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What is the Best Way to Teach Vocabulary?

Posted by Elfrieda H. Hiebert on 18 November 2020

A key aspect of English Language Arts instruction is helping students expand and enrich their vocabularies. But which of the almost 600,000 words in written English should teachers teach, and how? The most typical answer is to teach students a list of words, usually six to eight words per week. Illustrative of this approach are the six words that are recommended in a current core reading program alongside the story, The Storyteller’s Candle by Lucia M. Gonzalez: slender, gallant, chimed, preparations, flickered, and concluded.

In this familiar approach, each word is taught individually, starting with definitions and then moving onto sentences. Each word gets about fifteen minutes of attention over the span of a week, which is a fair amount of students’ school learning time. However, when researchers studied this type of instruction, they found that students’ memories of taught words were not strong, nor was the carry-over of knowledge to other words or overall comprehension.

There is a better, research-based alternative to the word list approach. While we can hope that students pick up new words through implicit comments about vocabulary, the answer is more explicit than that. Direct instruction of vocabulary needs to happen in all content areas and in a way that works for students. What distinguishes successful direct instruction from the traditional approach is which words are taught and what students are taught about words.

Which words should we teach? We must choose words that convey central ideas in the current text and, potentially, in future texts. One of the words in the sample list above—preparations—fits the criterion. This is not an isolated word in The Storyteller’s Candle. It is central to a network of words in the story that describes what the community does to create a memorable holiday event, including rehearsed, donated, invited, announcement, attended, applause, celebrated, and fiesta.

What should we teach about words?Learning a list of unrelated words is like putting papers into a filing cabinet, where each item is in isolation from one other. But the way that the brain works is to form networks among words. With direct instruction of words in networks, students learn to recognize connections between words and make meaning from how those words are related. In The Storyteller’s Candle, for example, the applause at the end of the fiesta depends on making announcements and invitations and getting donations of costumes and scenery.

Another form of direct instruction of vocabulary pertains to word families. Core vocabulary consists of a finite number of word families that account for the majority of words in texts. Announcement is part of the word family announce, while the word preparations derives from prepare. Other words in this meaning network have similar suffixes—another feature that should be taught directly to students: celebrated/celebration, attended/attention, donated/donation, invited/invitation, and rehearsed/rehearsal.

By thoughtfully choosing words and teaching word families and connected meanings, we as educators are able to help students not only acquire more words but learn them more meaningfully. The word preparations, for example, would have been taught in relation to at least fifteen other words in the story. This kind of instruction also ensures that students have the strategies to understand additional words in the texts they read, drawing connections as they go and deepening understanding.

Through the instruction of networks across words, students are able to build foundational vocabulary and schemas that anchor comprehension and lead to lifelong reading skills.