Vocabulary Strategies

Scroll to the bottom of this page and you will find analog and digital activities for vocabulary in your classroom. Try embedding some of these activities in your lesson plans today! 

Research has consistently found that vocabulary plays a fundamental role in the academic achievement of U.S. students in Grades K–12. Knowing vocabulary words is key to reading comprehension. The more words a child knows, the better he or she will understand the text. Teachers can teach vocabulary directly or indirectly. Using a variety of effective methods will increase the student’s ability to learn new words.


“A student’s maximum level of reading comprehension is determined by his or her knowledge of words. This word knowledge allows students to comprehend text. As the teacher, you can explicitly teach word meanings to improve comprehension. However, to know a word means knowing it in all of the following dimensions:

  • The ability to define a word
  • The ability to recognize when to use that word
  • Knowledge of its multiple meanings
  • The ability to decode and spell that word

Therefore, it is vitally important to teach key words that children will need to comprehend texts, learn the content in those texts, and pass tests. Words are taught through direct instruction of word meanings as well as through discussions about words (including prefixes, suffixes, and roots) – all combined with a lot of reading.” (Colorin Colorado, 2007)

Limited vocabulary is the first “red flag” indicating a probable learning gap in a child’s reading comprehension. While vocabulary can be picked up through dialogue and conversation, research shows that is it grown in the formidable years through learning to read and building a capacity for reading fluency and comprehension. It continues to grow through the secondary and college level moving from concrete to more abstract skills and concepts.  

The more we encourage children to read each day, the better developed their vocabulary becomes. Research has found that children’s exposure to language-rich environments is related to their socioeconomic and welfare status; that is, children from professional families enter school knowing almost twice as many words as those from working class backgrounds and almost three-and-a-half times more words than those with welfare backgrounds.

Vocabulary consists of the words we understand when we hear or read them (receptive vocabulary) and words we speak or write (expressive vocabulary). Knowing a variety of words is important for language development and reading comprehension. The English language has the largest vocabulary or lexicon in the world. And our language is continually growing! (Think of words like widget, blog, info-sharing,  selfie!) Most children begin first grade with about 6,000 words of spoken vocabulary. They will learn 3,000 more words per year through third grade.

There are two evdience based best practices that US Digital Literacy highly recommends to teachers for building and increasing vocabulary in their students. They are Morphology and Tiered Vocabulary.


Morphology Linguistics : the study and description of how words are formed in language

The study of English words derived from Greek and Latin roots is the study of Morphology.  Think of the early years of learning, teachers help studenst learn words by introducing word families, rimes, and phohgrams. The generative approach began with studies of Naom Chonsky in the 1950s. This is not a new idea. It is rather a renewed idea in that students should be taught Latin and Greek morphemes as a word family so they can build upon meaning. A study of over 100 4th and 5th grade students found that “Students with greater understanding of morphology also have higher reading comprehension scores”.


Teacher teaches prefix bi- meaning two

students learn bicycle, bimonthly, bicoastal, bisect

Teacher teaches root word geo- meaning earth

students learn geology, geography, geode, geographer

Introducing one Latin or Greek root a week and spending only 5-10 minutes a day will increase gains significantly in building vocabulary wil will transfer to reading.

A five day plan for teaching morphology may be: (Specific idea credited to Webinar: Comprehension-Going Beyond Fluency with Dr. Tim Rasinski sponsored by

Day 1 Introduce root and meaning, brainstorm words, build their own words

Day 2 Students read a selection with the root

Day 3 Students work on teacher directed activity with the root: cloze passage, word sorts, word creations

Day 4 Students play game: Word-O, Word Ladders

Day 5 Student is assessed

Note: Morphology can be started as early as second grade and should continue beyond the high school years.  

Tiered Vocabulary

The Definition of Academic Vocabulary

Academic language refers to the sentence structures (syntax) and vocabulary (both spoken and written) commonly used to learn across academic disciplines and within specific content areas. Tiers describe how academic vocabulary differs from more common, everyday language.

Isabel Beck suggests educators consider three types of vocabulary words—three tiers of vocabulary—for teaching and assessing word knowledge. A word’s frequency of use, complexity, and meaning determines into which tier it will fall. Those with mature vocabularies and age-appropriate literacy skills understand and use words from all three tiers. The three tiers of vocabulary, Tier I—Basic Vocabulary, Tier II—High Frequency/Multiple Meaning, and Tier III—Subject Related.

