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Vocabulary Instruction that Works

The top recommendation from the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) is that reading for understanding in the primary grades is best supported by building academic language and vocabulary. The best practices identified from the research are to:

1. Select academic words from texts students will hear or read,

2. Support word meanings with child-friendly language, and

3. Provide extended opportunities for children to use and discuss the words across contexts for deep and lasting understanding (WWC, 2016).

Focus on Tier Two Academic Words

Dr. Isabel Beck and Dr. Margaret McKeown began their groundbreaking work in vocabulary as an answer to the challenge faced by educators to find the time to teach vocabulary words that made a difference. Over time, Beck and McKeown pioneered a "tiered framework” to determine instructional value.

“Vocabulary instruction should cover many words that have been skillfully and carefully chosen.” (Dewitz & Jones, 2012)

Tier One refers to simple words children use in everyday conversation (e.g., run, ball, good). Children learn these words through social interactions, so they do not need to be explicitly taught.

Tier Two refers to more sophisticated words that are general enough to be used across a variety of academic talk and texts (e.g., analyze, enthusiastic, represent). These are the words that, when explicitly taught, have the maximum impact on children’s academic success.

Tier Three includes technical words that belong to specific academic domains (e.g., herbivore, photosynthesis, tundra). These words have little instructional value outside their specific content areas.

Tier Two words are part of students’ general academic vocabulary—they are “words that are common in writing and other formal settings and that students need to learn to understand written text” (WWC, 2016). These are the words worth teaching, even in the youngest grades.

Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown quote

Use Child-Friendly Language

When teaching a new word to young children, it is important to “provide a clear and concise definition that primary-grade students will understand, and then give an example of meaningful, supportive sentences that include the word” (WWC, 2016). That is easier said than done. Even in dictionaries expressly written for children, definitions can be more difficult than the targeted vocabulary word. But with comprehensible explanations, children are capable of learning sophisticated words.

“A child-friendly explanation follows two basic principles: 1) Capture the essence of the word and how it is basically used and 2) explain the meaning in everyday language.” (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013)

For example, the definition of disrupt is “to break apart” (Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2018). However, this is very misleading for children who would interpret that physically. A better way to explain this word would be to use this child-friendly language: “to cause difficulties that stop something from continuing easily or peacefully” (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2013).

Multiple Exposures and Contexts

Research shows that young children make the largest vocabulary gains through explicit instruction in word meanings, multiple exposures across contexts, and meaningful practice and review (Marulis & Neuman, 2010). Words are learned over time with repeated interactions across multiple contexts to acquire deep understanding (Rimbey et al., 2016). This process refines students’ understanding of a word’s meaning and usage (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2013).

“Studies indicate that young school-age children can learn and use sophisticated vocabulary provided they engage deeply with word meanings across multiple contexts beyond the story” (Coyne et al., 2009). Research cited shows that this kind of instruction is beyond the scope of what core reading programs provide, and yet it is the very kind of instruction that makes word learning stick.

Dr. Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown

Vocabulary Instruction that Works

Core programs do a lot of things well, but they can't do it all. In failing to provide the type of best practice vocabulary instruction that has been proven to work, hard-working teachers are left to work even harder.

1. Reading and synthesizing decades of best practices research.

2. Creating new lessons that effectively drive instruction.

3. Searching for instructional tools to support the delivery of these hand-crafted lessons.

Even for an experienced teacher, the above tasks come at a cost—lost time and instructional inconsistency across classrooms to name a few.

With time at a premium, wouldn't it be better to add a consistent, daily dose of research-based vocabulary instruction through a supplemental solution that works?

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