The Components of Effective Vocabulary Instruction

To be effective, a program of vocabulary instruction should provide students with opportunities for word learning by:

  • encouraging wide reading;
  • exposing students to high-quality oral language;
  • promoting word consciousness;
  • providing explicit instruction of specific words; and
  • providing modeling and instruction in independent word-learning strategies.

Each of these components contributes to helping students overcome the major obstacles to vocabulary growth.

What to do about the size of the task

Wide Reading

We know that the volume of students' reading is strongly related to their vocabulary knowledge.1 Students learn new words by encountering them in text, either through their own reading or by being read to. Increasing the opportunities for such encounters improves students' vocabulary knowledge, which, in turn, improves their ability to read more and more complex text. In short, the single most important thing you can do to improve students' vocabularies is to get them to read more.

Remember, to keep up, students need to learn at a rate of 2,000-3,000 words per year; to catch up, they need to exceed this rate. Can wide reading really be enough to help students learn so many words? Evidence indicates that it can. First, there is the evidence of those avid readers who acquire large vocabularies largely apart from any type of explicit instruction in vocabulary. Second, there is a growing body of research showing that, although the odds of learning any particular word from context are small, the cumulative effects of learning from reading can be large. Consider the following argument for the effects of wide reading:2

  • If, over a school year, a fifth-grade student reads for an hour each day, five days a week (in and out of school), at a conservative rate of 150 words per minute, the student will encounter 2,250,000 words in the course of reading.
  • If 2% to 5% of the words the student encounters are unknown words, he or she will encounter from 45,000 to 112,500 such words.
  • We know that students learn between 5% 10% of previously unknown words from a single reading. This accounts for at least 2,250 new words the student learns from context each year.

The figure 2,250 new words learned a year is based on the lowest points of the estimated ranges. Even this conservative figure suggests that reading is a powerful influence on students' vocabulary growth.

What kinds of reading are necessary to produce such vocabulary growth? Whereas some argue that almost any reading ultimately will have powerful benefits for students,3 others say that if students consistently select texts below their current reading levels, even wide reading will not result in measurable vocabulary growth.4 Nor is reading text that is full of unfamiliar words likely to produce large gains in word knowledge.5

To help students get the most out of reading, you should encourage them to read at a variety of levels — some text simply for enjoyment, which should benefit their fluency if nothing else — and some text that challenges them. You should also help students develop reading strategies that will allow them to read more challenging texts with lower levels of frustration. When students have been taught comprehension strategies, they tend to do more reading.6

Increasing their motivation to read is another critical factor in helping students make the most of wide reading. One powerful motivating factor associated with more reading is a classroom environment that encourages and promotes social interactions related to reading.7 Making available a variety of books and setting aside ample time for reading also motivate increased reading.

As is true for any method of promoting vocabulary growth, wide reading has some limitations. One is that it obviously cannot be effective with very young students who are not yet able to read very much on their own. Another limitation is that, although wide reading may be effective in producing general vocabulary growth, it is not an effective method for teaching the words that students need to master a particular selection or a concept related to a specific content area. Finally, it is important to acknowledge that, as important as it is, wide reading does not produce immediate, magic results; its effects are cumulative, and emerge over time.

You can encourage wide reading in a number of ways. You might, for example, recommend or provide lists of books for students to read outside of class, and make time in class for students to discuss what they have read. You can set aside a time each day for independent reading. And, of course, you can model the value you place on reading as they read, by telling students about the books you are reading.

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What to do about the differences between spoken and written English

High Quality Oral Language

As we discussed earlier, both English language learners and English-speaking students may achieve fluency in the language of face-to-face conversation and still have little exposure to or knowledge of the kind of language they encounter in school textbooks. Clearly these students need more exposure to written English, and wide reading is the most effective way of increasing exposure to this kind of language. But what can be done with students who are in the process of learning to read, and who cannot do a great deal of reading on their own? Here is one solution: Increase the quality of the oral language to which students are exposed — let them hear spoken English that incorporates more of the vocabulary and syntax typical of written, and particularly literate English.

