Teaching Vocabulary:

Three Sure-Fire


First, Get Selective

Students cannot and will not “learn” 10, 15, or

20 vocabulary words that you give them on a sheet of paper.

And you can’t teach that many words and get anything else done.

Instead, do triage: Choose the 4-5 most critical words over several days of reading/discussion and teach those. These words are “keepers.”

What Makes a Keeper?

It has to be a word you can use again and again.

It has to be a word that is big and juicy and that kids don’t know.

It has to be a word that kids can use that will make them feel smart.


DO NOT choose words that students already know or think they know

For example, “acid” or “harmony”

You may think these are good words to discuss with your class and you’re right; but these are NOT vocabulary.

If you choose easy words students already know, they won’t pay attention and they’ll be insulted or think you’re an idiot.

Here is a Word Wall Full of Keepers:


Select Words One of Two Ways

You choose the words yourself before reading (4 or

5-NO MORE!!!)

Students choose the words themselves—NO KIDDING!!

Three Sure-Fire Ways to Teach



Word Walls!


Vocabulary Self-

Selection (VSS)!


Concept Attainment!

1. Word Walls Are Your

Best Friend as a Teacher

A Word Wall is a bulletin board in your classroom that you start at the beginning of the year and add words to all year long.

The words are all KEEPERS.

The words are big and juicy and represent new and important concepts learned in your curriculum.

These words are the words that you will return to again and again throughout the year. YES!! YES!!! To teach vocabulary, you need to constantly and recursively remind students of these words. This is the hardest part of vocabulary instruction but it’s essential and the most powerful thing you can do.

Revisit Your Word Wall Words


Make a point of using new words


Revisit old words several times a week.

This is HARD because the tendency is to put things up and forget about them.


Practice Activities

Word Rallies (See hand-out)

Treasure Hunt word finds (See hand-out)

Games, recognition to students for using vocabulary in speech and writing.

Give EXTRA CREDIT for using vocabulary words in writing assignments.

Leave Your Word Wall up All Year

Keep adding to the Word Wall. Don’t take it down ALL YEAR.

If you do this, you’ll see huge improvements in:

Reading comprehension

Writing quality

Students’ attitudes about themselves as students

Students’ attitudes about vocabulary.

2. Vocabulary Self-Selection (VSS)

After reading, place students in groups of 3-4

Either assign the class the whole reading passage or break it up into sections, one per group (depending on how long the passage was).

Tell each group to select one vocabulary word (and one alternate) they want the class to put on the

Word Wall. The students must then present the word to the class and make an argument for why this word should be included.

You as the teacher also select a word and make an argument to model the process for students.

The class votes on each word.

VSS Works Wonders. Why?

It empowers students

It requires students to reread and review a passage after they’ve read (And rereading is powerful and important learning strategy!)

It’s engaging and students will remember words they suggest much better than words you give them.

It requires students to study the word and make an argument for why it’s important—this requires discussion, processing of ideas, and real scholarship.

3. Concept Attainment

This is a strategy used to introduce vocabulary words and concepts that you have selected, usually before reading a passage.

The activity is engaging because it works like a guessing game.

You select a word and think of examples and non-examples of the word.

You present each example/non-example as a pair.

Over a series of pairs, you engage students in a discussion of the characteristics of each pair.

Finally, you provide the word.

Concept Attainment words because it models the way that we conceptualize and identify individual things in the world—by comparing and contrasting them to other things.

Let’s look at an example of Concept Attainment

This is an example…

This is not an example…

This is an example…

This is not an example…

This is an example…

This is not an example….

This is an example…

This is not an example…

This is an example…

This is not an example…

Here’s another example of

Concept Attainment

This is an example:

This is NOT an example:

This is an example:

This is NOT an example:

This is an example:

This is NOT an example:

This is an example:

This is NOT an example:

This is an example:

This is NOT an example:

This is an example:

This is NOT an example:

One of the best ways to use

Concept Attainment is to give groups of students different vocabulary words and have them come up with examples and nonexamples to present to the class.

This brings us to our last reading strategy:

The Directed Reading

Activity (DRA)

Steps for DRA:








As the teacher, you select the reading passage and the three or four vocabulary words you want to teach BEFORE reading.

You prepare engaging ways to introduce these words (like Concept

Attainment or Beat the Dictionary, for example)

You write them on the board and “talk them up” one at a time


After you’ve talked them up, get the students to generate a definition (student-generated language is ALWAYS remembered more than your droning).

Give the students a Purpose-Setting Question for reading the passage. The PSQ is an interpretive question, not a factual one.


Have the students read the passage, usually silently (although you could use Shared Reading)

Conduct a summative discussion focused on the PSQ