Read About Best Practices in Vocabulary Instruction

Best Practices Library

This module explores vocabulary instruction and its benefits. Various aspects of vocabulary instruction will be covered, including practices, assessment, and the difference between direct and indirect instruction. Teachers will be offered sample vocabulary lessons and will learn what researchers have to say about this topic.

Vocabulary instruction can be either direct or indirect. This module will focus on direct instruction. Direct vocabulary instruction occurs when a teacher systematically demonstrates how to determine the meanings of words by utilizing contextual and conceptual clues. Although students learn the words in the context of authentic reading, the teacher leads them to specific strategies for discovering meaning.

Indirect vocabulary instruction involves exposing students to a wide variety of literary sources. In her book Words, Words, Words, Janet Allen writes, “They used the words they heard on television and radio; they used words from the music they listened to; and they used the words I used with them.” Vocabulary growth occurs naturally when students read, write, talk, and listen to each other on a daily basis. When in a rich literary environment, such as a classroom, students internalize the language used in meaningful contexts.


Baumann and Kame'enui (1991) sum up their findings of vocabulary research over the past twenty years: “We know too much to say we know too little, and we know too little to say that we know enough.” However, the research to date does provide some clear insight into vocabulary instruction. McKeown and Beck (1988) found that “word knowledge is not an all or nothing proposition. Words may be known at different levels.” This suggests that teachers should not try to find one “surefire” way to teach vocabulary, but should instead utilize many methods of direct instruction.

The amount and type of instruction a student is given directly correlates to his level of word knowledge, as noted by Beck, McCaslin, and McKeown (1980) and Kame'enui et al. (1982). The chart indicates that different levels of knowledge require different types of direct instruction. First-grade students know money and dog. Teachers expect them to be able to use those words in a variety of different contexts. They may or may not have background information about currency and kennel, however. Those words require more direct instruction built on what students know about money and dogs. Finally, monetary and canine require extensive direct instruction using various activities, including graphic organizers and word origin exercises.

Full Concept Knowledge Word has full meaning money dog
Partial Concept KnowledgeWord has some meaning because of other known words currency kennel
Verbal Association KnowledgeWord is unknown monetary canine

In Words, Words, Words (1999), Janet Allen offers questions that teachers might ask themselves to help drive instruction for different types of word knowledge. The answers to these questions help teachers determine which words require pre-teaching and prior knowledge, which can be taught on the spot, and which can be defined from the text. Allen's sample questions are as follows:

  • Which words are most important to understanding the text?
  • How much prior knowledge will students need to have about this word or its related concept?
  • Is the word encountered frequently?
  • Does the word have multiple meanings?
  • Which words can be figured out from context?
  • What strategies could I employ to help students integrate the concept into their lives?
  • How can I help students use the word or concept in meaningful ways in multiple contexts

Research indicates that direct vocabulary instruction is necessary to ensure that students grow as readers and thinkers in both fiction and content-area literacy. Direct vocabulary instruction nurtures understanding of new concepts, enhances the craft of writing, develops a deeper understanding of the words and concepts students are partially aware of, increases reading comprehension, and improves communication skills (Janet Allen 1999).

Instructional Practices

Instructional practices focus on contextual and conceptual strategies. Contextual information strategies use clues imbedded in the text to determine the meaning of unknown words. Concept-based strategies utilize the way words are created and the concepts behind them as links to their meanings. Although both strategies are important, a few basic findings regarding contextual clues are noted below (Baumann and Kame'enui 1991):

  1. Context clues are relatively ineffective for inferring the meaning of specific words.
  2. Students learn vocabulary more easily when definitions are combined with context clues than when context clues are used in isolation.
  3. Research on teaching context clues as a general strategy for word learning is promising, but limited.

The three points above suggest that while context clues help students with basic information about words, teachers must directly teach the meanings of vocabulary words utilizing specific types of clues. These clues are described below. Note that the dictionary should be the last tool students use to determine the meaning of an unknown word.

