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Strategies for Vocabulary Development

by Dr. Kate Kinsella, Dr. Colleen Shea Stump, and Dr. Kevin Feldman

A Rationale Directly Addressing Vocabulary Development
What Doesn't Work?
What Does Work?
Strategies for Conceptually Challenging Words
Authentic Assessment of Vocabulary Mastery

Teaching word meanings should be a way for students to define their world, to move from light to dark, to a more fine-grained description of the colors that surround us.
—Steven Stahl


Successful comprehension is, in some significant part, dependent on the reader's knowledge of word meanings in a given passage. Baker, Simmons, and Kame'enui1 state, "The relation between reading comprehension and vocabulary knowledge is strong and unequivocal. Although the causal direction of the relation is not understood clearly, there is evidence that the relationship is largely reciprocal." The good news for teachers from research in vocabulary development is that vocabulary instruction does improve reading comprehension (Stahl2). However, not all approaches to teaching word meanings improve comprehension. This chapter will describe some of the most practical and effective strategies that high-school teachers can employ with diverse learners to enhance vocabulary development and increase reading comprehension.

1 Baker, S. K., D. C. Simmons, and E. J. Kame'enui. "Vocabulary acquistion: Instructionaland curricular basics and implications." In D. C. Simmons and E. J. Kame'enui (eds.), What Reading Research Tells Us About Children With Diverse Learning Needs. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988, pp. 219–238.

2 Stahl, S. A. Vocabulary Development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books, 1999.


There are a number of traditional teaching practices related to vocabulary that deserve to be left in the "instructional dustbin." The key weakness in all of these practices is the limited or rote interaction students have with the new word/concept. Let us quickly review the most common of these less effective approaches.

  1. Look them up. Certainly dictionaries have their place, especially during writing, but the act of looking up a word and copying a definition is not likely to result in vocabulary learning (especially if there are long lists of unrelated words to look up and for which to copy the definitions).
  2. Use them in a sentence. Writing sentences with new vocabulary AFTER some understanding of the word is helpful; however to assign this task before the study of word meaning is of little value.
  3. Use context. There is little research to suggest that context is a very reliable source of learning word meanings. Nagy3 found that students reading at grade level had about a one twentieth chance of learning the meaning of a word from context. This, of course, is not to say that context is unimportant but that students need a broader range of instructional guidance than the exhortation "Use context."
  4. Memorize definitions. Rote learning of word meanings is likely to results, at best, in the ability to parrot back what is not clearly understood.

The common shortcoming in all of these less effective approaches is the lack of active student involvement in connecting the new concept/meaning to their existing knowledge base. Vocabulary learning, like most other learning, must be based on the learner's active engagement in constructing understanding, not simply on passive re-presenting of information from a text or lecture.


Reviewing the research literature on vocabulary instruction leads to the conclusion that there is no single best strategy to teach word meanings but that all effective strategies require students to go beyond the definitional and forge connections between the new and the known. Nagy3 summarizes the research on effective vocabulary teaching as coming down to three critical notions:

  1. Integration—connecting new vocabulary to prior knowledge
  2. Repetition—encountering/using the word/concept many times
  3. Meaningful use—multiple opportunities to use new words in reading, writing and soon discussion.

The following section will explore some practical strategies that secondary teachers can employ to increase the integration, repetition, and meaningful use of new vocabulary.

Increase the Amount of Independent Reading

The largest influence on students' vocabulary is the sheer volume of reading they do, especially wide reading that includes a rich variety of texts. This presents a particularly difficult challenge for underprepared high-school students who lack the reading habit. The following strategies can help motivate reluctant readers:

  1. Matching text difficulty to student reading level and personal interests (e.g. using the Lexile system)
  2. Reading incentive programs that include taking quizzes on books read (e.g., Accelerated Reader, Reading Counts)
  3. Regular discussion, such as literature circles, book clubs, quick reviews, of what students are reading
  4. Setting weekly/individual goals for reading volume
  5. Adding more structure to Sustained Silent Reading by including a 5-minute quick-write at the end of the reading period, then randomly selecting three or four papers to read/grade to increase student accountability.

