Vocabulary Strategies

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.

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 langugae is continually grwoing! (Think of words like widget, blog, infosharing,  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

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. 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)

Tier II words are the most important words for direct instruction because they are good indicators of a student’s progress through school.  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.

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:



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:




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