Context-Rich Vocabulary Instruction

I just finished reading the ASCD’s article “The Words Students Need” by Joshua F Lawrence, Claire White, and Catherine E. Snow. As a person whose background is reading instruction and is currently in a position of working with teachers to improve curriculum, assessment, and instruction I was struck by several ideas from this article.  These are not new ideas, but ones that continue to be valid when looking at vocabulary instruction and improving comprehension for students.

  • Establishing ‘whole school vocabulary instruction‘ that includes all content teachers is extremely important. The English teachers aren’t the only ones that should be exposing students to strategies on how to clarify unknown words, nor should they be the only ones focusing on reading comprehension. Reading and writing skills transcend all content and students need reading strategies embedded within all subjects. The article suggests exposing students to ‘general academic words’ like the Academic Word List which has a great list of words that cross many curriculum areas. They also have a list of most frequent words, with their variations which is a nice way to focus students on rootwords, prefixes and suffixes (a great strategy for them to gather word clues that can help them figure out unknown words). You can also see these words in a different format here: “Selecting vocabulary: Academic Word List” (with links to definitions for easy reference).
  • Planning for repeated rich exposure of vocabulary. The days of giving students 20 new vocabulary words a week and a dictionary to write their definitions are hopefully over. If all you do is have students write out definitions, that won’t provide the rich exposure to words that they need. My blog post referenced below covered some ways that vocabulary instruction can be done digitally, including creating mindmaps, podcasts, and visual representations to name a few. There are many other ways to give students exposure to words, wordsifthaving them categorize, analyze, sort, manipulate and visualize. Wordsift is a great site that doesn’t just provide a wordcloud tool (much like Wordle or Tagul), but also allows you to select words within the cloud and to then see its Visual Thesaurus graphic, google images, as well as sample sentences using the word.

Check out these other digital resources for exposing your students to words:

snappywordsSnappy Words (free visual online dictionary) Great way to have students see connections between words.

wordisWordis: Share your vision (need to register, but a great way for students to express their ideas about words)

For more tools and information on using digital tools to improve vocabulary instruction see my post “Increase Vocabulary- digitally”.

Other vocabulary resources:

Vocabulary 2.0 (Great post on vocabulary tips, tools, and resources by Shelly Terrell)

The First Hundred Commonly Used English Words (has all grade levels- click on yours at the bottom of the list)

About WordSift has vocabulary lesson plans and game links.

How the Internet can help build students vocabulary– great post from Edutopia

Increase vocabulary…digitally

Increasing student vocabulary IS important…

Research shows time and again that the more vocabulary a student understands, the better they will be able to comprehend.

A Focus on Vocabulary states:

Indeed, one of the most enduring findings in reading research is the extent to which students’ vocabulary knowledge relates to their reading comprehension (e.g., Anderson & Freebody, 1981; Baumann, Kame‘enui, & Ash, 2003; Becker, 1977; Davis, 1942; Whipple, 1925). Most recently, the National Reading Panel (2000) concluded that comprehension development cannot be understood without a critical examination of the role played by vocabulary knowledge. –Fran Lehr, M.A., Lehr & Associates, Jean Osborn, M.Ed., Dr. Elfrieda H. Hiebert

Baker, Simmons and Kameenui from the University of Oregon also concluded that: Directly teaching word meanings does not adequately reduce the gap between students with poor versus rich vocabularies because of the size of the gap. It is crucial, therefore, that students also learn strategies for learning word meanings independently. (Vocabulary Acquisition: Synthesis of Research)

TASK: Improve vocabulary, and ability to figure out unknown words independently

PURPOSE: to help students increase their ability to comprehend text and be more successful across all contents

Instead of asking students to simply ‘look up words and write out their definitions’ or ‘memorize definitions and have a matching or M/C test to show they know them’, let’s engage them in lessons where they are manipulating words and learning how to break apart words in order to independently figure out unknown words.

Ways to digitalize vocabulary learning:

Create vocabulary videos:

The idea here is to engage students in more project-based tasks that, when done shows true evidence of understanding the words (and parts of those words) they are working with. VocabAhead has some great ideas on how to engage your students in the vocabulary building process.

Create Vocabulary Podcasts:

podbeanOnce again, have students more engaged in vocabulary, including roots, prefixes, and suffixes by having them create podcasts about words.  Then publish them using or and have other students subscribe, listen and comment on them. You can listen to some examples of vocabulary podcasts at the Princetown’s Review Vocab Minute.

Expose students to, and have them create visual representations of words:

webowordCheck out the Weboword website and see what I mean!  Words come alive when students see them in action, and then create their own vocabulary visually! There are many web tools that students can use to create these visual definitions, or have them hand draw them, scan them, then publish using slideshare or

Explore prefixes and suffixes using mindmaps (graphic organizers):mind42

The biggest ‘bang for your buck’ in vocabulary learning with older students is for them to be able to figure out unknown words by breaking them apart into their parts (prefix,root,suffix).  Armed with this knowledge students can then go forth and figure out words they don’t know.  Give students a prefix or suffix and have them create a mindmap of words that use that prefix/suffix. Check out my Web 2.0 Tools mindmap for different mindmap tools that are free and easy to use (my favorite is, but would also work well)

For more ideas checkout:

How the Internet can Help Kids Build their Vocabulary from Jim Moulton and Edutopia.