Choose Appropriate Dictionaries for Heterogeneous Classrooms

Secondary students certainly need to know how and when to use a dictionary to look up the meanings of unfamiliar words. Surprisingly, many adolescents lack even the most rudimentary dictionary skills and benefit from some explicit instruction. Without training and guidance, less proficient readers and English language learners are apt to encounter numerous difficulties as they struggle first to locate and then to effectively navigate a lengthy dictionary entry.

Many students do not own a dictionary, and if they do, it is often not a very powerful or appropriate resource for clarifying word meanings. English learners may carry a bilingual dictionary, but this resource is generally inadequate for several reasons. First, long-term bilinguals or more recent immigrants with disrupted educational histories may have limited academic vocabulary in the home language. When looking up the meaning of a term such as categorize or stereotype, a bilingual youth may very well encounter an unfamiliar word in the native language. Simply copying a translation does little to promote reading comprehension. Further, the small bilingual dictionaries carried by secondary students offer limited and often inaccurate definitions. An electronic dictionary may be equally unproductive for a bilingual or less proficient reader tackling grade-level curricula, as it tends to offer scant definitions and no contextualized example sentences. An electronic dictionary is useful for a quick fix, but it is not the most considerate resource for a student operating from a weak academic vocabulary base while completing grade-level assignments. Another common language arts resource, which is likely to utterly demoralize an under prepared reader, is an adult thesaurus. To benefit from an array of synonyms, a reader must operate from a solid academic vocabulary base. Less proficient English users will generally have no ability to gauge contextual appropriateness and will end up infusing their written work with glaringly inappropriate word choices.

A traditional collegiate dictionary is probably a less effective resource for students daunted by grade-level literacy tasks. High school classrooms are predictably equipped with only college-level dictionaries, which are actually designed for a proficient adult reader possessing a relatively sophisticated vocabulary base and efficient dictionary skills. This does not describe the average high-school student, whether she or he is reading at or below grade level. Collegiate dictionaries can be extremely frustrating resources for most adolescent readers because they do not integrate the support mechanisms of a "learners' dictionary."

Many publishers, including Longman and Heinle & Heinle, have developed a line of manageable "learners' dictionaries" for secondary students who need a more user-friendly dictionary to assist them in content area coursework. A learner's dictionary characteristically includes fewer yet more high-frequency definitions, written in accessible language and complemented by an age-appropriate sample sentence. English language learners and less proficient readers benefit from the clear, simple definitions and common synonyms as much as from the natural examples illustrating words and phrases in typical contexts. These dictionaries are also easier for students to utilize than collegiate dictionaries because the entries are printed in a larger type size and include useful and obvious signposts to guide them in identifying the proper entry. A final advantage is that many learners' dictionaries may be purchased in book form, along with a CD-ROM providing pictures, audio, and pronunciation of headwords.

Developmentally-appropriate lexical resources are fundamental to providing all students, regardless of their level of English proficiency or literacy, with greater access to grade level competencies and curricula. A democratic language arts classroom, marked by cultural and linguistic diversity, must include considerately chosen and manageable dictionaries for less proficient readers, to enable them to develop more learner autonomy and to assist them in completing independent writing and reading tasks.

Select the Most Important Words to Teach

Students with weak lexical skills are likely to view all new words as equally challenging and important, so it is imperative for the teacher to point out those words that are truly vital to a secondary student's academic vocabulary base. Unfortunately, teachers who gravitated toward English instruction, in great part out of a passion for language and literature, may find all words of equal merit and devote too much instructional time to interesting and unusual, yet low-frequency, words, that a less prepared reader is unlikely to encounter ever again. This lexical accessorizing is overwhelming to a reader who may be striving simply to get the gist of a novel, and it proves to be even more daunting as the student attempts to study a litany of unfamiliar terms. Graves and Graves4 make a helpful distinction between teaching vocabulary and teaching concepts. Teaching vocabulary is teaching new labels / finer distinctions for familiar concepts. In contrast, teaching concepts involves introducing students to new ideas / notions / theories / and so on that require significantly more instruction to build real understanding. Teachers can get more out of direct vocabulary work by selecting words carefully. More time-consuming and complex strategies are best saved for conceptually challenging words, while relatively expedient strategies can assist students in learning new labels or drawing finer-grained distinctions around known concepts. Making wise choices about which words to teach directly, how much time to take, and when enough is enough is essential to vocabulary building.

