidy & Cassidy, 2009), the temperature of vocabulary instruction has been rising. This growing interest has been accompanied by a growing knowledge base about how to teach vocabulary most effectively. Here are some research-based essentials for effective vocabulary teaching and learning in the elementary grades.

The Schoolwide Context: Choosing the Right Words

When it comes to vocabulary learning, a student's experience across the grades is just as important as what happens at each grade level. Therefore, the entire school needs to buy in to a comprehensive program of vocabulary instruction. Such a school will demonstrate the characteristics shown in "Checklist for Word Learning: The Whole-School Approach."

  • General academic vocabulary consists of words that appear reasonably frequently within and across academic domains, such as analyze and process.

  • Domain-specific academic vocabulary consists of relatively low-frequency, content-specific words that appear in textbooks and other instructional materials; for example, apex in math, escarpment in geography, and isobar in science.

  • Literary vocabulary consists of words that may be infrequently used in everyday speech but may appear in literature, such as torrid, hyperbolic, or suave.

Most educators would suggest that words encountered most frequently in English are good candidates for study. Many word lists are available to help teachers identify frequently used words that are appropriate to the different grade levels. Examples include the Fry Instant Words List in The Reading Teacher's Book of Lists (Prentice-Hall, 2004); The Living Word Vocabulary (Field Enterprises, 1976); and The General Service List of English Words (Longmans, 1953).

Another important group of words for study are those that students will encounter frequently in curriculum and instructional materials in the future, but that are not already well established in students' vocabularies (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). To identify these words, teachers should use the school's textbooks and instructional materials as a guide. They can also consult lists of words relevant to important content areas: for example, in E. D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Vintage Press, 1988) and Robert Marzano's Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement (ASCD, 2004). The graded word list becomes a communal core and starting point for rich vocabulary instruction in each grade.

The Classroom Context: Creating Engagement

Walk into an elementary classroom that places importance on vocabulary, and you will see physical signs that in this place, word learning is alive. Word charts or word walls are placed where students can consult them as they write. These word walls change as new words are added; they show evidence of student input—no "teacher only" work. Classroom objects are labeled. Word games, word-puzzle books, and vocabulary software are available to all students. The classroom library contains books on words and word play, books of jokes and riddles, and dictionaries and thesauri, as well as student-made word books, alphabet books, and personal dictionaries.

In addition to the physical environment, classrooms in which vital vocabulary instruction is taking place are abuzz with engaging word-learning activities (see Checklist for Word Learning: The Classroom Approach.")

Teacher Engagement

Of course, student engagement is essential to all learning, but let's start with another engagement essential—teacher engagement. In our research, we see that teachers who love words develop students who love words. One of the best ways to evaluate a classroom context is to ask the students whether their teacher loves words and word play. If you want word learning to take off in your school, then teachers, coaches, administrators, and other staff members need to develop an interest in vocabulary.

Teachers who make a difference in vocabulary learning set aside a few minutes each day to do something playful with words. We have developed a strategy called "3 × 5," in which teachers take 3 minutes 5 days a week to do something fun with words—something they would enjoy themselves. For example, they might introduce a neat new "word of the day," read a word-based joke or pun, or read aloud to students from the newspaper or an interesting book and discuss one word that they believe would catch students' imaginations.

One of the most effective teachers we've worked with was a gym teacher who was initially reluctant to do anything with vocabulary. He grudgingly began reading one paragraph from the sports pages and picking out a word to discuss each day. (Reality check: do you know what cagers are in sports? Check it out.) The students enjoyed these mini-sports vocabulary lessons so much that the teacher became an enthusiast as the year went on.

However, using that old distinction we learned in college philosophy, teacher engagement is a necessary condition for word learning in the elementary classroom, but it's not sufficient without attention to student engagement.

Student Engagement

What gets and keeps students engaged? Students need choice in their learning as well as richness and rigor. Creating their own word materials and engaging in online vocabulary activities enhance engagement. Competence also fosters engagement. Students who have strategies for dealing with unknown words and who can use reference materials on appropriate levels have the sense of personal power that makes them eager word learners.

Hearing well-written texts read aloud broadens students' vocabulary and puts them in touch with the richness of words. Also, personal reading, and lots of it, expands student awareness of word choice in reading and writing. With all this "input," students also need "output" experiences—rich discussions, writing, and use of media and art to share new words and concepts.

Research-Based Essentials of Vocabulary Instruction

  • Lots of reading, writing, and meaningful talking. Students learn many words incidentally through reading (Kim & White, 2008; Swanborn & de Glopper, 1999) and through exploring word meanings and nuances in writing and discussion. They also learn from listening to texts read aloud, especially when teachers scaffold this learning through elaboration, example, and definition (Blachowicz & Obrochta, 2005; Manyak, 2007; van Kleek, Stahl, & Bauer, 2003).

  • The teaching of individual words. Specific vocabulary should be taught using a number of different strategies (Jitendra, Edwards, Sacks, & Jacobson, 2004; Blachowicz & Fisher, 2010), including word definition, opportunities to experience words in context, and opportunities to use the words in discussion (Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986).

