Teaching Vocabulary Effectively



Remember your first few months at a new job? It probably felt somewhat nerve-wrecking and overwhelming trying to remember all the new information, rules, and processes. There were probably some tasks that were hard to understand or remember. If you had previous experience or knowledge from another job it made things a whole lot easier. The more you were exposed to and performed the task over an extended period of time, the easier it became to remember what needed to be done and even improve on that task or process. If you were asked to explain the task to a new colleague, it benefited you too as far as reinforcing your understanding of the task.

This is how we, humans, work. We need multiple exposures to an idea, concept, task, process to learn it well. We need those exposures to happen in various contexts. We need to come back to it over a period of time. Ideally, we need to be able to connect that knowledge to something we previously experienced. Then it sticks. Then we can apply that information and use it as a springboard to learn more complex information, and apply what we have learned to improve and innovate. Children learn best in the same way, and this has significant implications for vocabulary learning and academics. This scenario of being presented with new information and tasks is similar to what our kids are asked to do when presented with new vocabulary to learn.


Educators understand that vocabulary knowledge is a critical part of learning and building knowledge for kids. The stakes are high here, as vocabulary knowledge greatly impacts reading comprehension and academic performance. The more words children know, the less energy they need to use to figure out the meaning of words in text. This allows them to apply that energy towards text comprehension, analysis, and critical thinking. In the 21st century, it is these processes that significantly influence and improve a child’s path to academic, professional, and personal success.

When students are exposed to new vocabulary words, if we are lucky, they have some background knowledge related to the word to make associations easier. Often, however, students must learn completely novel words they have never seen, with limited contextual information (especially as they start to move up in the grades). This is a challenging task, especially for students with disabilities, and those who come from communities with limited resources and exposure to literacy and language, and as a result, limited content and background knowledge.

In my time as a speech and language therapist in the NYC public school system I have seen some classrooms use weekly vocabulary quizzes as a way to teach their students tier 2 words (those critical high frequency words that occur across many domains, but mostly show up in print rather than spoken language). The students would get a list of words handed out on a Monday. They would go over the definitions with the teacher(s). They would review and study the definitions over a few days during that week, and they would take the vocabulary quiz. Many did well.

It’s hard to know, however, whether the students retained those definitions in their long-term memory, as they were not asked to recall them later in the month or school year. Given the research on how vocabulary words are learned, something tells me if you randomly asked most of those students to define 10 previously learned vocabulary words in their own words, it would have been a struggle.  While the good intention to improve these students’ vocabulary knowledge was there, research tells us that weekly vocabulary tests of words do little to help kids retain and apply those new words and definitions. Effective vocabulary instruction requires a much more interactive and robust approach.


Direct instruction where the teacher explicitly teaches students new vocabulary words and word learning strategies (more on this in another post). Direct instruction includes pre-teaching target vocabulary words prior to reading and incorporating the target vocabulary words into teaching materials over an extended period of time, which allows kids multiple opportunities (exposures) to actively work with the target words in different contexts.

Indirect instruction which is vocabulary learning that comes from students independently reading a variety of texts (literary and informational), but also takes the form of reading aloud to students, using high quality classroom/school language, and engaging students in conversations that make use of the vocabulary words learned.


Let’s talk about exposure to new words. According to U.S. Department of Education, it can take as many as 17 exposures for a student to learn a new vocabulary word. For our students in special education, it is believed to be up to 40 exposures. The key to effectively exposing students to new vocabulary and having them actually remember is three-fold:

MULTIPLE EXPOSURES to new vocabulary words

Those exposures in VARIOUS CONTEXTS

Those exposures over AN EXTENDED PERIOD OF TIME

A recent study showed that kids (both typically developing and with disabilities) who were exposed to and taught a new target vocabulary word, asked to recall it and given the definition again, then given some new words to learn, then asked to recall the target vocabulary word and study it again, then given some new words to learn, then asked to recall the target vocabulary word again and study it (you still with me?), resulted in significantly better word learning in both typically developing children and those with language disorders!