Tips for selecting words:

  1. Distinguish between words that simply label concepts students know and new words that represent new concepts.
  2. Ask yourself, "Is this concept / word generative? Will knowing it lead to important learning in other lessons / texts / units?"
  3. Be cautious to not "accessorize" vocabulary (e.g., spend too much time going over many clever adjectives that are very story specific and not likely to occur frequently). Rather, focus attention on critical academic vocabulary that is essential to understanding the big ideas in a text (e.g., prejudicial: As students learn the meanings of pre- and judge, they can connect to other concepts they know, such as "unfair.")

Brief Strategies for Vocabulary Development (Stahl5)

Words that are new to students but represent familiar concepts can be addressed using a number of relatively quick instructional tactics. Many of these (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, examples) are optimal for prereading and oral reading, which call for more expedient approaches.

  1. Teach synonyms. Provide a synonym students know, (e.g., link stringent to the known word strict).
  2. Teach antonyms. Not all words have antonyms, but thinking about for those that do, opposite requires their students to evaluate the critical attributes of the words in question.
  3. Paraphrase definitions. Requiring students to use their own words increases connection making and provides the teacher with useful informal assessment—"Do they really get it?"
  4. Provide examples. The more personalized the better. An example for the new word egregious might be Ms. Kinsella's 110-page reading assignment was egregious indeed!
  5. Provide nonexamples. Similar to using antonyms, providing non-examples requires students to evaluate a word's attributes. Invite students to explain why it is not an example.
  6. Ask for sentences that "show you know." Students construct novel sentences confirming their understanding of a new word, using more than one new word per sentence to show that connections can also be useful.
  7. Teach word sorting. Provide a list of vocabulary words from a reading selection and have students sort them into various categories (e.g., parts of speech, branches of government). Students can re-sort words into "guess my sort" using categories of their own choosing.

3 Nagy, W. "Teaching Vocabulary to Improve Reading Comprehension." Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 1988.

4 Graves, M. and Graves, B. Scaffolding Reading Experiences: Designs for Student Success. Norwood, MA.: Christopher Gordon 1994.

5 Stahl, op. cit.


Selecting and teaching conceptually demanding words is essential to ensuring that diverse learners are able to grapple with the "big ideas" crucial to understanding a challenging text. Complex concepts require more multidimensional teaching strategies. The next section will elaborate on a number of these techniques: list-group-label, possible sentences, word analysis (affixes and roots), and concept mapping.

List-Group-Label (Taba6)

This is a form of structured brainstorming designed to help students identify what they know about a concept and the words related to the concept while provoking a degree of analysis and critical thinking. These are the directions to students:

  1. Think of all the words related to ______. (a key "big idea" in the text)
  2. Group the words listed by some shared characteristics or commonalties.
  3. Decide on a label for each group.
  4. Try to add words to the categories on the organized lists.

Working in small groups or pairs, each group shares with the class its method of categorization and the thinking behind its choices, while adding words from other class members. Teachers can extend this activity by having students convert their organized concepts into a Semantic Map which a visual expression of their thinking.

List-group-label is an excellent prereading activity to build on prior knowledge, introduce critical concepts, and ensure attention during selection reading.

6 Taba, H. Teacher's Handbook for Elementary Social Studies. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley 1988.

Possible Sentences (Moore and Moore7)

This is a relatively simple strategy for teaching word meanings and generating considerable class discussion.

