What Works in Primary Vocabulary Instruction?

Helping Students Build Vocabulary Knowledge

If you teach the primary grades, it is important to understand the research behind effective primary vocabulary instruction.

Research says that the vocabulary of beginning first grade students predicts not only their word reading ability by the end of their first grade school year (Senechal & Cornell, 1993). This measure also predicts their reading comprehension by the end of their junior year in high school (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997).

Louisa Cook Moats (2001) labeled confusion over word meanings and general gaps in vocabulary knowledge as a state of “word poverty.” She states that word poverty appears most often in populations largely made up of students from minority populations. It also includes English language learners, and students from low socioeconomic families.

Teaching Semantics During Primary Vocabulary Instruction

Semantics is the study of different meanings for words. The four types of word meanings are: denotative meanings, figurative meanings, metaphorical meanings and connotative meanings.

Biemiller (2001) tells us that developing a comprehensive understanding of a word comes through repeated exposure to the word in a variety of rich contexts.

Researchers (Nagy & Scott, 2000; Nation, 1990) report that word knowledge includes how it sounds, how it is written, and how it is used in speech. Students should also know the word’s polysemous (multiple meanings) and its morphology (how it was derived).

Understanding Word Differences

Ehri (2000) says that understanding that words are spelled differently and may have different meanings even when spelled the same helps students attend to and pronounce the different letter-sounds.

According to Juel and Deffes (2004), one of the best ways to make vocabulary meaningful and memorable for young students by anchoring new words in these multiple contexts.

Child holding a sign saying learning ABC is fun.

Researchers Learn about Primary Vocabulary Instruction

Comparing and contrasting words on the basis of various features like their spellings, their pronunciations and their meanings helps students organize and categorize words.

These characteristics give students “hooks” that they can use to access the word in the future. This results in more efficient memory storage and retrieval of newly learned vocabulary.

Juel and Deffes tested 3 different vocabulary instructional strategies to see which strategy worked most effectively with primary students.

In what they referred to as a “contextual condition,” teachers related word meanings to students’ background knowledge.

In the “analytic condition,” teachers related words to student’s background knowledge and engaged students in analyzing word meanings.

The third instructional method is “anchored condition.” In this method, teachers related words to students’ background knowledge. They then engaged students in active analysis of words. Finally, they called student’s attention to the words’ component letters and sounds.

The researchers concluded that the analytic and anchored instructional approaches helped students learn the words more effectively than did the contextual instructional approach.

The final recommendation of researchers was that teachers “should take every opportunity to connect vocabulary words to texts, to other words, and to some concrete orthographic features within the word.”

Read the full article Making Words Stick to learn more about effective strategies for primary vocabulary instruction.

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Inspiring Effective Vocabulary Learning

Effective vocabulary learning includes giving students many ways to interact with vocabulary words on an ongoing basis. The more interaction students have with new words, the more likely they are to actually add these words to their verbal lexicons.

Here are some fun and engaging ideas to help students have more interaction with new words in the classroom.

Vocabulary Bluff

For the game, Bluff, students are divided into teams of 4.

Each group member gets 1 new vocabulary word. Each student looks up the dictionary definition of their word and writes the real definition on their card. The students then work together to come up with three false definitions for each word that could seem plausible.

Student groups chose one word to feature to the class. Members take turns reading their definitions to the rest of the class. Students in the other teams must identify who has the real definition card and are not “bluffing.”

Points are awarded to the team that identifies the correct definition. 

a group of words on small tags
Effective Vocabulary Learning Uses Multiple Opportunities to Interact with New Words

Developing a Class Thesaurus or Vocabulary Dictionary

As new words and synonyms are learned during the school year, add them to the class Thesaurus. Students can use the book to expand their writing as well as their reading activities. Students in content classrooms can make unique dictionaries that fit the content area like a “Biology Dictionary” or a “Civil War Dictionary.”

Mystery Vocabulary Words

Entice students with a daily “mystery word” of the day.

Choose 30-40 special vocabulary words that you want students to know. Write the words and their definitions on 3×5 cards. Give students a series of clues to “guess” the identity of the mystery word of the day.

Review the words every now and then by shuffling the vocabulary deck and playing “vocabulary trivia.”

Divide the class into smaller groups of 5-6 students in each group. Sequentially go around the groups and ask students to identify either the definition or the word being defined from the top of the deck.

Students consult one another in their group and provide either the word being defined or a definition of a word. Each group who correctly guesses the word gets a point. If the group cannot identify the word or definition, the next group in the sequence gets a chance to identify the word or definition.

The group with the most points at the end of play is the “winner” of the vocabulary learning trivia game.

Facebook or Instagram Word Ad

Have students identify a specific word that they would like to use for their new “ad.” Using a tool like the free version of Canva, ask students to create an “ad” that could be posted on social media to help others understand the meaning of their word. Students can use words or pictures or even a scene to explain the meaning of their word. After the ads are created, students share them with others in the class.

Changing up Passages With More Interesting with New Words

Give the class a small passage that is missing words similar to a “Madlib” passage. Ask each student to complete the passage with words that they think will make the passage more interesting or descriptive to read.

After each student has completed filling in words for the missing parts of the text, the students read the passage aloud to see who has created the most interesting and descriptive passage. Words must make sense in the context of the passage and must be “G” rated. This is a fun activity that can help students reflect on both passage meaning as well as more interesting vocabulary.

Learn more effective vocabulary learning strategies in Literacy Strategies for Grades 4-12: Reinforcing the Threads of Reading.

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Effective Vocabulary Instruction

Vocabulary and Comprehension Go Hand in Hand

If students are to comprehend what they read, they have to understand the meaning of the words used in the text. Teachers, therefore, should explicitly teach students the words they need to know if they are to truly grasp the content of a story. Take the word “dinghy,” for example. Students may need to be informed before they start reading that this word is a synonym for “boat.” The concept of “boat” would most likely be within the student’s background knowledge, so explaining the new term by sharing its synonym is a relatively easy way to assure student understanding. Without direct instruction in words such as these, students are unlikely to add them to their vocabularies especially if they do not live in an area where these words are commonly understood and used on a regular basis.

We should also teach important terms for content-area classes. There may be words that students do not have in their working vocabularies–such as photosynthesis or mitosis–that they would need to know in order to comprehend the subject matter being presented.

Other words that should be explicitly taught are those that have multiple meanings, such as “bank.” The student would need to understand that the term could refer to a financial institution, a curve in the road with a certain slope, or the side of a river, depending on context. While we do need to explicitly teach vocabulary to our words, one of the LEAST effective ways of doing this is to ask students to look up words in a dictionary or simply write down the definitions of various words. We know from research that students need to be exposed to a word on multiple occasions before they will be able to add this word to the lexicons in their heads. Help your students improve and expand their vocabularies by using games that add some excitement and fun to vocabulary learning.