Tier I consists of the most basic words. While in early years direct instruction is given with sight words, these words rarely require direct instruction in upper grades. They typically do not have multiple meanings. Tier 1 vocabulary includes the words that children encounter in readers which are designed to support the development of their decoding, sight-reading, and fluency skills. Sight words, nouns, verbs, adjectives, and early reading words occur at this level. Examples of tier one words are: book, girl, sad, run, dog, and orange. There about 8,000 word families in English included in Tier I.

Tier II consists of high frequency words that occur across a variety of domains. That is, these words occur often in mature language situations such as adult conversations and literature, and therefore strongly influence speaking and reading.

Standards for Tier II words:

  •   Important for reading comprehension
  •   Characteristic of mature language users
  •   Contain multiple meanings
  •   Increased descriptive vocabulary (words that allow students to describe concepts in a detailed manner)
  •   Used across a variety of environments (generalization)

The meanings of Tier II words are either consistent across disciplines (e.g., “compare,” “contrast,” and “synthesize”), or they can vary by discipline (e.g., “point of view,” “plot,” “diagram,” and “image”). Tier II words are the most important words for direct instruction because they are good indicators of a student’s progress through school. Other examples of tier two words are: masterpiece, fortunate, industrious, measure, and benevolent. There are about 7,000 word families in English (or 700 per year) in Tier II.

Tier III consists of low-frequency words that occur in specific domains. Domains include subjects in school, hobbies, occupations, geographic regions, technology, weather, etc. We usually learn these words when a specific need arises, such as learning amino acid during a chemistry lesson. Examples of tier three words are: economics, isotope, asphalt, Revolutionary War, and, crepe. The remaining 400,000 words in English fall in this tier.

It important to remember that Tier II and III words are not all clear-cut in their tier classification. There is more than one way to select the words. Word knowledge is subject to personal experience.



US Digital Literacy proposes that educators explicitly teach the Tiers of Vocabulary so students will have a meta-cognitive understanding of their own vocabulary acquisition process.  This helps students to have an enduring understanding of the importance of the words they are learning as well as how they fit into English Language Arts which is becoming a lost art in America. Students then begin to build better success rates and ability to transfers skills to authentic learning.



Additional classroom strategies include:

Pre-teach Vocabulary: Explicit teaching of vocabulary prior to a lesson can take on many forms. Drawing or sketching a word helps provide a visual connection to the meaning of the word. Sharing pictures or actual objects of items helps students make concrete connections to new words. Role playing or using gestures also helps build understanding.

Create a language rich classroom: Use labels to identify objects in your classroom. Provide word walls and anchor charts to display key vocabulary. Utilize desktop cards to reinforce unit vocabulary.

Model the use of appropriate vocabulary:  The use of more sophisticated language, being exposed to a variety of genres, reading aloud and discussing texts that challenge listening comprehension, playing word games that involve reflection about the relation between the structure and meaning of words, having multiple opportunities for using new words in multiple contexts, and learning about specialized topics and concepts are appropriate methods for the teacher to model formal vocabulary.

Explicitly teach, reinforce, and revisit: 

  • Analysis of word parts and structures
  • Use of context clues
  • Appropriate use of reference tools (for example, dictionaries and thesauruses)
  • Development and articulation of personal approaches for building vocabulary knowledge
  • Lead discussions of student-friendly definitions.
  • Provide sentence examples with contexts that make the meaning of each new vocabulary word transparent.
  • Present audio and visual support with opportunities for students to hear and see a word, its syllables, sounds, definition, and its application.
  • Deliver practice of vocabulary words within context-rich sentences.
  • Use synonym and antonym activities to deepen understanding of word meanings and how they relate to other words.
  • Allow students to apply the word using games and word puzzles.
  • Have students use graphic organizers, such as concept circles, word webs, and word squares.
  • Support experimentation and reward use of even partially known vocabulary words, particularly in student writing.
  • Embed new vocabulary words into writing or discussion prompts, homework assignments, quizzes, and classroom instruction.

Monitor and assess students’ learning: Allow students multiple opportunities to use words they are learning. Remember the “rule of seven” attempts to  move new information from working memory to long term memory. Also, hold students accountable for using the words both in speech and writing. And, give students multiple attempts to show mastery.

Specific activities are outlined below. Analog activities are included as well as some of our favorite online activities and websites that help promote vocabulary. For the analog activities click the arrow down button to open each box for a description of the activity plus the resource. For the digital activities click the logo to go to a description page with a link to the website. (Most of the websites we use are free or are at a freemium. But some charge a fee.)