  1. The teacher chooses six to eight words from the text that may pose difficulty for students. These words are usually key concepts in the text.
  2. Next, the teacher chooses four to six words that students are more likely to know something about.
  3. The list of ten to twelve words is put on the chalk board or overhead projector. The teacher provides brief definitions as needed.
  4. Students are challenged to devise sentences that contain two or more words from the list.
  5. All sentences that students come up with, both accurate and inaccurate, are listed and discussed.
  6. Students now read the selection.
  7. After reading, revisit the Possible Sentences and discuss whether they could be true based on the passage or how they could be modified to true.

Stahl8 reported that Possible Sentences significantly improved both students' overall recall of word meanings and their comprehension of text containing those words. Interestingly, this was true when compared to a control group and when compared to Semantic Mapping.

7 Moore, P. W. and S. A. Moore. "Possible sentences." In E. K. Dishner, T. W. Bean, J. E. Readence, and P. W. Moore (eds.), Reading in the Content Areas: Improving Classroom Instruction, 2nd ed.,1986. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt pp. 174–179.

8 Stahl, op. cit.

Word Analysis / Teaching Word Parts

Many underprepared readers lack basic knowledge of word origins or etymology, such as Latin and Greek roots, as well as discrete understanding of how a prefix or suffix can alter the meaning of a word. Learning clusters of words that share a common origin can help students understand content-area texts and connect new words to those already known. For example, a secondary teacher (Allen9) reported reading about a character who suffered from amnesia. Teaching students that the prefix a– derives from Greek and means "not," while the base mne– means "memory" reveals the meaning. After judicious teacher scaffolding, students were making connections to various words in which the prefix a– changed the meaning of a base word (e.g., amoral, atypical). This type of contextualized direct teaching meets the immediate need of understanding an unknown word while building generative knowledge that supports students in figuring out difficult words in future reading.

Learning and reviewing high frequency affixes will equip students with some basic tools for word analysis, which will be especially useful when they are prompted to apply them in rich and varied learning contexts. The charts below summarize some of the affixes worth considering depending on your students' prior knowledge and English proficiency.

Prefix Meaning % of All
Prefixed Words
un not; reversal of 26 uncover
re again, back, really 14 review
in / im in, into, not 11 insert
dis away, apart, negative 7 discover
en / em in; within; on 4 entail
mis wrong 3 mistaken
pre before 3 prevent
a not; in, on; without 1 atypical

Similarly, a quick look at the most common suffixes reveals a comparable pattern of relatively few suffixes accounting for a large percentage of suffixed words.

Suffix Meaning % of All
Suffixed Words
-s, -es more than one; verb marker 31 characters, reads, reaches
-ed in the past; quality, state 20 walked
-ing when you do something; quality, state 14 walking
-ly how something is 7 safely
-er, -or one who, what, that, which 4 drummer
-tion, -sion state, quality; act 4 action, mission
-able, -ible able to be 2 disposable, reversible
-al, -ial related to, like 1 final, partial

There are far too many affixes to directly teach them all; however, it is important to realize that relatively few affixes account for the majority of affixed words in English. Thus, it is helpful to explicitly teach high-utility affixes (meaning and pronunciation) and assist students in making connections as they encounter new vocabulary containing these parts. Once these basic affixes have been mastered, it can be useful to explore more complex or less frequent word parts, such as the following:

Prefixes Meaning Example
multi- many multimedia
pan- all pandemic, Pan-American
micro- very small microcosm
pro- in favor of, before protect
-less without; not useless
-ism state, quality; act realism

Additionally, focused word study that builds student knowledge of Greek and Latin roots, or bases, can be of significant assistance to secondary students. Diverse learners in particular, are unlikely to have read enough or engaged in enough academic conversations beyond school in which key roots were clarified. Linguists estimate that well over 50 percent of polysyllabic words found in English texts are of Latin or Greek derivation, underlining the importance of ensuring that students learn "English from the roots up."