It seems that asking kids to search and pull out target information from the filing cabinet inside their brains, after new information has been taught, has quite a beneficial effect on memory! This is EXCITING with a capital E! It goes to show the importance of coming back to and working with newly learned words if we want students to remember (and later apply) them.

As for the exposures…seventeen exposures! 17! 10+7! 14+3! As in the age you can apply to vote. Seventeen is also the age you are likely able to hold a driver’s permit in many states. 17. If I wasn’t limited by only typing out the information for you here, I would also clap out the number 17 and have you count along. We would jump together 17 times. I would ask you if you could have 17 of anything what would it be and why?

You get where I’m going with this? The more exposures you can get of a word or piece of information in various contexts, the more it is likely that you will remember it. That’s why having students repeat a vocabulary word and its definition to themselves 20 times for the weekly vocabulary quiz without asking them to participate in interactive activities which allow them to use the word and apply its definition just doesn’t make the cut as far as a child’s long-term memory is concerned. Sure, if that child encounters the word in many different contexts next month or 2 years from now, they will learn it, but at the expense of not comprehending information containing that word today, tomorrow and the day after. Giving them opportunities to learn important vocabulary words as soon as possible impacts children’s abilities to comprehend and learn NOW, and that has compounding effects on how much they are able to learn and grow academically and personally. For our kids with learning disabilities, their already existing vocabulary deficits coupled with their struggle to learn new words has a disastrous snowball effect on literacy. For them effective vocabulary instruction is absolutely critical.

‘So, 17 times you say? Overwhelming much?” It can be. So I say, don’t aim for 17. Aim for as much as you can possibly offer in various contexts because trying is better than not, and 5 exposures are better than 1. It is an intentional effort, but well worth the payoff for our students and society.

A word on presenting the target vocabulary words in various contexts. Studies by Coyne, McCoach, & Kapp (2007) and Leung (2008) found that presenting words in various contexts and having students work with them in interactive ways resulted in significantly greater vocabulary gains. Students need to see and work with new vocabulary words in various contexts to build world knowledge around the words. This is what allows them to retain and apply them. For more information related to these studies, see the research synthesis done by the National Reading Technical Assistance Center (NRTAC). Some really fascinating findings on there!


Here are some ways to include target vocabulary words in your instruction over an extended period of time:


Pre-teach the target words and their definitions before reading.

Give examples and non-examples by showing pictures.

Tell a story or show a video that incorporates the word to provide context.

Check out this interactive dialogue of teaching a target word (geared more toward the younger grades), which gives a few exposures of the same word and can be returned to multiple times during the school year.


After you teach the word(s) allow students to explain what the word(s) mean in their own words. Encourage students to make personal connections (“Have you ever…”). Putting definitions into their own words is a critical step in Marzano’s 6-Step Vocabulary Process. Robert Marzano is a leading and widely respected researcher in the field of education and vocabulary, so I am taking his word on this.

As a variation of this, you can provide students with a definition of the word and have them come up with a student friendly definition that incorporates examples from their lives and background knowledge. You can find a number of graphic organizers for your students online, like this word map from ReadingQuest.org.


Ask students to:

Provide examples and non-examples and ask why or why not?

Act out the word (if the word is “ferocious” have them “show us a ferocious animal”).

Draw a picture, scene, symbol, or comic strip of the word. You can put up poster paper and have students create “word graffiti” art (which you can then display or use on your word wall). Here is a fun and free resource from Think Tank.


Involve students in games! This is my FAVORITE and POWERFUL way to work on and improve vocabulary knowledge. Games naturally allow for repeated exposure to the target vocabulary in a fun, engaging, collaborative, and low-stress way. You can come back to them to allow for multiple exposures and review over the course of the school year (extended periods of time).  According to Robert Marzano, “academic games are an extremely effective (but typically underutilized) way to help students engage with and practice new vocabulary terms.” You can create and play Bingo, Charades, Crossword puzzles, “Who has…I have” games, matching games, Jeopardy, and Pictionary games just to name some ideas. Here are a few examples of games I created for this purpose, as they relate to learning the most common prefixes:

  • Crossword Puzzle
  • Go Fish Prefix Game
  • Loopy Prefixes Card Game (I have who has)
  • Matching Memory Card Game


Add the target vocabulary word onto a word wall so students can always have important vocabulary words in sight. Word walls benefit students because they can use them as a visual reminder and reference during reading and writing activities. Students can refer to word walls for spelling and incorporating vocabulary words into classroom discussion. You can also create word walls in alphabetical order, by unit, by content area, by classroom routines, and by synonyms / semantic categories.

