Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary: Theory and Technique

The theory and techniques for teaching vocabulary may not be as fun as the ideas that I’ll share in the next post or as perusing the books in the last post, yet this is the theory applicable to all ages and types of readers. It is the knowledge that will enable you to choose the right activities and strategies for your content and grade level.


In my experience, we teach vocabulary for a variety of reasons. It’s important to think about the vocabulary instruction in your teaching practice by considering why you are doing it. That will help you determine which theories and techniques you should use (or at least try).

Reasons include:

  • Improving reading comprehension in general.
  • Improving subject-specific mastery and performance.
  • Improving writing and speaking skills.
  • Test preparation (SAT, ACT, etc.).
  • Deepening students’ ability to put their thoughts into the most appropriate word possible.

These techniques and theories are in no particular order.

This post is Part 2 of a four-part series on teaching vocabulary. If you would like to check out the rest of the series, visit the posts below


Students need to be exposed to the vocabulary over and over if they are to understand and use the words effortlessly. When stories or texts are repeated, students gain more word knowledge.

Research shows that students hearing stories more than once have a 12% gain over their peers who only heard the story one time when tested on the vocabulary in context.

Want to read the research? Look for the studies done by Biemiller and Boote (2006) and Coyne, Simmons, Kame`enui, and Stoolmiller (2004).


It works better to share vocabulary in context, rather than just learning definitions. Giving students lists of words and having them look up the definitions is useless and ineffective. You’re shocked, aren’t you?

It’s also important to emphasize and practice pronunciation of new/unfamiliar words. Don’t assume that regular decoding skills will work with academic vocabulary. Practice saying the words.

Want to read the research? Look for the study done by Nash and Snowling (2006).


To decide whether or not a word from a story or lesson should be directly taught, consider:

  • Is it unfamiliar but able to be understood?
  • Is it necessary for comprehension?
  • Does it appear in other contexts?
  • Is it likely to show up again?

One particular model divides words into three categories, or tiers. This model was developed by Isabelle Beck in Bringing Words to Life.

  • Tier One words are the words of everyday speech usually learned in the early grades. These are not necessary to teach explicitly (except for in ELL acquisition).
  • Tier Two words are what the Common Core standards refer to as academic words. They are more to be read by students in texts that heard in conversations. They may be in informational or technical texts, or in literary works with sophisticated vocabulary. They often make language more precise (saying “wended their way” instead of “walked along,” for example). They are words that cross domains, so you may see them in a variety of disciplines.
  • Tier Three words are the domain-specific words that you would only see in relation to a specific content area. They are the ones you see bolded in textbooks and/or listed in the glossary.

You can watch a video about this at Engage NY.

(Note: The words that she mentions in the beginning of the video that you would see only in certain areas are Tier Three words.)


Students learn the vocabulary best when teachers actually integrate questioning and discussion into lessons, rather than just defining them.

Here are some example questions:

  • What other words do you know that are similar to this word?
  • How can we use this word in [insert other thing you’ve studied]?
  • Do you recognize any of the parts of this word?
  • If I said that [insert another word here] is the same or similar as this word, would that be true?

Want to read the research? Look for the study by Ard and Beverly (2004).


Michael Graves argues that there are four components of an effective vocabulary program:

  • Teach individual words: Teach new words explicitly, meaning on purpose. Make sure students understand the definition. Make sure the definitions are in student-friendly vocabulary. It doesn’t help you to understand a word if you don’t know the words in the definition, either. Show the word in a variety of contexts. Have students generate their own definitions. Have them engage with the words interactively, playing with them. Vary the methods so you’re not teaching the same way for every word.
  • Provide rich and varied language experiences: We need reading, listening, speaking, and writing experiences across multiple genres. Yes, there is math poetry. Read out loud to students. Encourage book clubs and reading challenges. The idea: create an environment saturated with words.
  • Teach word-learning strategies: Teach students how to infer word meaning from context clues. Teach students how to infer meaning from morpheme clues. Teach students how and when to use a dictionary and a thesaurus. We can’t assume that students know the strategies they need to make sense of words.
  • Foster word consciousness: Point out useful, beautiful, powerful, or painful lessons. Be playful with words.


When testing students’ command of vocabulary, use a self-assessment that is non-judgmental, using prompts such as:

  • I have never seen or heard the word before.
  • I’ve seen or heard the word, but I don’t know what the word means.
  • I vaguely know the meaning.
  • I can associate the word with a concept or context.
  • I know the word well.
  • I can explain and use it in general or in writing.
  • I can explain and use it with a full and precise meaning.


  • Enunciate new words syllable-by-syllable and then blend the word.
  • Associate the word with definitions and examples that students already know.
  • Synthesize the words with other words and concepts that they have already studied and they have the opportunity to demonstrate deep knowledge of the new word.
  • Emphasize new words in classroom discussion.


  • Step one: The teacher explains a new word, going beyond reciting its definition (tap into prior knowledge of students, use imagery).
  • Step two: Students restate or explain the new word in their own words (verbally and/or in writing).
  • Step three: Ask students to create a non-linguistic representation of the word (a picture, or symbolic representation).
  • Step four: Students engage in activities to deepen their knowledge of the new word (compare words, classify terms, write their own analogies and metaphors).
  • Step five: Students discuss the new word (pair-share, elbow partners).
  • Step six: Students periodically play games to review new vocabulary (Pyramid, Jeopardy, Telephone).


Use dictionaries to work with words that already somewhat familiar. It is not helpful to have students try to look up words they can’t spell.


Kate Kinsella’s ideas of what doesn’t work include:

  1. Incidental teaching of words
    2. Asking, “Does anybody know what _____ means?”
    3. Copying same word several times
    4. Having students “look it up” in a typical dictionary
    5. Copying from dictionary or glossary
    6. Having students use the word in a sentence after #3,4, or 5
    7. Activities that do not require deep processing (word searches, fill-in-the-blank)
    8. Rote memorization without context
    9. Telling students to “use context clues” as a first or only strategy or asking students
    to guess the meaning of the word
    10. Passive reading as a primary strategy (SSR)

Watch a video of her teaching about vocab instruction and find related activities here.


This article has focused on the theory of teaching vocabulary. Be sure to check out the third article in the series for loads of activities for teaching vocabulary in your classroom.


I think academic vocabulary is so important that I’ve spent decades perfecting a method of teaching it that works like a dream! It’s called the Concept Capsule method, and I’ve written an entire book about it.

Find out more here (and get a 50% discount for reading this article!).

Note: This content uses affiliate links, which means that if you order one of the things I recommend, I may geta a small commission.

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