Contextual Information Strategies: Clues located around the word assist with meaning.

Typographical Clues

  1. italics
  2. bold-faced words
  3. parentheses
  4. graphs and charts
  5. pictures
  6. glossary

Syntactic/Semantic Clues

  1. definitions
  2. linked synonyms
  3. descriptions
  4. contrasts
  5. cause and effect
  6. sequence
  7. mood and tone

Concept-Based Strategies: Known words or concepts scaffold unknown words or concepts.

  • analogies
  • categorizing
  • word maps
  • graphic organizers
Activities for Contextual Strategies
  • Boldfaced Words
    1. Using a science or social studies text, have students find boldfaced words.
    2. Allow students to share what they already know about the words as you record their responses on chart paper.
    3. Read a sentence or passage in which one boldfaced word is located and then walk students through your thinking as you attempt to determine the word's meaning.
    4. Compare your thinking to the definition on the chart and make changes as needed.
    5. Have students work with partners or in small groups to repeat the process with other boldfaced words, then share their findings with the class.
  • Poster Models
    Create one large or several small posters for the different types of semantic/syntactic and typographical clues. As students find examples, ask them to write the clues on the appropriate poster.


Clue words, such as is called, are called, this means, and which means, indicate direct definitions. Typographical clues include commas, parentheses, and dashes. Consider the following examples:

  • Animals that eat meat are called carnivores.
  • Frank is absent, which means he won’t be here for the field trip.
  • The cowboy wore chaps, a type of protective leg covering.
  • The au pair (nanny) was from the Dominican Republic.
  • These letters are anonymous—not one of them is signed.

Linked Synonyms

A synonym is often indicated by the clue words a and or. For example, consider the following sentence: The deer was very frail, or weak.


Meanings are also revealed through embedded clues. For example:

The deer was very frail. He could not raise his head, and his eyes were half-closed. Without food and water, he would die.


Contrast clue words include instead, but, on the other hand, however, though, yet, and not. For example: The deer was frail. However, he chewed on tree bark to try to regain his strength. This made him feel better, but he was not yet fully revived.

Cause and Effect

Clue words for cause and effect include because, so, since, therefore, then, consequently, if, and as a result. For example: Because the deer had been shot, he was bleeding and had run a great distance. As a result, the animal would soon die.


Sequence clue words include while, when, during, as, meanwhile, now, then, next, after, finally, before, soon, at last, and first. For example: While the forest was burning, the animals searched for shelter. During their flight to the other side of the forest, a young deer broke his leg trying to jump a small creek. Finally, the frail deer dragged himself through the water to safety.

Mood and Tone

The author's language evokes feelings that give clues to the meanings of words. For example: The woods were silent except for the chirping of birds. The old, frail deer lay helpless on the mossy ground, knowing his time had come. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and died.

Activities for Concept-Based Strategies


With analogies, students have to do more than simply determine definitions—they also have to find the relationship between words. This challenge adds a higher level of thinking to the vocabulary process. Relationships between words include:

  • synonyms (boy/lad)
  • antonyms (midday/midnight)
  • order (prepare/eat)
  • degree (walk/trot)
  • parts (band/watch)
  • commonalities (scalpel/doctor)


Categorizing requires students to see what words have in common and how they fit together. Use the following activity, called List-Group-Label (Taba, 1967), before reading a book or beginning a new unit of study in social studies, science, or math.

  1. List words related to the major concept or theme.
  2. Group common words.
  3. Label each group.

While studying safety, for example, have pairs or small groups of students generate lists of words pertaining to safety. After the lists are complete, ask students to group the words into categories and label each group with a title, such as “At Home” and “First Aid.”

Graphic Organizers

Graphic organizers help readers deconstruct and synthesize information. Below are step-by-step instructions for leading two graphic organizer activities. The first activity uses the Pedestal Word graphic organizer; the second uses the Concept Map graphic organizer.