A very effective way to expose children to literate vocabulary is to read to them from storybooks, especially when the reading is accompanied with discussion.8 Authors of good children's literature have always found ways to talk "over children's heads" — using big words and other aspects of literate language — without decreasing children's interest or enjoyment. Both younger and older students appear to benefit from read-aloud activities, and older students can learn the meanings of new words as efficiently from hearing stories read to them as they can from reading the stories themselves.9 Making available (either in the classroom or school library) a selection of quality audio books and players that students can use on their own can also be a good way to expose them to a variety of good books and broad language experiences.

Storytelling is yet another way to increase the quality of students' oral language experiences. Even when no text is involved, storytelling still exposes students to richer language than does normal conversation. Pretend play likewise involves rich language use. The quality of preschool children's conversations, and teachers' use of a more sophisticated vocabulary also have been found to affect students' language and literacy development.10

Word Consciousness

Asked what they could do to use more sophisticated vocabulary without intimidating or confusing their students, a group of teachers responded enthusiastically, "Make it fun!" We definitely agree. Playing with language is an essential component of language development. Word consciousness is the knowledge of and interest in words. Word-conscious students enjoy learning new words and engaging in word play. They know and use many words, and are aware of the subtleties of word meaning and of the power words can have.11

To become word conscious, students first need to develop a feel for how written language is different from everyday conversation. To this end, it is valuable to draw their attention to the distinctive characteristics of written language, even when reading aloud, and to help them learn to read like a writer, and to write with an audience in mind.

Having students copy in their journals phrases or sentences from their reading that are examples of especially effective language use — vivid descriptions, striking metaphors, interesting similes, plays on words-can help make language more alive for them. Students can share their examples with the class, or they can post them in the classroom to serve as inspiration or models for others.

Reading and discussing two versions of the same story — ideally, one with rich language and one with language that is less interesting — can promote word consciousness in younger students.

Word consciousness can be promoted in a way that helps students become aware of differences between Standard English and non-standard varieties, without stigmatizing the latter. Shirley Brice Heath describes classrooms in which students learned to be "language detectives," studying how people speak differently in different groups and in different situations. She believes that this awareness made an important contribution to the students' academic success.12 It may be especially important to make such differences explicit for students less familiar with standard English.

A number of oral and written word games can serve to promote word consciousness, including puns, limericks, Hink-Pinks, crossword puzzles, jokes, riddles, and anagrams.13 Encouraging students to play with words can create an interest in knowing more about them, and thus, can become a strategy for independent word learning.

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What to do about the limitations of sources of information about words

Independent Word-Learning Strategies

Techniques that teachers can model and teach to students so as to help them figure out the meanings of unknown words on their own. Because students learn most new words incidentally, through wide reading, helping students to acquire a set of word-learning strategies is important to their vocabulary development. Key word-learning strategies include:

  1. the efficient use of the dictionary;
  2. the use of word parts (prefixes, suffixes, roots, compounds) to unlock a word's meaning; and
  3. the use of context clues.

Dictionary Use

Instruction in dictionary use that focuses on having students look up words and use information from their definitions to write sentences does not provide students with the guidance they need to make dictionary use an efficient independent word-learning strategy.

