Oral Language: Vocabulary, Part 5: Instruction

There is a great deal of information out there in the wide world on vocabulary in relation to oral language development and reading. We need words to learn to read, to read, and to read to learn.

 Home and Preschool. Beginning in infancy, children learn useful words in real contexts with opportunities and reinforcement provided by parents, caregivers and preschool teachers. Children are amazingly practical: They learn useful “things.” Children are also amazingly smart: They know the value of play. In the earliest stages of oral vocabulary development, even babies under one year of age begin to pay attention to “words” and use them to carry on conversations with interested adults. By the time they “enroll” in day care of preschool they have acquired quite a few words. If they are lucky, they will be in a day care or preschool environment that values play as a medium for learning.

The vocabulary they bring from home and preschool will have a significant role in their academic success. Looking back at developmental norms and the consequences of the “Matthew” effect (poorer vocabulary acquisition of children from disadvantaged homes), we know that some children will arrive in K with a bank of many fewer words, while their less advantaged peers (for a number of reasons) will bring and extensive and rich vocabulary.     That wouldn’t be so bad if K enrollment allowed them to catch up and experience growth paced with their peers from K on. That probably will not happen unless teachers intervene.

 Fortunately, we don’t have to accept a “slow” beginning. There are lots of things that parents and preschool teachers can do to provide the opportunities all children need to become proficient vocabulary users. In former blogs there were posts on vocabulary development at home. We know a great deal about vocabulary development and the importance of parent/child conversation and story book reading.

From the Handbook of Language and Literacy Development (0 to 60 Months) Written by: Andrew Biemiller, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto http://www.theroadmap.ualberta.ca/vocabularies

Effects of Reading to Children

“In addition to studies of parent-child conversations, there are studies of the specific effects of reading to children. Just reading stories to children is not enough—children need more general supportive verbal interaction during reading and at other times.

There are methods of vocabulary support that could be included in story reading with preschool children and even with toddlers and infants. With the youngest children (1 and 2 years of age), effective story reading probably deals more with words shown in pictures and focuses on text within single pages and rhyming. Children generally like having such books read many times. It helps to give words for pictured things.

At ages 3 and 4 years of age, how you read to children is very important. Make sure you gain children’s attention to books by asking questions, pointing out parts of an illustration, and prompting the child to “read”. Similarly, more reading to children promotes children’s vocabulary. By age five (and probably earlier), children can acquire some vocabulary simply as a result of hearing a story read twice. Words that appear many times in a story more likely to be learned.”

 Preschool teachers can provide additional support for developing vocabulary.

 Bridging the Vocabulary Gap: What Research Tells Us About Vocabulary Instruction in Early Childhood by Tanya Christ and X Christine Wang


 They offer 4 suggestions:

Provide purposeful exposure to new words— through thematically related read alouds and media center activities.

Intentionally teach word meanings—using eliciting questions and embedded definitions (from text).

Teach word-learning strategies—by modeling, guiding, and practice.

Offer opportunity to use newly learned words—through art and craft projects and props related to themes.


Kindergarten becomes the linchpin for helping children to build their vocabularies and pace of vocabulary development by paying attention to 4 aspects of vocabulary growth: (1) word contexts. (2) word frequency, (3) word complexity, and (4) word relationships.

 Words in Context. Word meanings are defined by the context in which they occur and the ways in which they are used. A word doesn’t have a deep meaning if it stands alone. If it is part of a sentence, the other words in the sentence influence the target word’s meaning. And if the sentence is part of a paragraph/text/conversation, those units influence word meaning as well. Several approaches have been proposed for addressing this context dimension: Cunningham on themes, Hiebert on topics, and others on multitext reading. A great starting point for thinking about words in context, especially at the Kindergarten level is how K teachers introduce children to words through read alouds……and shared reading conversations.

 Word Frequency. Word frequency has 3 dimensions to consider for instruction:

(a)    How many words there are to learn (too many to learn them all)

(b)   How frequently those words appear in written language (depends on grade level and type of text)

(c)    How frequently those words occur in the text an individual child is expected to read at any point in his/her education (as determined by the teacher)

 Word Complexity. All words are not created equal. Some words are conceptually more complex and therefore more challenging to learn (and to read). There isn’t some magically list that orders core and unique/rare words, however, which tells us which words are more complex than other words. But there are characteristics of words that we can consider to determine the relative complexity of the word in light of the topic or theme or genre of reading material we are expecting children to master. Hiebert in a study of Information and Narrative Text mentioned in the prior post [http://www.textproject.org/assets/text-matters/Text-Matters_Unique-Words.pdf ] draws a distinction between word complexity in narrative and information texts:

