According to expert Timothy Rasinski, teaching vocabulary has many benefits. Vocabulary:

Vocabulary refers to the collection of words that a person knows and understands in a particular language. It encompasses all the words, phrases, and expressions that an individual can use and comprehend when speaking, listening, reading, or writing.

Children add between 1,000 to 4,000 new words to their vocabularies each year. The best ways to learn words are through direct life experiences and reading. However, early childhood experiences in developing vocabulary through these primary means varies greatly, leaving some children with impoverished vocabularies. Direct instruction is another means to build a child’s vocabulary and provides a way for teachers to boost the vocabulary of all children in the classroom. Although no definitive vocabulary method has been identified as the best, experts can agree on two main goals and several characteristics of vocabulary instruction.  

Vocabulary instruction should share two common goals:  

Goal #1 Vocabulary instruction should guide students to become independent in the use of strategies, knowledge, and resources.


Goal #2 Vocabulary instruction should develop “word consciousness,” a curiosity and interest in the novel words they encounter.


Characteristics of Vocabulary Instruction

It would be impossible to keep pace with the vast amount of new words that children learn each year in school. Therefore, experts suggest that teachers should avoid teaching vocabulary with just one method or by concentrating on only a few words per week.  It is best to adopt several approaches to enhance word study in and out of the classroom. Keeping the goal of “word consciousness” in mind, let’s focus on instructional methods that will spark the child’s curiosity to learn more about a word.  

Everyone loves a good mystery, and a ‘word detective’ is eager to use skills and strategies to crack the case on a new word.  Robust vocabulary instruction provides children with knowledge and tools that will aid them in dissecting whole words into smaller parts and thinking about the meaning of each part.  

Activities to Build Vocabulary Skills

Morphology Instruction 

Morphology instruction gives the “bang for your buck” result that every teacher yearns for. English is a morphophonemic language, meaning that the spellings of words demonstrate a relationship between morphology (units of meaning) and phonology (systems of sounds). This suggests that children must understand both to decode words in text effectively. During the early years of language development, young children naturally acquire roughly 600 root word meanings per year! In their primary grades, reading instruction is focused on breaking the whole into parts, as students learn to break words into syllables and syllables into sounds-analyzing for letter patterns, word families, and phoneme-grapheme correspondence. In first and second grades, students continue with phonics instruction to learn to decode. It is the perfect time to help students to analyze the words for bases, roots, and affixes-exploring beyond the sounds to find meaning within the parts. 

Teaching 5-10 assigned vocabulary words weekly won’t cut it. Consider that one, single root can lead to over 20 English vocabulary words. Now, think about what happens when the student learns 5-10 new roots each week. They are now equipped to infer the meaning of 100-200 new words!  Rasinski has referred to this as the exponential effect of a “roots” approach to vocabulary.  

Let’s try it.

Root = tract (Latin, means to pull)

Researchers indicate that students must understand approximately 6,000 root meanings by the end of grade 2 and roughly 15,000 by the end of grade 12. This makes morphology an obvious approach to effective vocabulary instruction. Most words in our English language are multisyllabic and are derived from other languages. Subject-area textbooks are loaded with words from Greek and Latin roots and affixes, too.  

Did you know:  20 prefixes account for about 97% of prefixed words in school text.  Just 4 prefixes (un-,    re-, in-, dis-) account for 58% of those words!   

Structured Word Inquiry

Latin and Greek roots and affixes have unique semantic features and predictable orthographic patterns.  Knowledge of them will assist students with pronunciation, meaning, and spelling.  Peter Bowers refers to Structured Word Inquiry as the “scientific investigation of how a word works.”  This method directly engages the student in a deep analysis of words and the parts or units that make up the word. During their investigation, students create connections through spelling to other related words and thoroughly analyze the word’s morphological structure, meaning, etymology, and orthographical phonology.  Students can explore how affixes alter a word’s meaning or grammatical marker while checking spelling to see where rules apply.  Morphology matrices and word sums are used to enhance spelling, while the process stimulates word consciousness and provides leverage for vocabulary learning.    

Direct, Explicit Instruction

Vocabulary is everywhere! Teachers should think about brisk, fun, engaging approaches when introducing new words. Steps for specific word instruction can be found in the IMSE Morphology Plus instructional materials and in the Vocabulary Handbook. Using a game-like format enhances motivation and student participation. Encouraging students to extend vocabulary use beyond the classroom will lead to a rich and permanent understanding of new words. When considering which words can and should be targeted from content for instruction, try these tips:  

Word Sort

Select a group of words to present to the class.  Students can work in pairs or groups to 1) categorize words and then 2) select labels or categories for each group of words.  If time allows, students can contribute new words to each group.  Students can take turns discussing how they decided to group and categorize the words.  This activity is excellent for developing background knowledge.

Semantic Map

Select a concept or topic to introduce.  Students will brainstorm words related to the concept as a whole group and create a “map” by grouping words under subtitles or categories.  This activity is great for offering a visual representation of “connections”.

Semantic Feature Analysis

Select a topic and a list of exemplars that fit (example topic = dinosaurs, exemplars = types of dinosaurs).  Have students select a group of characteristics, features, or functions of the topic that are driven by their inquiry or what they want to learn (example = carnivore, herbivore, omnivore, 2 legs, 4 legs, flies, aggressive, etc).  Create a grid using the columns for attributes and the rows for exemplars.  Students can work in pairs or groups to fill in the grid based on the exemplar’s possession of the attribute (example = a check mark indicates that the type of dinosaur has the characteristic, i.e. triceratops is an herbivore).  Discuss answers as a class and comment on any noticeable patterns. This is a great activity to prompt sentence development in writing.

Word etymology

Knowing about the history and origin of a particular word can lead to a better understanding and generate connections to other words.  Students can use a resource like  A teacher best supports this activity to maximize the discussion and discoveries.

Cloze passages

Cloze reading activities may offer sentences or passages wherein the student chooses the correct word to “fill in the blank.”  These activities provide engagement in active vocabulary learning and allow students to examine how various words are affected by context clues.

References & Resources for Teaching Vocabulary 

Stay tuned for the rest of the series:

  1. The Essential Components of Literacy Instruction, Part 1 of 6
  2. What Is Phonological Awareness? Part 2 of The Essential Components of Literacy
  3. What Is Phonics? Part 3 of the Essential Components of Literacy
  4. What Is Fluency? Part 4 of The Essential Components of Literacy
  5. What Is Comprehension? Part 6 of The Essential Components of Literacy

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