Pinterest has a lot of ideas for creative word walls. See some here!


During reading, point out when the target word appears. You can also have students do a funny sound/clap/stomp when they notice the target vocabulary word during a read-aloud. This keeps them motivated to be active readers (which is also critical for comprehension!). For older students, you may have them jot down the page where they saw the target word or place post-its on the page.

Keep a visual tally of target words used during class time. You can do this on a word wall.


Have students classify target vocabulary words by sorting them on a poster or in a table by concept/category (see example here). Use post-its, cut-outs of words, and flair pens/markers to get those kids engaged.

For our special education students, we can lower the cognitive load by using pictures of words and sorting this way. They can also sort by part of speech, prefix/no prefix, same prefix, etc.


Adapt your printed content (self-created or editable text/worksheets) by inserting or substituting target vocabulary for words that are not being targeted. If you can create some strong context clues around the target words, that’s even better for building context, retention, and comprehension. You can use free and awesome websites like Newsela and ReadWorks to obtain content and adapt. Of course, if you can adapt pop culture articles and passages of high interest, that will be uber beneficial for kids…especially the older ones who are “too cool for school.” I prefer Newsela for this purpose as the site contains many current event and trending topics.

Also adapt your presentations and language being used in class, around school, and on field trips to include target words. You can reward or praise students who use target vocabulary words in conversation or written form.

For younger students, using more sophisticated vocabulary based on concepts they already know can be quite impactful, especially when used during classroom routines. Routines have the added benefit of allowing for repetition of vocabulary over long time periods. For example, when children understand the concept of handing out papers, you can mention a “thank you for distributing the papers to the class” a few times. Then you can start asking them to distribute papers during that routine.


Sentence stems guide students to describe the word. This can be done as a “Do Now” or a quick exit ticket at the end of class. It is a way to return to words learned earlier in the week, month, or year. Here are two examples:

Sentence stem: “Someone who is _(target word = amicable)__ would…”

Sample student response: “Someone who is amicable, would be kind to me and be easy to get along with.”

Sentence stem: “Something that is _(target word = gradual)__ would…”

Sample student response: “Something that is gradual would happen slowly and take a long time.”


When students create and add to vocabulary books throughout the year, they interact with new words using different modalities through writing, drawing, creating and filling in graphic organizers. See some cool vocabulary notebook ideas here.


Students can create and fill out maps, tables, organizers. Here are some ideas:

Frayer model graphic organizer

Word or concept sort (particularly useful for Tier 3 content words)

Venn diagram (particularly useful for Tier 3 content words too)

Semantic gradients / shades of meaning activities (to show relationship words AND provide context…score!)

Semantic feature map (check out all the different subjects you can do this with when you scroll down in the link). This semantic map from the Iris Center is also a great example.

Word maps , which allow students to represent words in various ways. I like the Strategies for Students blog post on this.


Ask students to answer critical thinking questions using the target vocabulary words. Not only do you reinforce the vocabulary, but you’re building their critical thinking abilities. Gradually building up the complexity of these questions while embedding the target vocabulary words is beneficial to retaining those words as well. Speaking of the word “gradually”…

Here is an example of a question with the word “gradually”:

“Should making changes to a school’s dress code be done GRADUALLY or quickly? Why?”

There you have it…a run down of the many ways you can incorporate vocabulary building in your class- and therapy-room. Remember to work on target vocabulary words over an extended period of time, allowing your students opportunities to recall and store the word and its definition for long-term use.

I want to hear from you. Is exposing students to a word 17-40 times over a few weeks or a month doable? Let’s connect below!


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