  • Instruction in word learning strategies. Students should learn the meanings of prefixes and suffixes and strategies for applying these generative elements to new words. They should also learn to use context clues when encountering unknown words (Baumann, Edwards, Boland, Olejnik, & Kame'enui, 2003; Baumann, Ware, & Edwards, 2007; Fukkink & de Glopper, 1998.)

  • Word consciousness, which Graves (2006) defines as "an awareness of and interest in words and their meanings" (p. 7). Nagy (2005) states that word consciousness includes "various aspects of words—their meanings, their histories, relationships with other words, word parts, and most important, the way writers use words effectively to communicate" (p. 30).

For example, students should learn that words can be related to other words with similar meanings (synonyms) or opposite meanings (antonyms). Students develop word consciousness by engaging in playful language activities; by making visual representations of categories, webs, and maps; and by exploring the words accomplished authors and speakers use (Graves & Watts-Taffe, 2002; Nagy, 2007; Scott, Jamieson-Noel, & Asselin, 2003). Graphic mapping of complex word relationships, use of semantic organizers, word webs, word ladders, and the like make this learning concrete.

A Final Word (Or Coda, If You Want a New Vocabulary Term)

Structuring a sensible classroom and school approach to vocabulary instruction requires more than just knowing about teaching vocabulary, or even knowing how to implement strategies. It's essential that teachers and researchers begin to document what a balanced approach to vocabulary actually looks like. In ongoing research, Baumann and colleagues (Baumann, Blachowicz, Graves, Olejnik, & Manyak, 2009; Baumann, Ware, & Edwards, 2007) are attempting to formulate a model for orchestrating sound vocabulary instruction in elementary classrooms.

It's an exciting time to be working on this topic. When you're hot, you're hot—and now is the time to spread the warmth of effective vocabulary teaching and learning from school to school and classroom to classroom.


Baumann, J. F., Blachowicz, C. L. Z., Graves, M., Olejnik, S., & Manyak, P. (2009). Multifaceted comprehensive vocabulary improvement project. Washington, DC: Institute of Education Sciences.

Baumann, J. F., Edwards, E. C., Boland, E., Olejnik, S., & Kame'enui, E. J. (2003). Vocabulary tricks: Effects of instruction in morphology and context on fifth grade students' ability to derive and infer word meaning. American Educational Research Journal, 40(2), 447–494.

Baumann, J. F., & Graves, M. (2010). What is academic vocabulary? Journal of Adolescent and Adult literacy, 54(10), 4–12.

Baumann, J. F., Ware, D., & Edwards, E. C. (2007). Bumping into spicy, tasty words that catch your tongue: A formative experiment on vocabulary instruction. The Reading Teacher, 61(2), 108–122.

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.

Blachowicz, C., & Fisher, P. (2010). Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms (4th ed.). Columbus, OH: Prentice Hall.

Blachowicz, C. L. Z., & Obrochta, C. (2005). Vocabulary visits: Developing content vocabulary in the primary grades. The Reading Teacher, 59, 262–269.

Cassidy, J., & Cassidy, D. (2009). What's hot, what's not. Reading Today, 26(6), 3.

Fukkink, R. G., & de Glopper, K. (1998). Effects of instruction in deriving word meaning from context: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 68(4), 450–469.

Graves, M. F. (2006). The vocabulary book. New York: Teachers College Press.

Graves, M. F., & Watts-Taffe, S. M. (2002). The place of word consciousness in a research-based vocabulary program. In A. E. Farstrup & S. J. Samuels (Eds.), What research has to say about reading instruction (3rd ed.) (pp. 140–165). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Jitendra, A. K., Edwards, L. L., Sacks, G., & Jacobson, L. A. (2004). What research says about vocabulary instruction for students with learning disabilities. Exceptional Children, 70, 299–322.

Kim, J. S., & White, T. G. (2008). Scaffolding voluntary summer reading for children in grades 3 to 5: An experimental study. Scientific Studies of Reading, 12(1), 1–23.

Manyak, P. (2007). Character trait vocabulary: A schoolwide approach. The Reading Teacher, 60(6), 571–577.

Nagy, W. E. (2005). Why vocabulary instruction needs to be long-term and comprehensive. In E. H. Hiebert & M. L. Kamil (Eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice (pp. 27–44). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Nagy, W. (2007). Metalinguistic awareness and the vocabulary-comprehension connection. In R. K. Wager, A. E. Muse, & K. R. Tannenbaum (Eds.), Vocabulary acquisition: Implications for reading comprehension (pp. 52–77). New York: Guilford.

Scott, J. A., Jamieson-Noel, D., & Asselin, M. (2003). Vocabulary instruction throughout the day in 23 Canadian upper-elementary classrooms. Elementary School Journal, 103, 269–268.

Stahl, S., & Fairbanks, M. (1986). The effects of vocabulary instruction: A model-based meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 56, 72–110.

Swanborn, M. S. L., & de Glopper, K. (1999). Incidental word learning while reading: A meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 69, 261–285.

van Kleek, A. V., Stahl, S. A. & Bauer, E. B. (2003). On reading storybooks to children: Parents and teachers. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

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