This is not to say, however, that dictionaries are not important aids to word learning. In fact, the more students are exposed to dictionary definitions, the better their word learning.14 The crucial point here is that students receive instruction in how to use what they find in a dictionary entry so that they are able to translate the cryptic and conventionalized content of definitions into usable word knowledge.15 This instruction includes modeling how to look up the meaning of an unknown word, thinking-aloud about the various definitions in an entry, and deciding which is the most appropriate definition for a particular context.16

Word Parts

Teaching students how to use information about word parts can be very valuable in promoting vocabulary growth. Many students, however, are not aware of this strategy. Even students who have learned to break words into parts in their decoding instruction may not understand that they can use this knowledge to figure out word meanings. Teacher modeling helps to make the strategy's value clear to students.17

Using word-part information can be especially helpful in learning certain content-area concepts. (See Teaching Word Meaning as Concepts)

Context Clues

Context clues are clues to the meaning of a word contained in the text that surrounds it. These clues include definitions, examples, and restatements. Teaching students strategies for identifying and using context clues has been suggested as a major instructional technique for vocabulary development.18 A student learns a new word from context by making connections between the word and the text in which it appears. When a new word is first encountered, the student stores in memory some information about how it fits into what is being read. In subsequent encounters with the word, this information is reinforced, and more information about the word's role in particular contexts is added until the word is understood and used appropriately. As in teaching other kinds of strategies, teaching students to use context clues to develop vocabulary is an extended process that involves: modeling the strategy; providing explicit explanations of how, why, and when to use it; providing guided practice; gradually holding students accountable for independently using the strategy; and then providing intermittent reminders to apply it to reading across content areas.

As we noted earlier, learning words from context is a long-term process, one that involves multiple encounters with words. The challenge is to create vocabulary instruction that compresses this process to enable students to learn more words in a shorter period of time.19

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What to do about the complexity of word knowledge

Explicit Instruction of Specific Words

Although students gain most of their word knowledge through wide reading, explicit instruction of specific words and their meanings also can contribute greatly to their vocabulary development. Explicit instruction is especially important for students whose exposure to the vocabulary of literate English is limited. To be most effective, explicit vocabulary instruction should be dynamic and involve a variety of techniques. Specifically, instruction should:

  1. Use both definitional and contextual information about word meanings,
  2. Involve students actively in word learning, and
  3. Use discussion to teach the meanings of new words and to provide meaningful information about the words.

Use Definitional and Contextual Information

In the past, vocabulary instruction most often consisted of learning lists of words and definitions (with a test on Friday). We now know that such instruction is of limited value, particularly in improving students' reading comprehension.20 Students need to know how a word functions in various contexts. Therefore, instructional methods that provide students with both definitional and contextual information do improve comprehension, and do so significantly.

Some instructional activities that provide students with definitional information include:

  • Teach synonyms.
    Often a synonym is all students need to understand a new word in context.
  • Teach antonyms.
    Not all words have antonyms, but thinking about antonyms requires students to identify the crucial aspects of a word. For example, the word chaos implies an abyss, a void, or clutter, but its antonym, order, narrows the focus to the "clutter" part of the word's meaning.
  • Rewrite definitions.
    As we noted earlier, dictionary definitions can often confuse or mislead students. Asking students to restate a dictionary definition in their own words can be more effective than requiring them to remember the exact wording of the definition.
  • Provide example sentences.
    A good way to ascertain whether students understand a word's definitions is to have them provide example sentences in which they use the word. They may draw these examples from personal experiences ("Mom's kitchen is chaos.") or from textbooks ("After the great flood of 1937, there was chaos all over the Tennessee Valley.").
  • Provide non-examples.
    Another way to find out if students truly understand the meaning of a new word is to have them supply words that are not examples of the word's meaning. For example, point out to them that cry is not an example of the word guffaw, then ask them to think of other non-examples of the word (bawl, sniffle, whine, whimper). Coming up with non-examples requires students to think about the critical attributes of a word, much like providing antonyms.
  • Discuss the difference between the new word and related words.
    A discussion of the word debris, defined as "trash," "garbage," or "waste," might include a discussion of the differences between debris and trash, garbage, and waste. For example, debris might be the result of some sort of accident or disaster, whereas trash might include anything. Garbage generally refers to organic material, such as food leftovers, and waste implies something left over, rather than something resulting from a disaster. Such a thorough discussion encourages students to focus on the meanings of words.

