Vocabulary Words

What is vocabulary?

Vocabulary refers to the meanings of words, not their spelling or pronunciation.  Vocabulary is important to a reader’s success because comprehension breaks down when readers encounter too many words they do not know.  Vocabulary words are new words that students must learn.  The key to learning new vocabulary is to provide strategies that go beyond simply teaching definitions.  Ideally, only a few vocabulary words should be taught at one time (perhaps 4 to 6 words from one text).  Avoid teaching lists of vocabulary words.

How do we know when a reader does or doesn't have difficulty with vocabulary?

Proficient readers Struggling readers
  • understand the meanings of the words they read, even if those words have multiple meanings
  • know how to figure out the meaning of unknown words
    • They can figure out the meaning of the word from the text around it (context clues)
    • They can use what they know about prefixes, suffixes, and root words to figure out the meaning of a word
    • They can use a dictionary to figure out the meaning of a word
  • may not understand the meanings of the words they read
  • may have difficulty with words that have multiple meanings (for example, present)
  • may not know how to figure out the meaning of unknown words

Strategies and tools to help struggling readers with vocabulary:

Strategy Grades K-2 Grades 3-5 Grades 6-8 Grades 9-12
roots & branches   X X X
vocabulary cards X X X X
concept maps X X X X
list-group-label   X X X
possible sentences X X X X
personal vocab collection X X X X

Here are links to the following strategies and below are suggested ages/grade levels at which they will most likely be effective in tutoring:

  • Roots and branches
  • Vocabulary cards are more than flash cards. They include the word and definition but also a picture and connection. Great tools for learning vocabulary and studying vocabulary.
  • Vocabulary self-awareness chart is a great way to learn groups of related words, like words in a unit in science, social studies, English, etc.
  • Concept maps help learners make connections between new words and concepts. Here is one example but these work best when the tutor and learner create their own.
  • List-group-label
  • Possible sentences
  • Personal vocabulary collection is another vocabulary learning tool that helps make multiple connections.

These strategies can be used for one-on-one tutoring as well as in small groups.

How Well Do I Know These Words

Here is an example of words from a government unit in social studies. The chart helps organize words into categories so that students can better organize their study time. Here is a blank template.

Vocabulary Self-Awareness Chart

Here is an example from a biology lesson and a math lesson. Here is a blank template.

Do’s and Don’ts

Unlike sight words, which we hope learners will memorize, vocabulary words are new words that students must learn. They often come from subjects like science, math, and social studies. The key to learning new vocabulary is to provide strategies that go beyond simply teaching definitions. Below are some “do’s” and “don’ts” of learning vocabulary.

Do... Avoid...
Less is more -- depth over breadth.  Teach fewer vocabulary terms, but teach them in a manner that results in deep understandings of each term. Teach words that can build connections to other words and develop rich concepts.

Teaching or assigning words from textbooks just because they are highlighted in some way (italicized, bold face print, etc.).

Teach terms that are central to the unit or theme of study. These are terms that are so important that if the student does not understand them, s/he likely will have difficulty understanding the remainder of the unit.

Teaching or assigning words just because they appear in a list at the end of a text chapter.

Teach terms that address key concepts or ideas. While a text chapter may contain 15-20 vocabulary terms, there may be only 4 or 5 that address critical concepts in the chapter -- sometimes only 1 or 2!).

Teaching or assigning words that will have little utility once the student has passed the test.

Teach terms that will be used repeatedly throughout the semester. These are foundational concepts upon which a great deal of information will be built on over a long-term basis.

Assigning words the teacher cannot define.

Assigning large quantities of words.

Teach terms that appear in a variety of contexts (Tier 2 words). Includes words students will encounter through listening or reading experiences that occur in wide variety of situations and texts. Words used by mature language users. Instruction with these words is most productive (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002; Johnson, 2001). Assigning words that students will rarely encounter again.

Word Parts are like Parts of a Puzzle

To help increase word meaning and vocabulary students need to learn the structure of a word.

  • Root: the main part of the word
  • Prefix: this is added to the beginning of the word
  • Suffix: this added to the end of a word
Prefix Meaning Sentence
pre- before Let’s go see the sneak preview of the movie.
dis- not Bob disagreed with what I said.
re- again I had to rewrite my homework.
mis- not I misunderstood what the tutor said.
im- not It is impossible to jump that high.
bi- two

She rode a red bicycle to school today.

Suffix Meaning Sentence
-er doer Ms. Smith is a great runner.
-able able to What he said was believable.
-ous full of Poisonous snakes are very dangerous.
-ful full of My mother told me to be careful.
-ly or –y like She talked loudly.
-less without That child was careless.