9 Allen, J. Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4–12. York: ME Stenhouse 1999.

Common Latin and Greek Roots (Stahl)

Root Meaning Origin Examples
-aud- hear Latin audio, audition
-astro- star Greek astrology, astronaut
-bio- life Greek biography, biology
-dict- speak, tell Latin dictate, predict
-geo- earth Greek geology, geography
-meter- measure Greek thermometer
-min- small, little Latin minimize, minimum
-port- carry Latin transport, portable
-phono- sound Greek microphone
-duc(t)- lead Latin deduct, produce, educate

Tips for Word Study of Latin and Greek Roots

  1. Highlight Greek and Latin roots as they come up in your readings—briefly for less important words and in more depth for essential concepts.
  2. Associate the new word derived from a root with more generally known words in the students' lexicon. Visual organizers can be helpful.
  3. Encourage students to look for additional words that share the newly learned root in their independent reading and reading in other content classes.
  4. Encourage students to use words containing newly learned roots in their writing, conversations, or discussions.

Concept Mapping/Clarifying Routine (Ellis10)

Research by Frayer et al. supports the strategy of teaching concepts by

  1. identifying the critical attributes of the word.
  2. giving the category to which the word belongs.
  3. discussing examples of the concept.
  4. discussing nonexamples.

Others have had success extending this approach by guiding students through representation of the concept in a visual map or graphic organizer. The Clarifying Routine, designed and researched by Ellis et al.,13 is a particularly effective example of concept mapping. These are the steps:

  1. Select a critical concept / word to teach. Enter it on a graphic clarifying map like the sample for satire.
  2. List the clarifiers or critical attributes that explicate the concept.
  3. List the core idea—a summary statement or brief definition.
  4. Brainstorm for knowledge connections—personal links from students' word views/prior knowledge (encourage idiosyncratic / personal links).
  5. Give an example of the concept; link to clarifiers: "Why is this an example of ___?"
  6. Give nonexamples. List nonexamples: "How do you know ___ is not an example of ___?"
  7. Construct a sentence that "shows you know."
Core Idea: Any Work That Uses Wit to Attack Foolishness
A story that exposes the acts of corrupt politicians by making fun of them

A story that exposes the acts of corrupt politicians through factual reporting

Example sentence
Charles Dickens used satire to expose the problems of common folks in working-class England.
• Can be oral or written.
• Ridicule or expose vice in a clever way.
• Can include irony exaggeration, name-calling, understatement.
• Are usually based on a real person or event.
Knowledge Connections
• Political cartoons on the editorial pages of our paper.
• Stories TV comics tell to make fun of the President—like Saturday Night Live.
• My mom's humor at dinner time!

10 Ellis, E. (1997). The Clarifying Routine. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises 1997.

Tips for Using the Clarifying Routine

  1. Provide all students with a blank clarifying map, and guide them in filling it out while you model your thinking on an overhead projector.
  2. In the "knowledge connections" (step 4 above), encourage students to generate their own idiosyncratic links—anything to remind them of the concept. Total accuracy is not as important as forging the cognitive linkage to the core idea.
  3. Focus on nonexamples. This challenges students to explicate "why ___ is not an example of ___." This level of analysis will greatly assist understanding.
  4. Vary use of the routine as students become familiar with the steps, turning more and more of the process over to student direction / control; for example, providing students with a partially-filled-in map if their prior knowledge or proficiency in English requires more support.
  5. Challenge students to fill out their own clarifying maps.


Because vocabulary plays such a central role in English language arts instruction, it makes sense to assess students' comprehension and mastery of essential words and phrases introduced during the course of a unit or lesson. However, so much new vocabulary may be highlighted in any given lesson that it makes sense to prioritize words for students and to clearly stipulate those that are most important and that you intend to include in an assessment.

During language arts instruction and assessment, it is helpful to make a distinction between words that should simply enhance a student's receptive vocabulary and words that should ideally enter a student's expressive vocabulary. A student's receptive vocabulary comprises to words that are recognized and understood if presented in a rich and meaningful context when he or she is listening or reading. This does not mean that the student necessarily feels comfortable using words in either conversation or writing. A student's actual expressive vocabulary is those words that the individual can use both confidently and appropriately. When designing vocabulary assessments, it seems reasonable to include a majority of foundational words that are truly critical to a student's grade level academic lexicon—more high-frequency terms that the learners are likely to encounter both within and outside of the language arts classroom as they progress in their schooling.

