Enhancing students’ vocabularies and stepping up your practice

Dr Julie Wood

Dr Julie Wood is the founder and academic director of TechnoTeaching, a global consulting agency for educators. She is also the coauthor, along with UK educator Nicole Ponsford, of TechnoTeaching: Taking Practice the Next Level in a Digital World (Harvard Education Press). A former faculty member of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

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Okay, I’ll admit it. I’m a word nerd. I have always loved language - as a teacher and a writer. Vocabulary knowledge, I first noticed years ago as a young teacher, is the key to unlocking meaning for your students. It also gives educators insights into the world, as lifelong learners. How can we make learning interesting, colourful and complex words an exciting part of the fabric of classroom life? Or, how can we cultivate word geeks in our classrooms? And how can digital tools help?

Read on!

What Does It Mean to Know a Word? 

Let’s begin with a quick overview of the research before we get to classroom practice. So many smart researchers have dedicated their academic careers to the subject of vocabulary acquisition. Let’s take a minute to consider a few major findings.

First, researchers estimate that students typically learn from three to 20 new words a day, which can add up to 3,000 to 7,000 new words per year.1 But what does it mean to know a word?

To truly know a word, children typically need to encounter it several times, in a variety of contexts (eg speech, text, songs, environmental print). Thus, as expert Steven Stahl points out, vocabulary learning is a dynamic process (which extends well beyond being able to decode a word using phonics and other methods). Stahl demonstrates his theory with the following framework, comprised of three increasingly sophisticated stages.2

  • Associative processing: a child can offer a synonym for a new word, or explain how it relates to what she is reading.

  • Comprehension processing: a child shows he understands a new word through activities such as matching, filling in the blank, and so on, which require deeper knowledge than rote learning.

  • Generation processing: a child is able to use the new word in a completely new context. At this advanced stage, children can also retrieve a word spontaneously.

Ideally, students will reach the generation processing stage with as many new words as possible. But often word learning can be challenging, particularly when the target word doesn’t simply represent shades of meaning (crimson for red), but represents an altogether new concept (ecosystem, universe or impressionism, for example).

Here are a few ideas for creating a language-rich environment in which your students will thrive. The suggestions incorporate both direct and indirect vocabulary instruction, which are two sides of the same coin. Here’s how.

Direct Vocabulary Instruction

For direct instruction, aim for four multidimensional, 20-minute sessions per week to ensure substantive growth in the number of words students know. Show your passion for word learning every chance you get, and your students will become passionate word learners too. Remember, every minute you spend in direct instruction will pay off big time for your students, particularly in regard to building background knowledge and being able to comprehend a range of texts.

Be sure to introduce each target word in multiple contexts - a sentence (or dialogue) from a text, class discussion, and song lyrics. Then try a few of these strategies:

  • Have students to map out a word’s meaning(s) by creating a word web or Venn diagram (to demonstrate the overlap between a frog and a toad, for example).

  • Ask students to write their own definitions for target words, a practice that often makes a deeper impression than memorizing a dictionary definition.

  • Show students how to generate words that are related to the target word. “Show your passion for word learning every chance you get.”For example, which words are synonyms? Which are antonyms? Which words rhyme? Do some words lend themselves to semantic mapping (eg a diagram that maps the relationship among fish in an aquarium)?

  • Act out words through pantomime.

  • Check students’ understanding of target vocabulary words using some of these strategies.

  • Ask students to explain the meaning to someone else using their own words, or by creating illustrations.

  • Assign pairs of students (or small groups) to create booklets, blog posts, or stories that incorporate several target words.

  • Integrate technology to create self-guided review quizzes, such as Quizzy. Click here for edTech expert Richard Byrne’s advice on how to use Quizzy in the classroom.

What words should you teach?

Begin by narrowing your focus on 20-25 high-impact words per week and allow plenty of class time to give each one its due. Bear in mind that some words may only require a student to remember a synonym or antonym, while others, such as ecology, or environment, benefit from discussion, role-play, and other types of engaging activities.

Then think about challenging vocabulary words that are essential to understanding the subjects you teach. You may want to:


  • Focus on cross-curricular and/or thematic words related to a broad topic, such as the rain forest or your country’s history.

  • Draw upon a school or national event that has captured students’ imaginations.

  • Call on volunteers to suggest words they have encountered in their reading that they think would be beneficial for the whole class to learn.


Incidental Vocabulary Learning

To teach vocabulary through incidental learning, create a language-rich environment in your classroom or school.


Incidental word learning takes place when students gain word knowledge from repeated exposure - by reading, listening, playing games, encountering the word on a TV show or interacting with an app.