Some activities that provide students with contextual information include:

  • Have students create sentences that contain the new word.
    Encourage students to create sentences that show a clear understanding of the meaning of the word — not just "I like chaos." More acceptable sentences are those that include the definition, such as, "Chaos is when everything is in disorder." Even more acceptable are sentences that extend the definition, such as, "The scene was complete chaos — desks were turned over, paint was splashed on the floor, and the trash can was upside down." Of course, to write sentences containing a new word, students need examples of how it is used correctly. Definitions, even those that give brief examples, rarely provide enough information to guarantee that students have a real sense of how words are used. One way to scaffold students' use of new words is to have them complete sentence stems containing the word, e.g., "John thought it would pacify the teacher if "21
  • Use more than one new word in a sentence.
    Asking students to use more than one new word in each sentence they create can force them to look for relations among words.
  • Discuss the meaning of the same word in different sentences.
    Many words have multiple meanings, which depend on the context in which the words appear. To prevent students from limiting word meanings to one particular context, have them use a new word in several different and varied sentences. For the word chaos, their sentences might include topics such as chaos in classroom behavior, chaos as clutter and mess, chaos in personal relations, and so forth.
  • Create a scenario.
    Invite students to make up a story in which a new word features prominently. If students are too young for this activity, have them draw a picture story for a new word.
  • Create silly questions.
    You might have students pair new words and use each pair to make a silly question.22 For the words actuary, hermit, philanthropist, and villain, their questions might include "Can an actuary be a hermit?" "Can an actuary be a philanthropist?" "Can a philanthropist be a hermit?" "Can a philanthropist be a villain?"

Involve Students Actively in Word Learning

Students remember more when they relate new information to known information, transforming it in their own words, generating examples and non-examples, producing antonyms and synonyms, and so forth.

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Instruction that works

In one study of exemplary vocabulary instruction, activities were conducted in a five-day cycle. On the first day, the new words were defined, and students discussed the use of each word in context. This discussion took different forms, including discussion of examples and non-examples, pantomimes, and having students say "Yay" if the word was used correctly in a sentence and "Boo" if it was not. On the second day, after a review of the definitions, students might work on log sheets, completing sentences for each word. On the third day, they completed another log sheet, then worked on a timed activity in which pairs of students attempted in the shortest amount of time to match words with their definitions. This activity was repeated on the fourth day. After completion of the second timed activity, students were asked silly questions. On the fifth day, they took a post-test.

These activities varied somewhat with different units. For example, students also completed a "Word Wizard" chart activity each day. A Word Wizard chart is a chart that contains new vocabulary words. These words can be taken from a storybook, from a text, or just be words that are encountered in some way. Every time a child in the class found one of these words in context, the teacher attached an adhesive note with the child's name and the context next to the word. The first child who received 5, 10, or some other number of notes became the Word Wizard. Students were given credit toward becoming a "Word Wizard" by finding examples of each word used outside of class.

This program, or variations of it, significantly improved students' comprehension of texts containing words that were taught. As part of the program, it was revealed that twelve encounters with a word reliably improved comprehension, but four encounters did not. The instructional approach, which involved active processing of each words' meaning, had significantly greater effects than did a definition-only approach on measures of comprehension but not on measures involving the recall of definitions. These findings suggest that vocabulary instruction can improve comprehension, but only if the instruction is rich and extensive, and includes a great many encounters with to-be-learned words.

Use discussion to teach word meanings. Discussion adds an important dimension to vocabulary instruction. Students with little or no knowledge of some new words they encounter in a vocabulary lesson are often able to construct a good idea of a word's meaning from the bits of partial knowledge contributed by their classmates. (When the class as a whole does not know much about a particular word, however, you may have to help. Perhaps supplying some information about the word, such as a quick definition.)

