Skip To Main Content

Building Stronger Readers Through Vocabulary Instruction

by Lower School Director Rachel Dixon

Courses on reading instruction often begin by introducing the “Simple View of Reading.” This model suggests a reading equation: word decoding x language comprehension = reading comprehension. Likely when adults reflect back upon the process of learning to read, it is “sounding out” (decoding) words that they’ll recall. Much emphasis is placed on the decoding aspect of learning to read (and rightly so). However, without high-quality, explicit instruction in language comprehension, no student will reach their full reading potential.

There are several elements that comprise language comprehension skills, such as background knowledge and understanding of language structure. This blog article will focus on a personal favorite, vocabulary.

How do we know what words to teach?

With approximately 170.000 words in the English language–where do we start? Language professionals sort words into three “tiers” which guide instructional emphasis. Tier 1 words are commonplace words that most children will likely be exposed to and rarely require direct instruction. Tier 3 words are very specific, often technical or subject-specific words that are not encountered with much frequency (i.e. electrolyte or isosceles). So, much like Goldilocks, teachers largely focus on those “just right” Tier 2 words. 

How do we meaningfully and effectively teach vocabulary?

Teaching vocabulary is not as simple as learning a dictionary definition. Words are complex and require repeated exposure and teaching techniques to acquire in a meaningful way. Here are some of the many aspects teachers integrate when designing effective vocabulary instruction::
  • Word Associations  
    • How does this word connect to students’ existing background knowledge? 
    • What are synonyms or antonyms for this word? 
    • What experiences, stories, or objects connect directly to this word?
  • Multiple Meanings 
    • What does this context of a word tell us about its meaning? 
    • Does the word have more than one definition? 
    • Does this word carry a connotative (implied) meaning? (i.e. the word “amateur” means someone new to something, though often carries a negative connotation)
  • Part of Speech 
    • How is the word used in a sentence? 
    • Can it be more than one part of speech? (i.e. “limit” can be a noun or a verb)
  • Analysis of Structure, Roots 
    • How do the parts and structure of a word (roots, prefixes, suffixes) give information about its meaning? For example, we may determine the meaning of autobiography by recognizing the root auto (self), bio (life), graph (write).
  • Precision 
    • Is this the best word for this situation? 
    • Are there particular constraints or contexts that guide the use of this word?

We know that a student has effectively learned a vocabulary word when they can use it accurately in a variety of contexts. Further, it is easier to understand a word when heard or read, so mastery is more evident when the student generates a word independently in speech or writing. This, too, is helpful to consider as you help your child acquire vocabulary at home. 

How can you support vocabulary development at home?

  • Integrate juicy words into your home vocabulary within a familiar context–don’t simplify your language. 
  • Engage in conversation about new or interesting vocabulary words encountered in books during shared reading experiences.
  • Build your child’s personal connections to these words. Help them make connections with these words to their own life and experiences.
  • Build associations with words. Does dad keep his car immaculate? Is Aunt Betty eccentric?
  • Encourage precise and engaging word choice when helping your child craft a piece of writing. Help them look through a thesaurus and consider the word that fits best for the context. 
  • Have some challenging new science terms or Wordly Wise words? Ask your child to “teach” them to you.