For example, think of all the specialized vocabulary words Harry Potter fans eagerly absorbed, from muggles to quidditch, by reading, watching movies, and/or listening to audio recordings of actors reading aloud. Once you capture their imaginations, children “What does it mean to know a word.”love learning new words, often on their own. Typically, in fact, children learn six to eight words a day.


Set the stage for students to become word collectors by incorporating some of these strategies. Remember, the more often students are exposed to words, the more readily they will learn them. And the more fun and interactive your activities, the more students will become avid word collectors on their own.


  • Provide ready access to popular books - both fiction and nonfiction - and build in time every day for silent reading.

  • Encourage students to appreciate rich and varied words as they encounter by keeping a ‘Word Journal’, either on paper or using the computer. Have them use their journals to track of the words they have collected along with their meanings and the context in which they were used. Provide time for them share their journals with classmates.

  • Revisit target words from previous weeks (including those that students learned on their own) so students can have fun applying them to new situations. Once again, iterative learning has great cognitive benefits. It will help students deepen their understanding of key words across all three of Stahl’s stages - from associative processing (rote memorisation); to comprehension processing (ability to read word in a sentence, doing something with that word, such as being able to classify it); to generation processing (making something novel with the word). In other words, you want to provide enough play and practice that students come to own the words they are learning - and come to love the fact that they know them!


Integrating EdTech

Digital tools can help students practice the words they are learning in fun and creative ways that help them work through “The more often students are exposed to words, the more readily they will learn them.”Stahl’s three stages. Here are a few resources that may spark ideas for collaborative projects focused on vocabulary development.


  • Reading Rockets is a tremendous resource, especially for young children. Check out the recommendations for two-dozen educational apps, which run the gamut from games and puzzles, to word study with activities that focus on synonyms, antonyms, and homophones.

  • Common Sense Media is a terrific website for teachers of adolescents. Here you’ll find many recommendations, including the ‘Middle School Vocabulary Prep’ for to help practice word knowledge, and the uVocab app to prepare to take standardized tests (ie the ACT and SAT for American readers).

  • Digital readers provide an easy way for students to click on words and have their pronunciation and meaning quickly appear. Depending on their choices, students can learn specialised vocabulary words from reading information books, as well as more literary language from reading fiction.

  • Creating illustrated books provides another opportunity for students to reinforce vocabulary learning.

    • A great tool is the Book Creator app. (Have a look at their website for examples of books that children have created using this app.)
    • If you are lucky enough to have a budget for student publications, you might want to have students create iBooks. The formatting options are simple, and the text boxes encourage students to write small narratives to explain each photo or graphic. The final product will give students a tangible product of their vocabulary knowledge.

  • Alan Peat, Ideas that Work resources. Popular educator Alan Peat offers many free resources. See ‘Helping Able Writers at KS2: Enrichment Strategies’, which include ideas for broadening students’ vocabulary. Peat’s ideas can become the foundation for interactive activities that incorporate an online dictionary and thesaurus.


Parents as Partners in Vocabulary Development

The next time your school hosts a family event, show parents how they can reinforce vocabulary development at home. In my experience when directing a school reform initiative in Boston Public Schools, we found the following strategies to be successful.

  • During parent / teacher conferences, curriculum night, or another family event at school, create learning stations where students can teach their parents how to use vocabulary-building apps, along with old-fashioned games such as Boggle and Scrabble. 

  • Invite parents to a story hour. Have a teacher or librarian model dialogic reading for parents as he or she reads aloud to a child. Have the adult read interactively, stopping to discuss characters, plot - and of course interesting words in the text and how they are used to convey meaning.


Invite families to share interesting words from their culture. Hang unlined poster paper around the room and invite family members to write a word like piñata and have children illustrate them. Collect the posters at the end of the evening and display them in the corridors or parent center.


Your Turn

Many teachers tell me that when they devote even just 20 minutes a day (four days a week) to deep processing of vocabulary, combined with appreciating words, their classrooms become vibrant learning environments. Give these strategies a try. Give some apps and other edTech tools a try, too. Let us know how it goes!



1 Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown, Conditions of Vocabulary Acquisition. In M. L. Kamil, P.B. Mosenthal, and P.D. Pearson (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1991) 789-814.

2 Steven Stahl, To Teach a Word Well: A Framework for Vocabulary Instruction. Reading World, 24(3), 1985, 16-27; Steven Stahl, Three Principals of Effective Vocabulary Instruction. Journal of Reading, 29, 1986, 662-668.


For research-based strategies specifically designed to help ELL students, I highly recommend Teaching Vocabulary to English Language Learners, by Michael F. Graves, Diane August, and Janette Mancilla-Martinez (Teachers College Press, New York, NY, 2013).

How do you enhance your pupils’ vocabularies? Let us know in the comments below!

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