Discussion can clarify misunderstandings of words by making the misunderstandings public. For words that a student knows partially, or knows in one particular context, the give-and-take of discussion can clarify meanings. When misunderstandings are public, the teacher can shape them into the conventional meaning.

Discussion involves students in other ways. As they wait to be called on, students practice covertly, or silently prepare a response. Therefore, even though you call on only one student, many other students anticipate that they will have to come up with an answer. As a result, discussion leads to increased vocabulary learning.23 Without the practiced response, discussion is not likely to be valuable as a learning experience.

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Bringing instruction together

Sample Lesson

This sample lesson illustrates how a teacher can bring together the three components of explicit vocabulary instruction to teach words that are key to understanding the story The Talking Eggs by Robert San Soucil. The words chosen for instruction are backwoods, contrary, dawdled, groping, rubies, and silver.24

For the key word backwoods, read the following sentence from the story: "Then the old woman took her by the hand and led her deep into the backwoods." Ask students to predict what backwoods means. Backwoods is a compound, and, when the information from the word parts is combined with some information from the context, its meaning should be fairly clear. Next, ask students to describe the backwoods briefly.

The key word contrary can be taught the same way, beginning with reading this sentence from the book: "You do as I say and don't be so contrary," and asking students to predict the meaning of the word from context. For this word, have students discuss a definition for the word, such as "disagreeable, raising objections," and encourage them to explain how the definition fits in the context of the sentence. As a follow up, you have them create some sentences that contain contrary. This can lead to a discussion of another, related meaning for contrary, that of "from another point of view," as in the expression "to the contrary."

For dawdled and groping, begin once again by reading sentences in the story that contain the words. Because these words are verbs, however, you might want to pantomime the meaning of each, rather than supply a conventional definition. Then ask students to create sentences that use the words. You might define dawdled with some non-examples, because it is a word that has some clear antonyms, such as hustled, ran, went quickly, and so on.

For rubies and silver, begin by having the class discuss what precious things are. You might illustrate the words by providing pictures that show rubies and things made of silver. Next, work with the class to make a list of precious things, including rubies and silver, as well as gold, diamonds, and so forth.

The words used in the sample lesson are highly dissimilar. They were selected for instruction only because they happen to come from the story they students were reading. The techniques used to teach the words, however, are somewhat similar. For four of the six words, the teacher starts with sentences from the text, then asks students to create additional sentences to extend the meaning of the word beyond the text. Finally, the teacher also includes a definition, either a conventional verbal one or a gestural one, for each of the words.

The instruction this lesson illustrates is relatively minimal, designed to support the reading of the text. More elaborate instruction would shift the focus from the story to the vocabulary words, and might be useful in a classroom with many English language learners, or in any classroom when a greater emphasis on vocabulary is appropriate. More elaborate instruction also might include using additional sentence contexts for each word, a "yea or nay" activity ("Would you dawdle in the backwoods?"), or having students write a scenario, or story that contains these words.

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Some cautions

Explicit vocabulary instruction does seem to improve comprehension significantly, at least when the words taught come from the text students are reading. Nevertheless, some cautions are in order. First, teaching vocabulary as students read can, under certain circumstances, distract them from the main ideas of the text. Second, teaching words that are not important to understanding the text leads students to focus on individual word meanings rather than on the overall meaning of what they read. The more effort students expend focusing on word meanings, the less effort they will have available to recall information that is important to comprehension.25 Thus, to be effective, pre-reading vocabulary instruction should focus on words that relate to the major ideas in a text, rather than on words that are interesting or unusual.

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Excerpt from: Texas Education Agency. (2002). Promoting Vocabulary Development: Components of Effective Vocabulary Instruction, 2002 Online Revisited Edition (pp. 10-20). Retrieved October 11, 2007, from


iunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E. (1991). Tracking the unique effects of print exposure in children: Associations with vocabulary, general knowledge, and spelling. Journal of Educational Psychology, 83, 264-274.; Fielding, L. G., Wilson, P. T., & Anderson, R. C. (1986). A new focus on free reading: The role of trade books in reading instruction. In T. Raphael & R. E. Reynolds (Eds.), The contexts of school-based literacy. New York: Random House.

