8 Ways to Grow Students’ Vocabulary


Listen to the interview with Angela Peery:

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I’ve been an educator for 36 years, and if there’s one thing I think every educator can agree on, it’s that increasing the number of words our students know is a good thing. Period.

This is supported by decades of research:

  • A rich vocabulary supports content knowledge in all disciplines. Conceptual understanding, along with both general and specific word knowledge, impacts learning at every age level, starting with oral language development in preschool. When older students know the meaning of specific words and are able to put related words together during a unit of study, they can connect to new content more readily and remember more (Marzano & Simms, 2013). 
  • Word knowledge is key for reading comprehension. Kindergarten students’ word knowledge predicts reading comprehension in second grade (Catts, Fey, Zhang, & Tomblin, 1999; Roth, Speece, & Cooper, 2002), and this persists through fourth grade (Wagner, Muse, & Tannenbaum, 2007). Even more surprisingly, Cunningham and Stanovich (1997) find that first-grade students’ vocabulary knowledge predicts their reading comprehension level much later, in the eleventh grade.
  • Students who are deficient in vocabulary face numerous obstacles, including having much lower reading comprehension. Their reading range is thus limited, their writing lacks specificity and voice, and their spoken language lacks range of word choice. They risk reading less (both in volume and frequency), not understanding content-area texts or concepts well, writing lackluster essays and reports, and not being able to express themselves as well verbally. 

This is why all teachers should address vocabulary instruction head-on. 

But what words should be taught? In English language arts/reading classrooms, explicit vocabulary instruction should focus on general academic words (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2013). These words cut across disciplines and help students speak, read, and write well in all the academic settings in which they’ll find themselves. In every discipline, there are also domain-specific terms students need to understand and learn.

8 Vocabulary-Building Strategies

Good vocabulary instruction can and should happen throughout the school day. This can happen through incidental learning, when students talk with and listen to others, watch videos, play games, and read independently, through explicit instruction, which are more structured activities, or with the help of digital tools. 

The strategies that follow, most of which require very little preparation time, come from three of my books, shown below: 


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