Analog Vocabulary Strategies

Give students key word choices from teh lesson using this vocabulary development tool. Students use a graphic organizer to categorize their knowledge about a word. Squares with 4 to 6 blocked spaces work well.


Students will comprehend a word better when they get to see it. This is a fun way for the students to show their creativity and how they see what a word means. Students will be assessed by them being able to recognize a word, know the meaning, and draw a picture about it.


Teacher hands out white paper. The students draw out the vocabulary word in bubble letters on the piece of paper. The students describe the word in their own words. Then the students draw pictures to represent the word. The students should fill up the their paper and leave no white spaces.

Graffiti Writings. (n.d)
Gaikwad, P. (2011). Advanced instructional strategies [compendium]. Silang, Philippines: Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies.

Authentic learning means putting the student at the center of the experience. But sometimes, they need a little support, especially when you are introducing new more complicated terms. Using the word wall match-up strategies, students will using problem solving and reasoning skills to match up terms with definitions, and in some cases symbolic representation.

Terms are on word wall, definitions can be given in text via book or handouts.

Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., & Johnston, F. (2000). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Students design their own cartoon to illustrate their word.


Give students an opportunity to create a Prefix Reference Chart in their notes. A quick activity at the beginning of the school year can help students breakdown new words based on their understanding of prefixes and root words.


K. (Key Word) I. (Information/Definition) M. (Memory Clue/Picture)

Your Sentence:


In this game students form a circle. (If you have a class of about 26 you may want to make two separate circles.) The teacher selects a category and asks students to think of three words that would fit in that category. The teacher gives a ball to one person in the group and directs students to pass the ball to their right, calling out one of their words as the ball is passed to them. The teacher gives 45 seconds to each group to see how many words they can call for the given category. (Variations of this activity can be created too.)

Resources: and Pieces of Learning, NCAGT, March 2017


Word Banks are places where students can keep a list of words they have learned so that they can refer to them as needed. Word Banks can be kept in journals or placed on index cards to be used as flash cards. The index cards can also be placed on rings for organizational purposes. Students should be expected to use the words in their writing and their speaking.


Prediction-Association-Verification-Evaluation (PAVE) Procedure – This procedure encourages students to 1) predict a word’s meaning within the context it appears, 2) consult a dictionary to find the correct meaning, and 3) re-evaluate their predictions.

Bannon, E., Fisher, P., Pozzi, L., & Wessel, D. (1990). "Effective definitions for word learning." Journal of Reading. 1990: 34, pp.301-302.

Students are asked to generate a list of words, group them according to their similarities, then label the group.


Mind maps begin with one centralized word or idea that branches out into multiple associated ideas, words or concepts. Tony Buzan, a British psychologist, invented mind mapping to better accommodate individuals who absorb information in a non-linear fashion. In brief, mind maps: have one central word or idea located at the center of the diagram and have multiple associated ideas, words and concepts branched to the main idea.


Each student is assigned a letter of the alphabet. Students come up with a vocabulary word that was eaither directly taught during a lesson or could be associated with the lesson in some way. Students are given five minutes to write their word and prepare to share out word and relationship to lesson in a quick round robin before, during or after the lesson or reading selection.

North Carolina Teacher Academy 2008

This game like strategy starts with one word and then by changing one or two letters with guidance from the teacher students come up with new words and finally end up with a related word at the end. For example:



Students get into groups of three or five and create a sentence correctly using a vocabulary word by the teacher. Each student is only allowed to contribute one word. (Kind of like the telephone game.) Students write their sentences and create as many sentences as they can based on the word list given by the teacher. this is a great pre- and post- lesson activity to see what they know before and after a lesson is taught.

Resource: Pieces of Learning, NCAGT March 2017


15 vocabulary strategies in 15 minutes. (n.d.). Learning Tasks.

Beck, Isabel L., McKeown, Margaret G., and Kucan, Linda. (2002). Bringing words to life. New York, NY: The Guilford Press

Kieffer & Lessaux, Breaking down words to build meaning: Vocabulary and reading comprehension in the urban classroom. The Reading Teacher, 6, 134-144, (2007).

Montgomery, Judy K. (2008). MAVA-Montgomery assessment of vocabulary acquisition. Greenville, South Carolina: Super Duper Publications, Inc.

Montgomery, Judy K. (2007). Vocabulary Intervention for RTI: Tiers 1, 2, 3 Retrieved October 28, 2008.

3 Tier vocabulary words. Retrieved October 28, 2008