10 Ways to Teach Vocabulary
By Mary Poston, Early Learning Expert
Vocabulary instruction can be engaging and empowering. Macbeth Academy uses cutting-edge, empowering techniques to make vocabulary learning fun and meaningful. How do I teach vocabulary, you ask? I have good news, you’re probably already doing it unintentionally. This is called incidental vocabulary instruction. It’s when learning organically happens outside formal teaching environments. For example, we learn incidentally when we watch television, listen to music, read a book, or talk with a friend. We can also be more mindful, and planned in helping children develop vocabulary. This is called intentional vocabulary instruction. It’s a more formal way of broadening and deepening vocabulary through direct instruction of specific words and word-learning strategies. Some people will argue that one form is better than the other, but they actually make a good couple. The National Reading Panel (2000) agrees with me, concluding there is no single research-based method for teaching vocabulary. The panel recommends using a variety of incidental and intentional methods of vocabulary instruction. I will share 10 examples; 5 of each:
- Read. Read aloud to your child or choose an audiobook and listen together. This isn’t just for preschoolers. Even after children learn to read on their own, they benefit from being read to…and (given the right book) they enjoy it too! Be consistent. Consider setting a sustained silent reading time. Authors use words in text that we may not often hear in day-to-day conversation. Extensive reading gives students multiple exposures to words in rich contexts.
- Diversify. Create a language-rich home, filled with words and books. Provide a variety of genres and texts (e.g. cookbooks, magazines, maps, calendars, comic books, graphic novels, trading cards). “But my child only likes graphic novels”. Consider forming a book club with a friend or friends, or joining an existing club. Doing so may encourage your child to expand horizons. A wider range of books = exposure to a wider variety of words!
- Use “the big words”. I always say this to the parents of my preschoolers. For the most part, skip the baby talk and use complex words with your child. By modeling the use of words, you’re fostering an awareness of and interest in vocabulary. Children are naturally curious and more often than not love these “big” words!
- Build Background Knowledge. Basically, background knowledge is life experience that helps us make sense of new information. If a child has experience with a word, a connection is made and the understanding of that word increases. More connections = greater understanding. The best way to build knowledge is to do stuff together! Engage your child in activities: hike, bake, shop, play… all the while talking and thinking aloud.
- PLAY. I could’ve included play with building background knowledge, but free play deserves a spot of its own. Some research suggests that children learn vocabulary just as effectively through play as through shared book reading. Play is powerful, people. Just let the kids play.
Intentional Strategies (I need a whole separate post for these!)
- Shared reading. Pre-read a book and pick one or more “key vocabulary words”. I recommend looking for Tier Two words.
- Activate Background Knowledge. Good readers constantly try to make sense out of what they read by seeing how it fits with what they already know. Help your child make connections to new words using before, during, and after reading strategies.
- Reread, Retell, Recreate. Rereading the same story is okay- in fact, it’s great! Each time you read the story, choose a different word or concept to explore. Engage higher-level thinking by asking your child to retell a story. This will take modeling in the beginning. They get bonus points if key vocabulary words are used in the retelling!
- Embrace multimedia. While direct experiences are effective ways to build vocabulary, providing them is not always feasible. Take the word pyramid for example. It would be really cool to take a trip to the deserts of Egypt or locate a pyramid in the United States to visit, but that may not be an option. Multimedia can provide an abundance of information that we could only dream of experiencing firsthand. Used intentionally, quality programming and multimedia tools can introduce children to unknown words and concepts in a highly motivating way.
- InferCabulary. InferCabulary is a web-based visual vocabulary tool in a game format. It utilizes the semantic reasoning approach, whereby students actively infer the meaning of words based on seeing multiple images used in different contexts.Children employ background knowledge and critical thinking to build the definition. InferCabulary takes best practice vocabulary and ties it all together with a pretty bow for you!