Making More of Vocabulary Instruction
Written by: Stephanie Woods
Teaching vocabulary has been a brushed-off part of the reading curriculum, in my personal experience. I remember looking through the curriculum basals and highlighting the “spotlight” words of the week. Then, I would incorporate them within the reading lessons by writing them out on cards and we would discuss the meaning and move on to the comprehension. Was it effective? Not sure. How do I know the students learned the words? I didn’t. So, how can I be better in making vocabulary more intentional and purposeful to support reading?
First off, let’s dig into the importance of vocabulary for reading. Teaching vocabulary is a nuanced part of the reading block yet it is a powerful component as students become automatic proficient readers. It’s embedded within Scarborough’s Rope in the language comprehension strands as well as the Cognitive Model by Kenna & Stahl (Wegenhart, 2015). It’s within the definition of the recent bill, HEA 1558 that requires schools to use evidenced-based practices for literacy. The word “vocabulary” shows up a lot, but understanding its purpose goes deeper.
Understanding the importance of semantics within word recognition is a great place to start. As readers map the written language, multiple processes in the brain are working to create a network of firing neurons that construct a beautiful language system. The phonological system is working with the orthographic system of the brain to make sense of sound and symbol. However, there is this tiny piece called the angular gyrus that specifically assists with memory and language. It’s a bridge between these processes that allows the brain space to contain the meaning of words (Loftus & Sappington, 2023b). It’s not arbitrary anymore, it contains purpose. It’s language.
“Exposure to new vocabulary, oral or written, as well as deep understanding of words is critical for proficient reading.”
So, what does this mean and how can it be applied within the classroom? If we as educators understand that to truly read and write we must activate all these areas, then meaning is an important component of the process. This means exposure to new vocabulary, oral or written, as well as deep understanding of words is critical for proficient reading. Try to intentionally focus on picking vocabulary terms, such as those Tier 2 academic words that are used across content areas to help broaden the deep meanings these words have, for example: evaluate, increase, compose. Incorporate preteaching words before reading a selection but as you encounter the terms, have meaningful discussions to develop that rich language. Embed vocabulary throughout the day, not just when you read the text (Loftus & Sappington, 2023a). Building that base of knowledge is great, but consider how to incorporate it throughout the day.
How can vocabulary be incorporated within phonics lessons? Well, you’ve come to the right place. Consider those words that are being decoded – do students know the meanings of these words? I was recently teaching a Tier 2 intervention focusing on short /i/, and we encountered the word “dim.” This word can be used in multiple contexts and it’s a CVC word. It was clear the students could decode and encode the word, but were unclear of its meaning when prompted. What did I do? I paused and we discussed the word. I let students play with the word adding inflectional endings, ask questions, and try it out in a sentence in various contexts. Making it relevant to students builds that receptive and expressive language to help them become better readers.
Another concept with vocabulary I have noted in my years of being a reading specialist is the visual component to help students, specifically multilingual students. Try to find visuals for students or bring things in for them to hold, touch and feel (Colorado, n.d.). Once I was teaching the “qu” pattern and a word to decode was “quid,” which is slang for the pound in British English. Luckily I have an English friend, so he gave me a pound note to show the students. It was this amazing opportunity to compare and contrast money, talk about slang for the dollar here and understand cultures. I digress but you get the picture right? When teaching phonics, incorporate vocabulary within those words. Use it in a sentence to provide context. Show visuals for connection.
So here’s what I know and can share with you – it’s not just about the alphabetic principle and phonics component when teaching word recognition or spotlighting a few words, reading a text and moving on. It’s also about the meaning behind that written and spoken language so we have to think and be intentional about how we are teaching students this language to increase student reading proficiency.
Colorado, C. (n.d.). Vocabulary Development with ELLs. Reading Rockets. https://www.readingrockets.org/topics/english-language-learners/articles/vocabulary-development-ells
Loftus, M. & Sappington, L. (hosts). (2023a, July 28). Science of Reading Beyond Phonics: Vocabulary instruction with a fifth grade teacher (156) [Audio podcast episode]. In Melissa and Lori Love Literacy. https://literacypodcast.com/podcast?podcast=Buzzsprout-12789173
Loftus, M. & Sappington, L. (hosts). (2023b, November 3). The Relationship between phonics and comprehension with Tiffany Hogan (167) [Audio podcast episode]. In Melissa and Lori Love Literacy. https://literacypodcast.com/podcast?podcast=Buzzsprout-13085242
Garden, P. D. (2022). Vocabulary Instruction in the Early Grades. Texas Association for Literacy Education Yearbook, 9, 75–82.
Wegenhart, Todd. (2015). Better Reading Through Science: Using Research-Based Models to Help Students Read Latin Better. Journal of Classics Teaching. 16. 8-13.