An expansive vocabulary allows one to communicate more precisely and effectively as well as helps to understand what we are reading.

As we experience the world around us through listening, speaking, reading, and writing, our vocabulary expands and becomes more diverse. Through that process, we enhance our ability to understand what we read, what we hear, and in turn, how we convey our thoughts and ideas. The more experiences we have, the more our vocabulary expands throughout our lifetime.

Research indicates that teaching students to memorize definitions of words is antiquated and ineffective. When there are so many vocabulary words that students need to learn, one of the challenges educators face is deciding what vocabulary words require explicit instruction and which words students will acquire indirectly through oral and written language.

According to the National Reading Panel (2000), vocabulary should be incorporated into reading instruction through both indirect/incidental and direct/intentional instruction. Instead of the memorization drills of the past, students can benefit from learning diverse vocabulary strategies that can be applied in every content area that instruction is provided.

Incidental Vocabulary Learning occurs at home and school when children are engaged in conversation, when they read on their own, or when someone is reading to them. Reading to children allows parents and teachers to discuss the meaning of words’ meaning in isolation and contextually.

Intentional Vocabulary Learning is acquired through explicit, direct instruction of vocabulary strategies. The components of Intentional Vocabulary Learning are:

Vocabulary Strategies

Specific Word Instruction

This is the teaching of specific vocabulary words that are relevant to a text, used across multiple content areas and various contexts, and will provide a depth of knowledge.

Semantic mapping activities visually build connections between groups of semantically connected words through graphic organizers. Students can compare and contrast relationships between categories, words, or features.

An example would be mapping vertebrates into categories such as mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Under each category would be a description. Stemming from that could be examples, including a picture or illustration.

A Semantic Feature Analysis applies a grid format rather than a map. Semantic feature analysis reinforces vocabulary strategies by categorization. Students can examine the similarities and differences in relationships. A teacher would select a category for the vocabulary grid. Down the left side of the grid, category types would be listed. Across the top of the grid, features would be listed. Through teacher-directed discussion with the students, a plus or minus can be placed in each area of the grid.

For example, character traits can be used as a category. Character traits such as brave, honest, loyal, selfish, and humble would be listed down the left side of the grid. Across the top of the grid would be the characters’ names in the story. The semantic feature analysis can be used with any content area. Other category examples could include types and features of polygons, transportation, insects, early civilizations, and more.

Word Learning Strategies

These include morphemic analysis, contextual analysis, and using dictionaries. Explicit instruction can aid students in developing into independent vocabulary learners. 

Morphemic Analysis is the process of teaching students to understand base words, prefixes, suffixes, Greek roots, and Latin roots. Instruction of these morphemes is done in isolation, allowing students to recognize the meaning of those word parts within each word.

In the word misspelled, mis- means bad or wrong, and -ed indicates past tense. Therefore, misspelled would mean that a word was spelled wrong. The word humorous contains the suffix -ous which means possessing the qualities of. Humorous means to possess the qualities of humor.

Many science words contain Greek morphemes. The word microscope contains two Greek morphemes, micro, which means small, and scope, which means to watch, see or observe. A microscope allows us to see something small. Empowering students with knowledge of morphemes will expand their vocabulary knowledge.

Instead of learning the meaning of individual words, students can apply morphemic knowledge to words across multiple content areas. Graphic organizers such as word webs can make these morphemic connections visual and interactive for students. 

Contextual Analysis is the ability to infer the meaning of a word based on the surrounding text. By implementing teacher modeling and guided instructions, we can demonstrate how to use context clues to derive meaning from a text. There are six types of context clues: definitions, appositive definitions, synonyms, antonyms, examples, and general.

The challenge in contextual analysis is that there might not be enough clues for a student to arrive at a definitive or inferred meaning. Nonetheless, students can benefit from vocabulary strategies learned through multiple types of instruction so they may apply different strategies to different types of texts. 

Shades of Meaning is an activity for building vocabulary with synonyms. Using paint chip cards, a word is placed at the top. As the shades of color become darker, students list synonyms that provide a more detailed meaning. The word ate can be used in a broad yet generic sense. Synonyms such as nibble, devour, or gorge gives us a more detailed picture.

Word Consciousness

Word consciousness is an interest and awareness of words and their meanings. Teachers can model using more sophisticated vocabulary to promote students’ vocabulary growth. The strategies from the other vocabulary instruction components can cross over into word consciousness skills.

Relationships between words can broaden a student’s ability to make good word choices when writing. Knowing terms such as synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, similes, metaphors, and idioms is part of word consciousness. Wordplay activities can pique a student’s curiosity about language. 

Teaching Idioms is a wonderful way to discuss figurative language. Some students have difficulty conceptualizing the meaning of idioms. English Language Learners may have an especially difficult time understanding idioms. Picture books can be a fun and engaging way to introduce idioms to students. Fred Gwynne’s A Chocolate Moose for Dinner or The King Who Rained is beautifully illustrated and amusing.

Poetry is a wordplay activity that will allow students to play with language in a creative medium. A diamanté poem is in the shape of a diamond. Many variations of diamanté poems incorporate different parts of speech and categories. A synonym diamante format might be 1st line – noun, 2nd line – 2 adjectives, 3rd line – 3 verbs, 4th line – 4 nouns, 5th line – 3 verbs, 6th line – two adjectives, 7th line noun (synonym of the first line).


Dark, breezy

Sleeping, dreaming, resting

Bedtime, twilight, nocturnal, moon

Slumbering, dozing, musing,

Peaceful, starry


Effective vocabulary strategies can take time to demonstrate progress in the classroom. For students to acquire new vocabulary, multiple exposures to words are necessary. By providing students with rich vocabulary strategies through direct instruction, we can help them become independent in their listening, speaking, reading, and writing skills.

About The Author

Shari Schukraft is a Level 4 Master Instructor with the Institute for Multi-Sensory Education. She has been providing teacher instruction in the Orton-Gillingham methodology with IMSE for 13 1/2 years.

She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Secondary Education/English and a Master’s in Education with a Reading Specialty both from Indiana University. She has taught High School English and 5th Grade as well as tutoring students of all age levels.


Beck, I. L., M.G. McKeown, and L Kucan, 2013. Bringing words to life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, 2nd Edition,  New York: Guilford.

Diamond, Linda, and Gutlohn, 2006 Vocabulary Handbook. Maryland: Brookes Publishing.

National Reading Panel. 2000 Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. 

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The IMSE approach allows teachers to incorporate the five components essential to an effective reading program into their daily lessons: phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary, fluency, and comprehension. 

The approach is based on the Orton-Gillingham methodology and focuses on explicit, direct instruction that is sequential, structured, and multi-sensory.

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