Re-envisioning Vocabulary Instruction

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Word Map by 6th graders

Think back to how vocabulary was taught when you were in school. Chances are, you may have been assigned twenty to twenty-five words to define and use in a sentence. And like me, you may have been warned by your teacher to write sentences that “show you really know what each word means and how to use them.” This was always challenging for me, because of course I didn’t really understand what most of the words meant and how to use them, even after looking them up in the dictionary.

Like me, you may have received a random list of words assigned by your teacher removed from any context that might have helped to bring about a conceptual understanding of the words in action. Needless to say, my vocabulary homework grades were often disappointing. I’d then try to make up for this by memorizing synonyms of these words for the weekly vocabulary quizzes each Friday. I’d manage to do well but would then forget everything by Monday. For me, this work was isolating, and I felt frustrated.

Decades later as a 6th grade teacher, I knew this approach to vocabulary instruction might cause my students to feel the way I did. How then could I teach vocabulary purposefully and meaningfully? One year, Dr. Lydia Soifer, a language pathologist, visited my school and unpacked the process of word acquisition during a staff development meeting. Her presentation validated my feelings as a frustrated 6th grader and as a teacher who desperately wanted to provide meaningful vocabulary instruction.

My list of essential do’s and don’ts of vocabulary instruction are inspired by the work and research of Dr. Lydia Soifer, Dr. Isabel Beck, Dr. Margaret McKeown, Dr. Linda Kucan and other educators whose work rescues me in the classroom daily.

Do… Don’t…
encourage students to work in partnerships or small groups. Talking is essential to learning new words. require students to learn words in isolation. Asking students to make sense of multiple unfamiliar words is frustrating!


ask students to create word maps! They’re fantastic and fun! They focus on students developing a strong conceptual understanding of words without the pressure of using them in a sentence right away. (Example above)


ask students to use each word in a sentence too soon. Imagine just learning how to drive and that the expectation was for you to parallel park perfectly the first time out!


provide words in context.  When students can see the word being used, they can begin to determine when and how to use the word. My word lists provide a sentence for each word so students can see them live and in action! assign words without support. Since we know many words have multiple meanings and can be used multiple ways depending on the context, our students shouldn’t be left to decipher which way to go with just a list and no real direction.


consider the number of words assigned. Many experts agree that ten words per week are enough. overwhelm students with dozens of words to learn in one week. Maybe they’ll memorize what’s needed for weekly quizzes, but retaining the information will be challenging.



Discussion is essential in vocabulary instruction. In my classroom, wordshop is as lively as reading workshop. Students work together and talk a lot! It is through these conversations around words and how they are used that my students develop the strongest conceptual understanding of them; stronger than any dictionary or thesaurus could provide alone. This is not to say that we don’t value and use these resources. We do! But when my students talk, grapple with, and debate the meaning of words, I know they are on the path toward acquisition of them.


Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Isabel Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan.

Learning Words Inside & Out by Nancy Frey and Douglas Fisher





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