Principles for Vocabulary Instruction

Students need to know a lot of words to become strong readers. Also, as described above, students need to know what to do when they encounter new words while reading. The principles for vocabulary instruction, if applied to your instruction, will help students with both needs.

If you will think for a moment about how very young children learn words, you will see that certain principles are in effect. For example, hearing certain words determines whether or not students will learn those words. If children hear a lot of words, they learn a lot of words. Unfortunately, the reverse is true, and many students enter school knowing fewer words than they will need.

These principles, therefore, are based on the processes for how people naturally acquire new words. As a teacher, your role is to make sure those processes are occurring. In our reading programs, we encouraged teachers to use strategies based on these principles for vocabulary instruction, and, as a result, students made significant gains in reading comprehension.

We will get to instructional strategies next. In the meantime, as you think about strategies and as you design instructional activities to help students develop their vocabulary, consider these five principles.

  1. Instruction needs to increase students’ exposure to words.
  2. Instruction is both direct and incidental.
  3. Instruction requires students to use new words.
  4. Instruction promotes both recognition and analysis of new words.
  5. Instruction is linked to real text.

Increase Students’ Exposure to Words

This first and most important principle has a very important implication for you as the teacher, regardless of the students’ ages: you have the responsibility to use a lot of words, use new words, use correct and accurate words, and use them repeatedly. When you repeatedly use new words, students will become familiar with them and will develop a deeper understanding what they mean and how they can be used.

We sometimes refer to “kid-friendly” language, meaning we use simple words that students already know. If we only use simple language, we will not increase students’ exposure to new words, academic words, subject-specific words, or the multiple words that are available to describe things and concepts. We will not give them the words they need to understand what they hear and read or the words they can use to express their own ideas.

On the other hand, “kid-friendly” language does have its place in instruction. We can use simple language to help students understand new words and concepts. We use what they already know to help them learn something new. The point is to increase the number of new words that students hear, read, and have available to use. Do not be afraid to use new words with students. Use them, help students understand them, and keep using them.

This principle has another implication for instruction. To build a larger vocabulary, students need to read a wide variety of fiction and nonfiction texts. Young children, before they begin to read, need to hear a wide variety of stories and listen to information about many topics. By reading or hearing about many topics, both fiction and nonfiction, students will be exposed to a broad selection of words. Then, when they study unfamiliar words they read or hear, they learn new words that, over time, will become part of their oral and reading vocabularies.

Is this really true? Yes! Many research studies have shown that children who are exposed to a greater number of words develop stronger reading abilities, mainly because they understand the words in the texts.

Direct and Incidental Instruction

Direct instruction means the teacher has a plan for helping students learn specific words. With direct instruction, you decide what words you will expose students to, and then you engage students in activities to learn those words. Direct instruction works well if you know that students will encounter unfamiliar words in a text, need certain words for a subject or topic, and need better ways to explain their ideas. Generally, you help students become familiar with words, and then they encounter those words in text or discussion.

Incidental instruction is the opposite of direct instruction. With incidental instruction, students encounter unfamiliar words as they are reading, and you stop the reading to help them understand those words. This form of learning mimics what actually happens when people read: you are reading along happily and then run into a new word. With incidental instruction, that is the point where learning occurs. Generally, students encounter new words in text or discussion, and then you help them learn those words. Students will use the discovery process at this point. Keep track of those words and use them often in discussion.

Although both forms of instruction work, direct instruction may be better for helping students learn new words. However, incidental instruction is necessary because students need to know what to do when they find new words—and because you simply cannot plan for all the unfamiliar words they will encounter.

Require Students to Use New Words

Have you ever heard someone say, “Oh, I used to speak a little Spanish, but now I’ve forgotten most of it”? The same person may remember events from his or her childhood, including conversations and names. How can this be? A person can “forget” because the connection created within the brain is weak. The neural link within the brain that connects words to their meaning goes dormant. To prevent this from happening, the new information must be reinforced through sustained use.

The process of learning new words is no different. To ensure that students can understand, remember, and apply new words, provide them with sufficient opportunities to use those words. Once students have an introduction to a new word, subsequent reading instruction activities should provide opportunities (require) for students to keep using those words. Conversations with students, too, should provide opportunities and encouragement to use the new words. The more students use and encounter the new words, the better able they will be to remember what they mean.

Recognition and Analysis

The prior principle addressed remembering the meanings of new words. This is a little different here. By recognition, I am referring specifically to sight words: words that the student sees or hears and understands without having to think about them. These are words that have become a part of the student’s oral vocabulary. Another way to say this is “automaticity,” meaning students can see or hear the word and automatically know what it means. For example, if I say “Maintenance staff dismantled my desk,” you probably do not need to think about what I mean by “dismantled.” You recognize the word and automatically know what I am talking about.

As an instructional principle, recognition refers to providing students with sufficient exposure through a wide variety of activities to help them automatically recognize and understand a word.

Analysis, on the other hand, means providing instructional opportunities that require a student to break words apart into meaningful parts, interpret how the parts influence the root word, and then put the parts back together to create a whole definition of the word. Analysis will include a study of prefixes, suffixes, etc., as well as a study of root words and their meanings. This is a process that good readers use, and it is one that all developing readers need to be taught. Instructional strategies, therefore, must accommodate and address the analysis process.

Link to Meaningful Text

Words are only important if they are used to communicate ideas. Additionally, you only know what a word is supposed to communicate when it is used in context, whether in speech or in text. Any study of vocabulary must be immediately applied to text or discussion. There is little point to learning new words if the learning is not applied to discussion and text. From the standpoint of reading instruction, students need opportunities to read the new words in text. Basically, we do not teach students a lot of words and then hope they will find them in text sometime later. Nor is there any reason to study words that students are not going to encounter, particularly in text.

The term “meaningful text” is also important to this instructional principle. Meaningful text does not include worksheets, flashcards, or similar artificial reading selections. It means text, both fiction and nonfiction, that has content of value, use, and interest. Bottom line: Students study words they will find in text, and vocabulary instruction needs to be integrated with actual reading.

With direct instruction: study > read > study > read (etc.)

With incidental instruction: read > study > read > study (etc.)

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