red pen on an essay with some corrections

How to teach vocabulary to your students

There’s a common misconception that vocabulary instruction consists of having students write down the definitions for a list of words and then … poof! The students magically know the words well.

And they can spell them correctly. And they understand applicable Greek and Latin roots in a given word’s etymology. And they can independently change a word’s form into an adjective, verb, noun, etc. You get the idea.

Clearly, there’s much more involved in the process of true language acquisition than merely copying down definitions from a dictionary. Additionally, there’s more at stake than just adding new words to a student’s vocabulary for the sake of grading. According to the National Reading Panel, several different studies have found that:

  • Students receiving vocabulary instruction perform better on semantic tests than those that don’t
  • Vocabulary instruction has a strong relation to comprehension
  • Pre-teaching vocabulary has a significant effect on retention

three students listening with their schoolbooks open

9 effective ways to teach vocabulary

The National Reading Panel shared a list of implications for instructional practice specific to teaching vocabulary.

1. Vocabulary should be taught both directly and indirectly

Direct instruction includes vocabulary as part of the lesson plan. This approach may involve utilizing pre-teaching, graphic organizers, or discussing usage and grammatical implications. Conversely, indirect instruction models the use of academic words in a teacher’s writing or conversation.

For example, if a vocabulary word in your unit was “monarch,” instead of merely referring to King George III as the leader of Great Britain at the time, be sure to utilize the word “monarch” as much as possible. This gives the term more context, allowing students to draw connections between it and other material they learn.

2. Repetition and recurring exposure to vocabulary items are important

Students will not add a word to their vocabulary organically if they’ve only heard it once, or without applying the word in daily usage. Spiraling vocabulary — reusing new vocabulary throughout your lessons — is a highly effective practice for vocabulary instruction.

3. Learning in rich, real-world contexts is valuable

Students will retain new vocabulary effectively if the word is given more context than just the dictionary in which its definition was found. Consider when, how, and why a word was (or is still) used in a historical, political, or social context. This simply makes sense — words are rarely thrown around in isolation: Context plays a key role in how words are used and interpreted in speech and writing. The more context a student is given for a particular vocabulary word, the better they’ll be able to retain its meaning and assimilate it into their daily usage.

4. Vocabulary tasks should be restructured when necessary

There’s a place for routine in all instruction, but when it becomes lifeless and unimaginative, it’s time to switch things up. Have your students use models, such as the Frayer model, to thoroughly explore the meaning and applications of a new vocabulary word. Show pictures related to the word and ask students to describe other terms that could be used in a conversation related to the picture. This ties into #3 above by giving students an additional context for a vocabulary term.

5. Vocabulary instruction should entail active engagement in learning tasks

Active engagement is more than simply completing a rote assignment. Ask students to inquire, research, and create, even within vocabulary tasks. For example, you could assign students a vocabulary word scavenger hunt where they scour the Internet for relevant, authentic uses of a given word. Consider articles, speeches, poems, and song lyrics. You could even play this like a Scattergories-style game, where any repeat from other groups or individuals cancels out your own group’s discovery.

6. Computer technology can be used to help teach vocabulary

Digital gamification is especially effective in supporting student learning. Free apps like Quizlet are great for learning new vocabulary; the platform has several practice modes beyond simple flashcards, including testing, matching, and listening. You can also check out Kahoot to create fun classroom games for your students.

7. Vocabulary can be acquired through incidental learning

Have you ever learned something without attending a class or consciously trying to study? Everyone has — and that’s what’s known as incidental learning. It stands in contrast to deliberate learning, which is what’s usually practiced in a formal classroom setting through instruction. Both have their value, but incidental learning is particularly effective for incorporating new vocabulary words into daily usage. Have students search their everyday life for uses of new vocabulary words. This gives students additional context and helps them retain the meanings of new words through association.

8. How you teach, assess, and evaluate vocabulary matters

Make sure your students know how their vocabulary comprehension will be assessed. Vary vocabulary assessments just like you vary your instruction. Traditional summative tests can be useful, but so can inquiry projects, writing, or other application-based assessments, such as using a term correctly in an academic discussion.

9. Dependence on a single vocabulary instruction method will not result in optimal learning

This is where copying answers from the dictionary is not optimal for teaching vocabulary. Think about developing engaging vocabulary instruction, including through writing, speaking, and inquiry assignments. Although it’s likely for you, with your educational experience, to frame vocabulary instruction with rote tasks, it’s clear from the National Reading Panel’s findings that this is simply not best practice and does not effectively build or expand a student’s vocabulary.

Teaching vocabulary is key to student success

Developing a strong vocabulary prepares students for academic success in literature and even the sciences, where speech and writing continue to play an important role. By helping your students draw connections between new vocabulary words and their daily life, you’ll help them more effectively retain the meanings of these terms well beyond your classroom.

Photo credit: ID 3844328; Sprachschuleaktiv/

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