2 Herman, P. A., Anderson, R. C., Pearson, P. D., & Nagy, W. E. (1987). Incidental acquisition of word meanings from expositions with varied text features. Reading Research Quarterly, 23, 263—284.; Nagy, W. E., Anderson, R. C., & Herman, P. A. (1987). Learning word meanings from context during normal reading. American Educational Research Journal, 24, 237—270.; Nagy, W. E., Herman, P. A., & Anderson, R. C. (1985). Learning words from context. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 233—253.

3 Krashen, S. (1993). The power of reading: Insights from the research. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited.

4 Carver, R. P. (1994). Percentage of unknown vocabulary words in text as a function of the relative difficulty of the text: Implications for instruction. Journal of Reading Behavior, 26, 413-437.; Carver, R. P., & Leibert, R.E. (1995). The effect of reading library books at different levels of difficulty upon gain in reading ability. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 26-48.

5 Shefelbine, J. L. (1990). Student factors related to variability in learning word meanings from context. Journal of Reading Behavior, 22, 71—97.

6 Guthrie J.T., Schafer, W.D., Wang, Y., & Afflerbach, P. (1995). Relationships of instruction to amount of reading: An exploration of social, cognitive and instructional connections. Reading Research Quarterly, 30, 8-25.

7 Guthrie, Schafer, Wang & Afflerbach, 1995.

8 Dickinson, D.K., & Smith, M.W. (1944). Long-term effects of preschool teachers' book readings on low-income children's vocabulary and story comprehension. Reading Research Quarterly, 29, 104-122.

9 Stahl, S.A., Richek, M.G., & Vandevier, R. (1991). Learning word meanings through listening: A sixth grade replication. In J. Zutell & S. McCormick (Eds.) Learning factors/teacher factors: Issues in literacy research. Fortieth yearbook of the National Reading Conference (pp. 185-192). Chicago National Reading Conference.

10 Dickinson & Smith, 1994.

11 Graves, M.F., Juel, C., & Graves B.B. (1997). Teaching reading in the twenty-first century. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

12 Brice Heath, S. (1983). A lot of talk about nothing. Language Arts, 60, 39-48.; Brice Heath, S. (1983). Ways with words: Language, Life, and work in communities and classrooms. New York: Cambridge University.

13 Stahl, 1999.

14 McKeown, M. G., Beck, I. L., Omanson, R. C., & Pople, M. T. (1985). Some effects of the nature and frequency of vocabulary instruction on the knowledge and use of words. Reading Research Quarterly, 20, 522—535.

15 Scott & Nagy, 1997.

16 Graves et al., 1997.

17 Nagy, W. E., Winsor, P., Osborn, J. & O'Flahaven, J. (1994). Structural analysis: Some guidelines for instruction. In F. Lehr & J. Osborn (Eds.), Reading, language, and literacy: Instruction for the twenty-first century (pp. 45—58). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

18 Anderson & Nagy, 1991; Sternberg, R. J. (1987). Most vocabulary is learned from context. In M. G. McKeown & M. E. Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 89-105). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

19 Stahl, 1999.

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

21 Beck, I. L., Perfetti, C. A., & McKeown, M. G. (1982). Effects of long-term vocabulary instruction on lexical access and reading comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 74(4), 506-521.

22 Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, (1982).

23 Stahl, S. A., & Clark, C. H. (1987). The effects of participatory expectations in classroom discussion on the learning of science vocabulary. American Educational Research Journal, 24, 541—556.

24 This sample lesson is adapted from Stahl, 1999.

25 Wixson, K.K. (1986). Vocabulary instruction and children's comprehension of basal stories. Reading Research Quarterly. 21, 317-329.


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