Evidence-Based Practice: Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

Explicit Vocabulary Instruction



Why vocabulary instruction?

Vocabulary can be used when we are speaking (expressive vocabulary), listening (receptive vocabulary), reading (receptive vocabulary), and writing (expressive vocabulary). Vocabulary is essential to reading, as young readers recognize words they are familiar with hearing and apply this knowledge to printed words they see during reading.  For this reason, vocabulary plays a key role in decoding (as students will have more difficulty sounding out a word that is not part of their oral vocabulary) as well as comprehending (as understanding reading material requires knowing the meaning of the majority of the words). Moreover, emphasizing connections between words is important to activate prior knowledge and further support comprehension. Some studies have estimated students need to know the meaning of up to 95% of the words they read in order to accurately comprehend.  The National Reading Panel identified vocabulary instruction as one of the core elements to develop reading comprehension.

What does research say about vocabulary?

  • Reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge are highly correlated with one another; knowledge of individual word meanings accounts for as much as 50-60% of the variance in reading comprehension (LETRS, Module 4, 2009, reference to Stahl & Nagy, 2006).
  • The National Reading Panel identified three predominant elements to support the development of reading comprehension skills: vocabulary instruction, active reading, and teacher preparation to deliver strategy instruction (Reading Rockets, 2017, analysis of NRP report).
  • Vocabulary at age three is strongly related to reading comprehension scores in third grade (Hart & Risley, 2003, “The 30 Million Word Gap” study).
  • Knowledge of word meaning also helps children acquire printed word recognition and reading fluency (LETRS, Module 4, 2009).

The What Works Clearinghouse report, “Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices,” indicates “strong evidence” for teaching explicit vocabulary to strengthen independent skills of constructing meaning of a text (pgs. 17-21, portions of report excerpted below):

( https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/wwc/Docs/PracticeGuide/adlit_pg_082608.pdf#page=17 )


How should explicit vocabulary instruction be taught?

Children acquire language in many different ways.  Much of language acquisition occurs indirectly or in context (i.e., children learn new words through conversations, listening to read alouds, reading on their own). However, children also need explicit, direct instruction to learn challenging words.  The best words to teach are key words that are essential to certain content areas or to comprehending certain texts.  This type of vocabulary is often called “academic vocabulary,” the more challenging or content-specific words students encounter in books or on tests.  Teaching word learning strategies as a part of this explicit, direct vocabulary instruction will also be helpful (Ex: teaching prefix/suffix meaning, teaching students how to break words down into meaningful units, teaching cognates to English language learners, and teaching students how to use context cues to figure out unknown words).  Teachers should also pre-teach specific vocabulary prior to reading, expose students to words over a long period of time in many different contexts, and give repeated exposure to words.

Vocabulary Instruction Should Target the Following Components:

  1. Words in Context
  2. Word Meaning and Use
  3. Word Knowledge
  4. Word Analysis


Each skill is outlined below, with sample activities to target each skill. A more comprehensive list of sample activities is available via the “vocabulary” tab on the literacy portal.

  1. Words in Context


Since children learn more words indirectly, or in context, students must be exposed to words and language as much as possible (through read alouds, shared writing, independent reading, teacher modeling, conversation that includes back-and-forth exchanges, open-ended questions, prompts, etc.)

Sample Activity 1:


Read Alouds (with child friendly definitions, gestures or total physical response, think alouds, open-ended questions, and cooperative learning): Good teachers think aloud as they read, wondering why characters do things or stating what they think might happen next.  Additionally, good teachers anticipate words students might not know, and make the words easier to learn by acting them out, providing a child-friendly definition, or engaging students in discussions that increase understanding of vocabulary.  Review this interactive read aloud to see all of these strategies put into practice.

Sample Activity 2:


Using Context Clues During Independent Reading: Most texts contain context clues that give hints to the meaning of words or phrases. These clues can range from an actual definition/synonym provided near the unknown word to an example or other clue word that reveals the meaning.  Teach children a process for using context cues to determine unknown vocabulary words.  Model this with a sentence, locating and circling a word you want to know the meaning of and then looking for other clues in the sentence to underline. Explain how the underlined words help you figure out the unknown word. After modeling, have students practicing context clues at the sentence/paragraph level with a buddy and in their own independent reading.


  1. Word Meaning and Use


Although students can learn many words indirectly through reading and conversation, teachers need to explicitly teach new words and practice using the words in context.  The best words for this type of explicit/direct instruction are Tier 2/3 words or academic vocabulary important to understanding a text.

Sample Activity 1:


Use a Brief Informational Text or Informational Video as a Platform for Teaching a Small Set of Vocabulary: The teacher should preview a short informational text or video and determine words their students might not be familiar with, especially ones that are key to understanding key ideas. Choose a limited number of words (between 2-5) depending on the age of the children. The teacher should choose words that have multiple meanings and application across multiple subject areas (Ex: “environment”), words with multiple morphological variants (Ex: “investigate” has other morphological forms such as investigation, investigator; this word is a also a cognate as forms of the word are similar in other languages), words that appear multiple times in the text or video, or words that have clues near them that may give away meaning.  You can practice this by pre-viewing this video on Rosa Parks and selecting core vocabulary you would teach explicitly.

Once you select words, introduce and contextualize each word to students prior to reading the text or watching the video.

Sample Activity 2:


Word Maps: Utilize a graphic organizer to reinforce and contextualize a word’s meaning. Students should discuss synonyms and antonyms, examples and nonexamples, multiple meanings, etc.