“By definition, low-frequency words are rarely encountered by students, which means students have few ex­posures to them. We refer to them as unique words because, even though there are many words of this type, they make up only 10% of the vocabulary in texts (Hiebert, 2012). In narrative texts, these low-frequency words typically represent new ways of representing a known concept. Many students may not immediately recognize the mean­ing of the word nonplussed but most know what it means to be con­fused. In informational texts, the unique words typically represent conceptually complex concepts that are unknown to students and require factual information or a related system of concepts to under­stand (Nagy, Anderson & Herman, 1987). For example, to understand electrochemical energy requires that students understand terms such as chemical energy, conversion, and electric energy.­”

 Word Relationships. An individual word doesn’t stand alone. It’s meaning, beyond any dictionary definition, is determined by the words it is connected to; and words are connected in a variety of ways. A child’s ability to understand those connections will reflect his/her depth of word knowledge. For example, if a child only knows that “box” means a small enclosed “thing” that contains “things”, but not that “box” can be a noun or a verb, can vary in size, shape and material, is a subset of a category of “containers” which has several other exemplars (buckets, jars, …. ), the child will be limited in the ability to understand the word at a deeper and more useful level. Fortunately, several sources give us lots of instructional ideas on the kinds of word relationships that kids need to learn words at a deeper, and, therefore, more useful level. . See for example, the work of Klausmeier, Frayer, Deshler, and Pearson.

 These 4 dimensions of vocabulary knowledge and instruction needs to occur throughout a student’s school career, not just in kindergarten. Including and beyond instructional ideas specific to these 4 dimensions of words, there are several excellent sites with ideas about vocabulary instruction that are applicable from K through elementary school.

 Online resources for vocabulary development

 Three useful sites that address “academic” vocabulary are particularly helpful:

This Berkeley School District Professional Development site offers both grade coded academic vocabulary lists and instructional ideas.


“On the following pages is a research proven routine for instruction based on Robert Marzano’s six step vocabulary development (2009), Kate Kinsella’s vocabulary instruction routine (2010), and Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s Gradual Release of Responsibility (2007).”

They even offer ideas on how NOT to teach vocabulary.

Kate Kinsella’s Examples of Other Less Effective Vocabulary Instruction:

Many of us have been guilty at one time or another of utilizing inadequate techniques to teach vocabulary. Research has shown, however, that the following common practices are a waste of precious instructional minutes.

1. Incidental teaching of words

2. Asking, “Does anybody know what _____ means?”

3. Copying same word several times

4. Having students “look it up” in a typical dictionary

5. Copying from dictionary or glossary

6. Having students use the word in a sentence after #3,4, or 5

7. Activities that do not require deep processing (word searches, fill-in-the-blank)

8. Rote memorization without context

9. Telling students to “use context clues” as a first or only strategy. Asking students to guess the meaning of the word

10. Passive reading as a primary strategy (SSR)”

The Tennessee (Academic Words) site also offers both grade based lists of [http://www.tennessee.gov/education/ci/doc/VOCABULARY.pdf ] academic words and a list of 33 instructional ideas, the last of which was: Talk, Talk, Talk, Talk, Talk…

“In this game students are in pairs (A & B), with student A facing the screen, and student B with his/her back to the screen. On the screen (PowerPoint, whiteboard, or overhead projector), a category is shown at the top of a page and the terms in the category will be shown in a list. The category will be shown first and student B can look at the screen to see the name of the category but must face away from the screen before the list is shown. Student A can describe any word on the screen and must continue talking until his/her partner has said every term on the screen in any order. No words on the list may be used while Student A is giving the clues. This game could be done on a whiteboard/chalkboard, with paper taped over the list or on an overhead transparency with the list covered until student B has seen the category and has turned away from the screen.”

English Language Learners (applicable to other groups of children as well)


Research suggests that we need to come in contact with a new word 6-14 times in various contexts in order to truly learn it. So in addition to the methods already discussed, we reinforce new vocabulary knowledge in other ways, such as regular classroom games, use of Vine and Instagram to create definitions of the words (we show an example below, and you can see more here), and having students use online academic vocabulary exercises (our favorites are Vocabulary Exercises For The Academic Word List, The Academic Word List at UoP and English Online).”

Additional resources come from practicing teachers who regularly contribute to their literacy blogs:


We Can’t Wait

This brings us back once again to the idea that “We Can’t Wait” for children to “fail” as readers. One important component of their reading success is beginning early to develop vocabulary.


“…differences in vocabulary growth between children in low income families and high income families begin to appear as early as 18 months…” Without thoughtful and ongoing vocabulary intervention we will not close that gap.


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