Traditional vocabulary assessments can reveal little about a student's actual word mastery, particularly those assessments that require simple matching, a written definition, or use of the word in an original sentence. While a student may be able to recall a memorized definition and an example sentence provided by the dictionary or the instructor, there is no guarantee that the student can actually use the word with facility. Many students have refined their skills in rote memorization and succeed with these rote-level assessments. Then a week later they proceed to misapply the terms in the next writing assignment. For this reason, teachers should refrain from designing quizzes that merely tap into students' short-term memorization and should instead require critical thinking and creative application.

There are many ways to design more authentic vocabulary assessments. Following are three meaningful and alternative assessment formats that require relatively little preparation time:

Assessment Formats

  1. Select only four to six important words and embed each in an accessible and contextualized sentence followed by a semicolon. Ask students to add another sentence after the semicolon that clearly demonstrates their understanding of the italicized word as it is used in this context. This assessment format will discourage students from rote memorization and merely recycling a sample sentence covered during a lesson.

    Example: Mr. Lamont had the most eclectic wardrobe of any teacher on the high-school staff;

  2. Present four to six sentences each containing an italicized word from the study list and ask students to decide whether each word makes sense in this context. If yes, the student must justify why the sentence makes sense. If no, the student must explain why it is illogical, and change the part of the sentence that doesn't make sense.

    Example: Mr. Lamont had the most eclectic wardrobe of any teacher on the high-school staff; rain or shine, he wore the same predictable brown loafers, a pair of black or brown pants, a white shirt, and a beige sweater vest.

  3. Write a relatively brief passage (one detailed paragraph) that includes six to ten words from the study list. Then, delete these words and leave blanks for students to complete. This modified cloze assessment will force students to scrutinize the context and draw upon a deeper understanding of the words' meanings. Advise students to first read the entire passage and to then complete the blanks by drawing from their study list. As an incentive for students to prepare study cards or more detailed notes, they can be permitted to use these personal references during the quiz (particularly if you have designed a more challenging passage).

    Because these qualitative and authentic assessments require more rigorous analysis and application than most objective test formats, it seems fair to allow students to first practice with the format as a class exercise and even complete occasional tests in a cooperative group. Another suggestion is to frequently assign brief vocabulary quizzes rather than occasionally assign expansive tests, to encourage students to review vocabulary regularly and to facilitate transfer to long-term memory.


In sum, there are countless additional strategies that teachers can employ to assist students in building their vocabularies. However, it is essential to keep in mind that promoting extensive reading, carefully selecting which words to teach quickly and which to teach extensively, and choosing strategies that help students make cognitive connections between the new and the known are at the heart of effective vocabulary building. Last, the more intangible notion of taking delight in the world of words, modeling one's own love of language, pushing the "lexical envelope" is less subject to research study but nonetheless certainly worthy of consideration.


Allen, J. Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4–12. York, ME: Stenhouse 1999.

Baker, S. K., D. C. Simmons, and E. J. Kame'enui. "Vocabulary acquistion: Instructional and curricular basics and implications." In D. C. Simmons and E. J. Kame'enui (eds.), What Reading Research Tells Us About Children With Diverse Learning Needs. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988, pp. 219–238.

Ellis, E. (1997). The Clarifying Routine. Lawrence, KS: Edge Enterprises 1997.

Graves, M. and Graves, B. Scaffolding Reading Experiences: Designs for Student Success. Norwood, MA.: Christopher Gordon 1994.

Moore, P. W. and S. A. Moore. "Possible sentences." In E. K. Dishner, T. W. Bean, J. E. Readence, and P. W. Moore (eds.), Reading in the Content Areas: Improving Classroom Instruction, 2nd ed.,1986. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt pp. 174–179.

Nagy, W. Teaching Vocabulary to Improve Reading Comprehension. Newark, DE: International Reading Association 1988.

Stahl, S. A. Vocabulary Development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books 1999.

Taba, H. Teacher's Handbook for Elementary Social Studies. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley 1967.