Posted in Vocabulary

Fab Five for Vocabulary Instruction

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One of the cornerstones of reading comprehension is knowledge of vocabulary.   In fact, experts believe that comprehension is possible only when students already know 90- to 95-percent of the words in a given text.1 That’s why effective vocabulary instruction is vitally important for every level and subject.

On average students need to learn between 2-thousand and 3-thousand new words each year, just to keep up with their peers.2   Those who read outside of school will easily manage this, since just 20-minutes of independent reading a day puts children in contact with over 2-million words.3  But, what about students who don’t read outside of school?  What about those who come from homes where English isn’t even spoken?  These students, along with those whose vocabulary acquisition has already been hampered by a learning disability or deficit socio-cultural environment, will fall further and further behind without focused vocabulary instruction.

If you’re looking for the ONE silver bullet strategy to teach vocabulary, you’re not going to find it here–or anywhere.  That’s because studies have shown students need both direct and indirect instruction. They also need multiple exposures to a word in different contexts to truly learn a new word.4  This need for repetition makes sense given the four levels of word knowledge that exist:

  1. I never saw it before.
  2. I’ve seen it before, but I’m not sure what it means.
  3. I recognize it in context; it has something to do with…
  4. I know it.

Even though students need variety in vocabulary instruction, there are some practices proven to be highly effective.  I call these the “Fab Five” Vocabulary Strategies, and they include both direct and indirect instruction.


Teachers should strive to teach about 400 words each year through direct instruction.2  (I know that would make for some intimidating weekly word lists, but you can leverage knowledge of word roots and affixes here.)   Even though direct instruction implies a teacher-led activity, actively involving students in the learning process, by using discussion, graphic organizers or self-evaluation tools, increases understanding.  Of course, it is also important that the words be relevant.  The best way to ensure this is to link vocabulary instruction to texts the students are currently reading.  Peruse class texts in advance to identify potential vocabulary words you can use during explicit instruction.

#1 – Analyzing Word Structure

Morphology involves segmenting words into their component parts:  base words, roots, prefixes and suffixes.  Students who learn the meaning of common roots and affixes (prefixes and suffixes) can apply that knowledge whenever they encounter a new word that contains a known component.   For example, a student who knows that –port- means “to carry” and -able means “able to” can assume that portable means “able to be carried” even if they are encountering the word portable for the first time.  They can then apply that knowledge to new words containing these word parts:  transport, portal, or transit.   There are a number of great resources for employing word structure analysis in your classroom, such as this one from Read.Write.Think. or this one from the Florida Center for Reading Research.

My post on tinycards also included a link to existing root word flash cards I’ve used with great success.

#2 – Read Alouds

Yes, you should be reading aloud to your students, even in middle grades and beyond.  Defining unfamiliar words encountered while reading improves student understanding of word meanings (by 10%) and re-reading the text aids retention of words by 12%5.  I actively involve my students his this process (another retention-booster) by having them record any unknown words on a sticky note as I read the selection (or use one of the much more dramatic readings provided by our textbook).  We spend a few minutes after reading to list all their words on the board. (I also “play a game” where I try to spell it correctly without looking in the book, to model phonetic spelling and focus their attention on this aspect of the new words as well.  They love to “catch” me making a mistake and correct me. Sneaky, sneaky teacher.)

Want to know more about reading aloud to older students?  Check out this article by Valentina Gonzalez:  or this book: 

#3 – Semantic Word Maps (aka “Graphic Organizers”)

Use graphic organizers to encourage students to interact with new vocabulary.  The Frayer model is an effective one, where students list examples and non-examples of the word, as well as key features and characteristics.   I also use a chart like the one modeled here to guide students through Marzano’s 6-Step Vocabulary Acquisition process.  You can even modify and display student-created word maps using a Graffiti Wall like the one pictured to the right.  Here, the Frayer model was adapted to include artistic elements, then displayed so students (and the teacher) could easily review new words (which reinforces retention).

#4 – Context Clues

Nothing new here.  You are probably already teaching your students to use context clues (words surrounding an unfamiliar term that hint at its meaning) to determine the meaning of unknown or multiple meaning words.  Modeling use of all the different types of context clues and pointing out the signal words associated with each type will help them maximize word acquisition during independent reading.  Here are the types of clues I teach and the order I use:  definition, restatement, synonym, comparison, antonym, contrast, example, cause and effect, and inference.  When I first started teaching, I tried to teach all nine types at once.  I quickly learned it is more effective to introduce them one at a time, allowing students to spend more time practicing them and keeping the strategy at the forefront.


