Seven Strategies to Support Vocabulary Instruction

For School Leaders, Text-dependent Instruction

Vocabulary is one of the language comprehension strands in Scarborough’s Reading Rope (Scarborough, H.S., 2001) and includes word meaning, breadth (number of words known), depth (richness of word knowledge), and precision (accurate use of words in context), with a focus on building students’ word consciousness.  A strong vocabulary can benefit students’ oral language development and language comprehension, which — as we know from the Simple View of Reading — is vital for developing skilled readers. When planning instruction based on the science of reading, think about how to combine explicitly teaching certain words with the teaching of strategies for students to be able to independently infer the meaning of words in texts.

Here are some strategies you may find useful:

  1. Make sure all learners have access to Tier 1 (grade-level) texts. This includes your students who cannot yet decode grade-level texts — if these students are only exposed to decodable readers or leveled texts, they will not have opportunities to encounter the higher level vocabulary found in more complex texts. As Timothy Shanahan says, “If fourth-graders are taught from a second-grade book, when will they have the opportunity to confront the language and ideas of fourth-grade books? (Shanahan, 2020)” You can include scaffolds such as previewing the texts ahead of the whole-class lesson, providing students with an audio recording to listen to while they read, reviewing the text during small group time, and chunking the text.
  2. Regularly teach students about morphology. This includes prefixes, suffixes, Latin/Greek roots,  and base words. Show students how to mark up words and identify morphemes that can help them determine the word’s meaning.
  3.  Use think alouds during shared reading to show students how to infer the meaning of unknown words using context or morphology. Consider creating an inference wall (this can easily be converted to a digital slide rather than a physical wall in the age of digital teaching) to help.
  4. Visuals matter! When discussing a new word, include a visual to show students what the word represents. This can be particularly beneficial to emergent bilingual students. For students who need additional support, you may also consider reformatting your complex texts to include picture footnotes as visual cues to help them learn new vocabulary.
  5. Read multiple texts on the same topic (Adams, M.J., 2010) so that students see the same vocabulary being used in different contexts. After a whole-class reading on a particular topic, assign related readings for students to read independently or with a partner. ReadWorks and Newsela have pre-made text sets on a variety of nonfiction topics that may be a helpful starting point for lesson planning.
  6. We learn best by linking new information to information that we already have stored in our brains. To help students form these connections, create semantic networks by teaching words that are grouped in ways to help students remember them, such as taxonomies or categories. For example, the word “mammal” could be linked in a network of words connected to it: animals, ecosystems, habitats, etc. Semantic maps can help students connect words and build the breadth of their vocabulary.
  7. Ask students to paraphrase or restate new vocabulary in their own words, rather than reciting the dictionary definition. Other variations include asking students to use the new words in a sentence, provide examples and non-examples, and think of synonyms and antonyms for the word.

There is no doubt that building a robust vocabulary is important for reading comprehension. We hope some of these strategies are helpful in your lesson planning!


Sources and Further Reading:

Adams, M.J. (2010). Advancing our students’ language and literacy: The challenge of complex texts. American Educator. Retrieved January 2022, from 

Scarborough, H.S. (2002). Connecting early language and literacy to later reading (dis)abilities: Evidence, theory, and practice (S. B. Newman & D. K. Dickinson, Eds.). Guilford Press.

Shanahan, T. (2020). Limiting children to books they can already read: Why it reduces their opportunity to learn. American Educator. Retrieved January 2022, from