Teaching Vocabulary – Your Questions Answered

This post contains affiliate links for your convenience. View our full disclosure policy here.


Vocabulary knowledge is fundamental to reading success. It goes hand in hand with comprehension. A child simply cannot understand text without having a working knowledge of what the words actually mean. Just like phonemic awareness and phonics, vocabulary development is one of the five components of effective reading instruction. I’m here today to answer some important questions when it comes to teaching vocabulary.

*For even more resources to support early learners, be sure to grab our Easy Readers MEGA Bundle!

Teaching vocabulary is proven to have an important impact on reading success and is one of the five components of reading instruction!

Teaching Vocabulary – Your Questions Answered

Teaching reading is a huge task. Big enough that a complete and comprehensive approach needs to be taken, which is why research now identifies that reading instruction should include five components or pillars:

  • phonemic awareness – the ability to hear, identify, and manipulate phonemes, the smallest units of sound
  • phonics – the sound/grapheme relationship of letters and combinations make words and meaning
  • fluency – the ability to read with ease, to read accurately, quickly, and expressively
  • vocabulary – the knowledge of word meaning
  • comprehension – using the four other components to conjure meaning in a written passage

Exclude one of those components and children may suffer in their reading skills and experience unnecessary difficulty in learning to read.

This post on vocabulary development is the third installment of five in this series. Visit the others linked in the list above.

What is Vocabulary?

Vocabulary is having an understanding of a working body of language with the knowledge of word meanings. More specifically, we usually refer to vocabulary as the kind of words that children must know to read demanding text.

There are two types of word knowledge associated with vocabulary: definition knowledge and contextual knowledge.

  • Definition knowledge is like that found in a dictionary, a direct and literal definition of a given word.
  • Contextual knowledge comes from exposure to the same word in multiple contexts, preferably contexts with diverse perspectives.

Both are important in developing vocabulary and research has found that instruction that includes both types of vocabulary knowledge is better than only one.

Why is Vocabulary Instruction Important?

It quite literally is essential to reading. Children cannot understand a given text without a working knowledge of words and without having a complete understanding of their meaning. Like other components of reading, how big and strong a child’s vocabulary is, has an impact on how well that child will read, and the ease at which that child learns.

But… Building Vocabulary is Difficult

There is an alarming difference of word knowledge between children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who come from advantaged backgrounds. And these differences begin well before children ever enter school. How much a child reads, or is read to, has a huge impact on how many words a child has in their arsenal. The reason for this is that the more a child reads, or is read to, the higher the frequency of exposure to new and repeated words.

Let’s take a look at some numbers and facts:

  • Children from professional families enter school with a word bank of over 50 million words.
  • Children from working-class families enter school with approximately 30 million words.
  • Children from poverty enter school with a vocabulary as small as only 15 million words.

Clearly, the average class is filled with a very wide gap between the lowest and the highest performing students. That gap can be very intimidating to address.

So, How is Vocabulary Developed?

There are four types of vocabulary, and each is important and has an impact on reading success.

  • listening vocabulary
  • speaking vocabulary
  • reading vocabulary
  • writing vocabulary

Take a look at the chart below for how those vocabularies are developed and why they are important. It is evident that vocabulary is developed by more than simply teaching new definitions. In fact, that by itself may be quite ineffectual.

This chart shows the four types of vocabulary: listening, speaking, reading, and writing.

What Else Should Teachers Know About Vocabulary?

When it comes to vocabulary instruction, there are three tiers. These tiers help guide instruction so that teachers may spend their precious instructional time on the most important words for a student to know.

Surprisingly, these words are not always the really difficult, content-related vocabulary. Take a look at the following chart to understand why:

The 3 tiers of vocabulary guide teachers so they can spend their time teaching the most important words for students to know.

What Are Some Tips for Teaching Vocabulary?

For success in teaching vocabulary, try some of these tips:

  • focus instruction on Tier 2 words
  • provide direct instruction for vocabulary words in specific text
  • provide multiple exposures in different contexts of the same words
  • provide rich and varied language experiences
  • actively engage students in vocabulary activities that go beyond definitional knowledge
  • use a variety of vocabulary strategies, as only one or two will not result in building word knowledge

What Else Does Research Say About Vocabulary?

  • “Knowledge of a word is not an all or nothing proposition; it is not the case that one either knows or does not know a word. Rather, knowledge of a word should be viewed in terms of the extent or the degree of knowledge people can possess.” (Beck and Morrow, 1991)
  • “Twenty-five to fifty percent of annual vocabulary growth can be attributed to incidental learning from context while reading.” (Nagy, Anderson, and Herman, 1987)
  • “To be effective, vocabulary instruction must provide adequate definitions and illustrations of how words are used in natural contexts. Integration, repetition, and meaningful use are three priorities in vocabulary instruction that increase reading comprehension.” (Stahl 1986; Graves and Prenn 1986; Carr and Wixson, 1986)
  • “Vocabulary acquisition is crucial to academic development. Not only do students need a rich body of word knowledge to succeed in basic skill areas, they also need a specialized vocabulary to learn content area material.” (Baker, Simmons, and Kameenui, 1995)
  • “Differences in the amount of independent reading, lack of strategies to learn words from context, and diffuse word knowledge appear to be the most critical obstacles to vocabulary development for students with disabilities.” (Stahl & Shiel, 1999)

What About Preschool Literacy Instruction?

Just like teaching reading in kindergarten and above is made up of five important pillars of instruction, preschool literacy is also guided by its own four components. Check out these articles for more information about how to teach literacy in an early childhood classroom:

***As we continue to learn about the Science of Reading, we want to be up-to-date so that our articles are research-based. This post has recently been updated to be Science of Reading aligned.***

Guest post by Sarah from Stay at Home Educator

Want unlimited access to even MORE of our activities and resources? Join us in the Print and Play Club!

Your planning will be so much easier with instant access to:

  • hundreds of printables
  • every TKC resource
  • video lessons
  • a digital games vault
  • Pre-K and TK Scope & Sequence
  • a PLAYlist of fun songs AND activities
  • professional development
  • additional teacher resources…
Want unlimited access to tons of activities and resources for Pre-K, TK, and Kindergarten? Join us in the Print and Play Club!

Be sure to request an invitation so that you don’t miss your chance to be part of the best early childhood club around!

Latest posts by Sarah (see all)
Teaching Vocabulary - Your Questions Answered

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *