When thinking of vocabulary instruction and learning the meaning of words, many consider the rote action of looking the word up in the dictionary. Dictionary use is a necessary skill that should be taught, but research has told us that dictionary definitions are inaccessible to most students (Scott & Nagy, 1997; Marzano, 2004).

For example, the definition of the word relieved in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “experiencing or showing relief especially from anxiety or pent-up emotion.” In order to know what relieved means, the student must have previously learned the definitions of the words: experience, relief, especially, anxiety, pent-up, and emotion. Many students walk away from this experience feeling anything but! If these words are known and the definition does make sense, exposure to word meaning from a one-time dictionary look-up does not ensure transfer to long term memory.

But what can be done to make vocabulary building less remote and more effective and authentic for your child? 

  1. Word Harvesting: Your child must buy into the significance of learning the meaning of words and building vocabulary to understand how authors and speakers use words. This can evolve authentically as you engage your child through discussions and read-alouds. Encourage your child to stop and clarify the meaning of a word or phrase when necessary. When together you are reading, watching a show, or just having a discussion at the dinner table, a list of words can be created and added for further analysis. A vocabulary notebook can be used to store words that you ‘harvested’. You can bank on the fact that words with meaning to your child’s life and interests will spark a desire for a broader analysis of word structure, meaning, usage (grammar), and relationships to other words.
  2. Specific Word Instruction: Now that you have this bank of words, really take the time to learn one! Guide your child in creating a word web using a graphic organizer that allows for a child-friendly definition, an illustration of the word, some antonyms and synonyms, related words, etc. There is no limit to the details that can be included. This web can be differentiated based on your child’s skills and strengths. Vocabulary cartoons can also be a fun and expressive way to embed to memory the meaning of a word. Silly illustrations with a relevant sentence encourage a deeper dive into word meaning because it involves creating one’s own example of the word.
  3. Word Learning Strategies: In addition to learning how to use a dictionary, instruction in morphemes and context clues can deepen one’s knowledge of word meaning and use in talks and texts.
    • Morphemic analysis is a strategy in which the meanings of words can be determined by examining their meaningful parts (i.e., prefixes, suffixes, roots, etc.). A morpheme is the smallest possible string of sounds that still has meaning and cannot be reduced any smaller. For example, the prefix mis- (meaning: mistaken or wrong) can be added to a base word to change the meaning. When we add mis- to the word understanding (meaning: comprehension), it results in a word meaning mistakenly or wrongfully comprehended. This granular example explains how adding word parts together can create new meanings and usages of words. Prefixes and suffixes, and Greek and Latin roots can be learned to help your child determine the meaning of a word when reading.
    • Contextual analysis is a strategy in which a reader uses context and hints that the author gives to help define an unknown word and build vocabulary. These clues may be the word’s definition, a synonym or antonym, or an example or explanation. The clues can be found in the same sentence as the word or somewhere within the paragraph. Your child can be taught to look for these clues to clarify the meaning and use of a word. It is crucial to learn that context matters. For example, the word snake is pretty simplistic. One possibly conjures an image of a reptile that slithers through a garden. However, snake can be used as a verb (The park’s bench snaked around the perimeter.) or as an adjective (That snake of a fellow stole my favorite cap!). A person must look for clues and notice how the word snake is used to make sense of what is said or written.
  4. Word Play: Have some fun! Many word games can support the learning of words. No need to reinvent the wheel. Here is a list of word games you can play with your child.
    • Word Ladders
    • Boggle
    • Making Words with tiles
    • Bingo
    • Crossword Puzzles
    • Hangman
    • Memory Games


Why do we need to teach vocabulary at all?

The National Reading Panel (2000) named vocabulary as one of the essential components of reading. A student should be instructed in vocabulary building as early as kindergarten because when a child progresses into higher grades, comprehension is affected by word knowledge. A child will have more difficulty making sense of a text if the meanings of words and usage are unknown.

Vocabulary building expands and deepens as a student progresses into higher grades. Learning vocabulary through explicit and implicit strategies results in improved reading comprehension and written expression. Vocabulary instruction can occur before, during, and after reading a text. Although much of what is explained in this article is meant to be engaging and fun for your child, more importantly, it is effective, purposeful, and will allow your child to never be at a loss for words.

Note: The use of teacher jargon was avoided but idioms, homonyms, phrasal verbs, and puns are hiding in plain sight.


Diamond, Linda & Gutlohn, Linda (2006). Vocabulary Handbook. Baltimore: Brookes Publishing; Berkeley, CA: CORE

Marzano, R.J. (2004). The developing vision of vocabulary instruction. In J.F. Baumann & E. J. Kame’enui (Eds.), Vocabulary Instruction: From research to practice. (pp. 159-176). New York: Guilford Press.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000). Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and its Implications for Reading Instruction (NIH Publication  No. 00-4769). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office (n.d.) Retrieved January 10, 2015, from http://nichcy.org.

Reading Rockets is a national multimedia project offering a wealth of research-based reading strategies, lessons, and activities designed to help young children learn how to read, and how to read better. Their reading resources assist parents, teachers, and other educators help struggling readers build fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension skills. Copyright © 2017 WETA Public Broadcasting.

Scott, J.A., & Nagy, W.E. (1997). Understanding the definitions of unfamiliar words. Reading Research Quarterly, 32, 184-200.

Sprenger, M. (2017). 101 Strategies to Make Academic Vocabulary Stick. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

About the Author

Grace Biener is certified as a Reading Specialist in N.J. and as a Structured Literacy Teacher (SLT) from the International Dyslexia Association. She has a Masters of Arts in Education with a concentration in Teaching and Leadership. Her experience in education includes classroom teaching, reading intervention, coaching, and curriculum writing. In addition to working as an Elementary Reading Interventionist in NJ, Grace is a Level 3 IMSE OG Master Instructor and works to train and supervise teachers in IMSE’s OG methodology.

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