  1. Word Knowledge


“Word consciousness” refers to building students’ appreciation of words and interest in words. Word study (looking at sound or spelling patterns, prefixes/suffixes, word forms, etc.) is one way to facilitate word consciousness. Teachers must create an environment that encourages and motivates students to play with words, identify words they want to learn, and examine words closely. A classroom that promotes word consciousness will allow students to learn beyond the basic meaning of words as they will probe deeper to discover connotations, see examples and nonexamples, learn synonyms/antonyms, etc. This video shows an interesting method for building word consciousness.


Sample Activity 1:


Pairing Sentences and Definitions: This vocabulary technique works well for multiple meaning words. Pick a multiple meaning word such as “current.”  Use the word in two different sentences such as: “The current took the boat down the river.” and “The current president will be up for reelection in three years.” Next, provide two different definitions for the word current, such as: “Current (adj.): belonging to the present time or happening now.” and “Current (n.): a body of water or air moving in a definite direction.” Ask students which definition matches each sentence.  Encourage them to work in pairs to decide and justify their answers.

Sample Activity 2:


Choosing a Team Name: Ask students whether they’d rather be on a team called the “Slugs” or the “Panthers.”  If the majority of students choose Panthers, ask them why. Use this as an entry point to talk about denotative (actual definition of a word) and connotative (the emotion a word generates) meanings.  Discuss the connotation of “slug” (Does it evoke a positive or negative feeling? Why?).  Explain that “slug” has multiple meanings (a tough skinned mollusk—denotative meaning, OR a slow, lazy person—a connotative meaning).  Discuss the connotation of the word panther as well. Provide students with a variety of words with denotative and connotative meanings (gray, shack, nerd, cop, thug).  Have students sort words into two categories, positive and negative, with a partner. Students should share why they sorted the words in each category. Remember that different people may have a different connotation with certain words (for example, some students may have negative associations with “cops” while others may have positive).





  1. Word Analysis


Word analysis takes word consciousness to the next level.  Focusing on word analysis might shift to learning a prefix/suffix/root meaning, word origin, word forms, inflectional endings, etc.


Sample Activity 1:


Word Sort: Word sorts can be used for many purposes.  Words can be sorted by category (i.e., vehicles could be sorted based on land, air, water), inflectional endings (words ending in “ing” vs. words ending in “ed”), pronunciation (words where “ed” ending sounds like “t” or “d”), or by prefix/suffix/root word. Prefix/suffix/root sorts are a good way to analyze words for meaning.  Provide students with words containing two different prefixes (bi= two, tri= three). Have them sort the words (trident, tricycle, bicycle, trifold, trimester, bicentennial, bimonthly), with one column having “bi” at the top (along with meaning and/or representative picture) and one having “tri” at the top.  Have them work with a partner to figure out the meaning of each word based on the prefix and anything else in the word that helps. Use an assortment of words the students might know and ones they might not know.

Sample Activity 2:


Varying Root Words: Students gain greater word consciousness and an ability to analyze words if they are capable of understanding different word forms.  For example, the class may learn the word “exhibit” after going on a field trip to the art museum or a zoo.  You could alert the student to alternate word forms that are similar to exhibit in spelling and meaning (“exhibition” for example).  Encourage students to write a sentence using each word form (Ex: “We saw an art exhibit today.” and “The exhibition at the art museum included modern art.”).  You can include parts of speech in the discussion (i.e., exhibit can be a noun or a verb depending on how it is used in a sentence, but exhibition is solely a noun).



Important terms to know:
Word Definition
Receptive Vocabulary: Sometimes called “passive vocabulary,” these are the words a person can understand when heard or seen in texts.
Expressive Vocabulary: The words a person can speak or produce in their speaking and/or writing.
Cognate: Words that have similar meaning and/or spelling/pronunciation across languages.
Morphology: The study of words (parts, formation, link to other words)
Morpheme: The smallest meaningful unit in English.  The word “unlawful” has three morphemes (“un”, “law”, “ful”).
Word Roots: Portions of words that come from other languages (Greek or Latin roots are most common in English).  Roots often have meaning associated with them that applies across multiple words.
Context Clues: Words or phrases that surround a word that often provide hints as to its meaning.
Multiple Meaning Words: Words that have more than one meaning.  For example, the word “switch” has at least six different meanings in the English language.
Idioms: Common expressions that have a meaning that is sometimes different from the literal meaning of the words.  Expressions such as “break a leg,” “better late than never,” or “bite the bullet” are examples of common idioms.
Academic Language: Challenging language that often occurs in subject-specific books or on tests.  Academic language can be more general (i.e., a term that occurs across multiple subjects such as “factors,” which can be applied to math, English, history) or domain-specific (a term that is relevant to one subject area such as “algorithm”).  Students may be skilled with social language, but struggle with academic language.  Teachers can support students by pre-teaching a small set of academic words relevant to a text.
Tiered Vocabulary Words Tier 1: Most students know these words

●       Basic, common words students learn early (sad, laugh, etc.)

●       May need to be explicitly taught to high-risk learners or English learners


Tier 2: There words should be highest priority for explicit instruction

●       High frequency, more sophisticated words (avoid, fortunate, crafty, etc.)

●       Central to understanding a certain text

●       Can be applied across many contexts and experiences


Tier 3: These words need a brief definition in context

●       Infrequent, but essential to understanding content

●       Likely to be topic or field specific (ex: sedimentary, ballad, etc.)

●       Can be taught in the moment by giving a student-friendly definition