  • Pedestal Word Graphic Organizer
    Use this activity prior to beginning a new unit of study:
    1. Choose a concept, theme, or word to be studied.
    2. Place the word in the top box of the organizer.
    3. List three examples of the word in the boxes underneath the top box.
    4. Underneath the examples, identify three characteristics of each.

For example, the Pedestal Word Graphic Organizer below utilizes a text about ants.

  1. Write “Insects” in the top box. Have students tell what they know about insects. Ask students to provide a synonym for insects (bugs), and write it in the box in parentheses under “Insects.”
  2. Have the students brainstorm different kinds of insects. As a group, choose three to include, and write them in the boxes under insects. Be sure to include the subject of your unit — “Ants” — in one of your three boxes.
  3. Complete the chart with students by writing at least three things they know about each of the three insects. Teachers can choose to provide books on insects for students to use to gather information.
  4. Emphasize the relationships as demonstrated by the graphic organizer.

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  • Concept Maps (Vacca and Vacca, 1999)
    Use the activity below to review a unit or chapter, or for assessment purposes.
    1. Draw a circle.
    2. Divide the circle into four sections.
    3. Fill in each section with a word or phrase that pertains to the topic.

For example, after studying electricity, complete a concept circle on the topic by writing “Electricity” at the top of the page and filling in the four sections with words or phrases that describe electricity. For an extra challenge, instruct students to include vocabulary words studied in the unit.

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Sample Lessons

Definition Word Maps (Schwartz, 1988): Model this activity during small-group instruction. It can then be completed before, during, or after reading.

  1. Draw a blank word map on chart paper or the blackboard. Fill in the center rectangle with the unknown word.
  2. Discuss the questions that a definition should answer, such as What is it? What is it like? and What are some examples of it?
  3. Model how to use the map by selecting a vocabulary word you have already defined.
  4. Select another familiar vocabulary word and have students volunteer information for a new word map.

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Linear Arrays

Explain that words can be connected to each other in many different ways. Two ways are degree and order.

Write the words mumble, shout, scream, whisper, and proclaim on chart paper or the chalkboard and pronounce them. Use the following think-aloud to model how to arrange these words by degree.

Say: I see that these words are all different ways of talking. I'll put them in order, starting with the quietest way to talk and ending with the loudest. I think it is most quiet to whisper, so I'll list it first. Next, I'll write mumble. I know that when I mumble, I speak at a normal level but I'm hard to hear and understand. I'm not sure what proclaim means, but I think it may be like making an announcement. I'll put it next and check my work when I'm done. My last two words are shout and scream. Now let me look at what I've written. I've put the words in the following order: whisper, mumble, proclaim, shout, scream. Yes, those are degrees of talking sounds. There is not much difference between whisper and mumble, but there is a lot of difference between whisper and scream. Now, let's use a dictionary to check the meaning of proclaim to see if I've put it in the right place.

(Check the meaning of proclaim.)

Say: I could put these words in a different format to help me better understand the degree of sound. I'm going to draw a linear array and use it to place the words in order.

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Model another example of a linear array that students can complete in small groups. Do the following:

  • Draw a blank linear array graphic organizer on chart paper or the chalkboard.
  • Use the following think-aloud, allowing student input: Say: I have another list of words I want to work with now. This list will show order. I’ll write the words child, grandparent, baby, great-grandparent, and parent on the chalkboard. These words describe people in a family. I’ll start with the youngest person and work my way across the organizer to the oldest person. I’ll write baby in the left-hand rectangle. I’ll write the word child next because (child’s name) is a child, and I know that he has a baby sister. I know that he is older than his sister. I’ll put child in the first oval. A parent is definitely older than a child, so I’ll put that word in the second oval. That leaves grandparent and great-grandparent. The great-grandparent is the oldest in a family, so I’ll put grandparent in the third oval and great-grandparent in the right-hand rectangle. Now I’ll check my work. I really had to think hard to put them in the right order.