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Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

Vocabulary instruction is an important part of English language arts classes, as well as content area classes such as science and social studies. By giving students explicit instruction in vocabulary, teachers help them learn the meaning of new words and strengthen their independent skills of constructing the meaning of text. Learn more in this excerpt from Improving Adolescent Literacy: Effective Classroom and Intervention Practices.

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Providing explicit vocabulary instruction

1. Dedicate a portion of the regular classroom lesson to explicit vocabulary instruction

The amount of time will be dictated by the vocabulary load of the text to be read and the students’ prior knowledge of the vocabulary. Making certain that students are familiar with the vocabulary they will encounter in reading selections can help make the reading task easier. Computer instruction can be an effective way to provide practice on vocabulary and leverage classroom time.

2. Use repeated exposure to new words in multiple oral and written contexts and allow sufficient practice sessions

Words are usually learned only after they appear several times. In fact, researchers estimate that it could take as many as 17 exposures for a student to learn a new word. Repeated exposure could be in the same lesson or passage, but the exposures will be most effective if they appear over an extended period of time. Words that appear only once or twice in a text are typically not words that should be targeted for explicit instruction because there may never be enough practice to learn the word completely. Students should be provided with the definitions of these infrequent words.

3. Give sufficient opportunities to use new vocabulary in a variety of contexts through activities such as discussion, writing, and extended reading

This will ensure that students begin to acquire a range of productive meanings for the words they are learning and the correct way to use those words in addition to simply being able to recognize them in print.

4. Provide students with strategies to make them independent vocabulary learners

One way is to give them strategies to use components (prefixes, roots, suffixes) of words to derive the meaning of unfamiliar words; another is to make use of reference material such as glossaries included in their textbooks.

Potential roadblocks and solutions

1. Students may vary in their response to different vocabulary instruction strategies

For example, some students respond better to sensory information than to verbal information about word meaning. Teachers need to combine multiple approaches in providing explicit vocabulary instruction. For instance, as described above, it is helpful to expose students to vocabulary numerous times either in one lesson or over a series of lessons. It is also helpful to combine this repeated exposure with a number of different explicit instruction strategies, such as using direct instruction techniques (getting students to look up definitions in dictionaries), helping promote students to independently acquire vocabulary skills (using context clues to derive meaning), offering students the opportunity to work on the computer using various software, and allowing students to discuss what they have read.

2. Teachers may not know how to select words to teach, especially in content areas

Content-area textbooks are loaded with too much specialized vocabulary and jargon. Teachers need to select carefully the most important words to teach explicitly each day. Several popular methods of selecting words for vocabulary instruction are available. Two methods seem important for adolescent readers:

One method uses as a criterion the frequency of the words in instructional materials. This, again, is more important for elementary materials where the vocabulary is selected from a relatively constrained set of instructional materials.

For most adolescents, this constraint on vocabulary in instructional materials diminishes over time, making the frequency method of selecting words less useful for teaching adolescent students reading content.

However, for adolescent students who have limited vocabularies, selecting high-frequency, unknown words remains an important instructional strategy.

Another method uses three categories of words: Tier I, Tier II, and Tier III. This concept has been applied most effectively for literary texts with students at elementary levels. Tier I words are those typically in readers’ vocabularies and should not be the focus of instruction.

These high-frequency words are usually acquired very early. Tier III words are rare words that are recommended for instruction only when they are encountered in a text. That leaves Tier II words as the focus of explicit vocabulary instruction prior to reading a text. The criteria for what constitutes membership in each tier are not sharply defined, but are loosely based on frequency and the utility for future reading.

For adolescent readers of content materials, vocabulary should be selected on the basis of how important the words are for learning in the particular discipline, rather than the tier in which the word is located. For example, in a 9th grade biology text, the word “cytoskeleton” might be a target for prereading instruction in a chapter on cell biology, even though it would generally be considered a Tier III word because it almost never appears in general reading or conversation. Most of the words for adolescent readers should be selected on the basis of how important they are to understanding the content that students are expected to read.

For much content material, the words that carry the burden of the meaning of the text are rare words, except in texts and materials related to a specific discipline. Despite the rarity of the words, they are often critical to learning the discipline content and thus should be the subject of explicit instruction, which is almost the only way they can be learned.

3. Teachers may perceive that they do not have time to teach vocabulary

Teachers are often focused on the factual aspect of students’ content-area learning and find little time to focus on other issues in reading. Whenever reading is part of a lesson, a few minutes spent on explicit vocabulary instruction will pay substantial dividends for student learning. Some effort in teaching students to become independent vocabulary learners will lessen the amount of time required by teachers as part of the lesson.

Making students even slightly more independent vocabulary learners will eventually increase the amount of content-area instructional time.

Using computers can give teachers the opportunity to provide independent practice on learning vocabulary. Teachers will be able to leverage instructional time by having students work independently, either before or after reading texts.

Publication Date:

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., and Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: A Practice Guide (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from