WHY is Building Vocabulary important?

It is widely accepted among researchers that the difference in children’s vocabulary levels is one key factor in the disparities in their academic achievement. If we look at this mathematically, we know children need to learn at least 3000 words per year in order to be the successful, wide readers we envision.

As educators, we have been aware of this relationship for a long time. In fact, vocabulary-building programs have been a part of our classrooms since the beginning of 20th century.

Let’s look for a moment at traditional vocabulary instruction.

The standard approach is to introduce a list of words to children on Monday. Children study definitions of the words, craft sentences using the words, and then on Friday take the ‘vocabulary’ test. Most often children learn to spell the words as well as learning their meanings.

In addition to this type of instruction, most teachers look for opportunities throughout their day to pay some additional attention to vocabulary. Perhaps by introducing some new words in reading lessons, or adding the technical vocabulary in science or social studies lessons to a word wall.

With this approach to vocabulary instruction we can, at best, teach between 300-800 words- not even coming close to 3000.

With all of this in mind, we can conclude that vocabulary instruction that relies on expanding children’s vocabularies one word at a time will not help us reach our goals. Instead let’s consider vocabulary instruction that takes some of the indirect and direct methods of the past, connects them to quality literature, and focuses on children really knowing words. Because when we really know a word it is a part of both our receptive and expressive language. We appreciate it, use it in oral communication, chose it for our writing and make sense of it in our reading.

WHAT is Vocabulary?

While there is no dispute over what constitutes a word, there is some differing opinion on what words we should be focusing on during school time instruction.

Beck and McKeown have coined the “3 Tier” system in their book Bringing words to Life. A words frequency of use, complexity and meaning determines under which tier it will fall. While Beck and McKeown classified words with Native English speakers in mind, Dr. Margarita Calderón utilized the concept of language tiers to align the needs of English Language Learners in her article, Aiming High, Apirando a lo Mejor.

For Native speakers, Tier 1 words are “everyday” words- words that typically appear in oral conversations so children are exposed to them at high frequencies from a very early age. These everyday words don’t usually require direct instruction. Children pick them up because they are used in casual conversation and can also be heard frequently in simple books.

Examples of Tier 1 words include basic nouns, verbs, adjectives and prepositions such as bed, go, eat, brother, blue, and sad.

For English Language Learners, these are words that they typically know the concept of in their primary language. They may not know the label or word in English, but it can be easily taught by pointing to a picture that represents a word during text discussions.

Other Tier 1 words are simple cognates. Cognates are words in two languages that share a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation (like family/familia). These words may not require instruction to learn their meaning because students may know the word meanings in their primary language.

Tier two are the words that are important to teach explicitly and in context.

For native English speakers, these are words that:

  • Are characteristic of written text and are found less frequently in daily conversations.
  • Are found across a variety of domains and different types of literature.
  • And are important for reading comprehension and descriptive writing.

Examples include descriptive nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and prepositions (such as rush, devour, forlorn, considerably).

For English language learners Tier 2 words can also include:

  • high-frequency words in the students’ readers or listening comprehension texts.
  • Words frequently found in decodable books these are words such as huge, or saw, that are not easily decodable
  • Words with multiple meanings Examples of these words are push, cold or ring
  • Words typically used in Oral or Written instructions such as describe, clarify , identify or label

For all of our children, tier 3 words are low frequency, context-specific vocabulary. These are words that are found in specific domains such as academic subjects like history, science or math. Some examples include isthmus, divisor, photosynthesis, acrylic.

Words associated with hobbies, sports, and occupations can also be tier 3 words. Some examples include skein, bogey and chiropractor. They are important to teach as part of the content or subject area you are studying.

Finally, in addition to the 3 tiers of vocabulary, we need to teach phrases that may be new to children or use different meanings of known words. Often these phrases are figurative language, like the idiom- It’s raining cats and dogs or catch a break.

With these tiers of words in mind you can begin to determine which words should be at the center of your instruction.

HOW to Teach Vocabulary

How to include vocabulary in our instruction begins by making a shift in our thinking. We want to understand how we can teach vocabulary so that children can become better readers, writers, and thinkers… NOT, how can we teach children to memorize the definitions of certain words.

Again, the ultimate goal of vocabulary instruction is to help children to really know words. We know that strategies like taking vocabulary tests, looking up words in a dictionary and writing them in sentences don’t result is real word learning.

Instead, we need to consider what we can do to foster authentic word learning in children.

Michael Graves, author of The Vocabulary Book, provides us with a four ply plan that includes both implicit, or indirect vocabulary learning, and explicit, or direct vocabulary learning.

Direct vocabulary learning refers to children learning vocabulary through:

  • Teaching individual words
  • Teaching word learning strategies
  • Fostering Word Consciousness

Indirect vocabulary learning opportunities occur through wide reading and oral language.

Children’s vocabulary learning is magnified when we combine indirect and direct vocabulary learning. When we read aloud to children and show them how we notice words, try to define them in our own words, display them, and purposefully intend to use that word in our speaking and writing—we are supporting them to do the same thing when they encounter words on their own. We want them, while reading independently, to notice new and interesting words, write them in a word bank, and play with those words by comparing them to other words or categorizing them. Doing these things will help them to really know the word.

The big idea is that indirect and direct vocabulary learning not only happens side by side, but that the indirect learning opportunities- those rich and varied learning experiences- are very much enhanced by the direct vocabulary instruction we do throughout the day. Children’s learning of words increases exponentially when we bring them to the surface for children, appear amazed by words, and interact with them in various ways.


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