#5 – Independent Reading

As noted before, students need repeated exposure to a new word, anywhere from four to eight unique encounters6, to assimilate it into their vocabulary.  And, there’s no better way to ensure students are exposed to new words than by encouraging them to read self-selected titles at a level that is simultaneously accessible and a bit challenging.  (Remember, they must already know 90% to 95% of the surrounding words to make sense of new ones.)

Early in the school year, I teach students the five-finger method for determining if a book is at the “right” level.  Essentially, they read the first page, holding up one finger every time they come across a word they aren’t sure about.  At the end of the first page, if they’re holding up five fingers, the book is too hard.  (“Wrap those five fingers around the book and put it back on the shelf,” I tell them.)  If they’re holding up four fingers, the book will be tough, and may require them to read with a dictionary nearby, but they’ll learn a lot.  Three fingers is ideal, engaging and informative.  Two fingers means the book will be a fairly easy read.  Finally, if they’re holding up just one finger (or worse, none) the book is too easy.  In our class these books are called “brain candy.”  Like candy, you can eat a little bit just for fun, but it’s not a healthy diet.  I allow students to read one brain candy book a year for class credit. (“One for fun, then read to feed.”)

It’s important to track this independent learning, so you and students can review what they’re learning.  In a future post, I’ll share my method for tracking reading and teaching writing at the same time.  But, you could also use one of the graphic organizers mentioned above to have students document new vocabulary words.  Some teachers also like to use a reading journal, reserving space in the back for a student-created glossary.

If it seems like the line between direct and indirect vocabulary instruction just got a bit blurry, that’s because it is.  We need to explicitly teach students vocabulary strategies they can continue to use outside of the classroom.   Throughout their lifetime, they will encounter new words, conversing with friends, reading texts in other content areas, as they learn a new profession someday.   Teaching vocabulary means equipping them with word knowledge they need to immediately make sense of a specific passage, but it also means training them to utilize skills for understanding the tens of thousands of new words—some of which haven’t even been coined yet—the future holds for them.


1 Hirsch, 2003

2 Beck, McKeown, and Kuncan, 2002

3  Texas Reading Initiative, 2002

4 Stahl, 2004

5 Biemiller and Boote, 2006

6 Apthorp et al., 2011

Posted in Games, Vocabulary

Step Up Your Game with Word Ladders

Word games are a wonderful way to incorporate vocabulary activities into your classroom.   Word searches and crossword puzzles reinforce spelling skills, and if you use word definitions as clues rather than giving students a word bank, it aids retention of new vocabulary and encourages critical thinking.  The word ladder is another brain-building activity involving word play.

Word ladders challenge players to identify a string of words all having the same number of letters.  In fact, each word shares all but one letter with the word immediately above or below it.  Using the given clue for each word, players must change just one letter to form a new word that satisfies the given definition or clue.  The simplest puzzles, suitable for younger children or ELLs, involve just three- or four- letter words and have fewer rungs, or words, moving through words like walk… talk…tale… and tile.  More advanced puzzles use longer words with more challenging vocabulary, like halved… halted… halter… falter… filter… and so on.

Word Ladders


Here are some word ladders I created for my 6th grade intensive reading classes (where every day either begins or ends with vocabulary practice).  I start them out with four-word puzzles, until they get the hang of it.  Then we progress to five- and six-word ladders.  I let them work with a partner, so students engage one another in dialogue about the target words and definitions (a sneaky way to add an auditory learning component).  The first time they work through a word ladder it might take them 7-10 minutes, but as they gain experience with this activity, they can easily complete one in under five minutes.  For me, this makes word ladders the ideal bell ringer or enrichment activity for fast finishers.  The activity is inherently fun, and students love to compare their finished puzzles with their peers’, so it’s a self-checked learning activity that requires no grading!

You can create your own word ladders with this free puzzle-maker by  If you want to build a puzzle using specific words (or create a themed puzzle) you can generate a word ladder list on this site created by Stanford professor Keith Schwartz.

Word Ladders online

Looking for something a little more turnkey?  You’ll find read-to-play online word ladders at (for grades K through 3) or  There are word ladder apps for the iPad like this one by Ventura Educational Systems (costs less than $1).   Access print-ready word ladders at  This scholastic resource for grades 4 through 6 is the book that first introduced me (and by extension my students) to word ladders.  I still use it as a go-to for quick bell ringers or extension work.

If you’re looking for a low-prep, high-value vocabulary activity to add to your teaching toolbox, I heartily recommend Word Ladders.

Ladders Carroll

Posted in Vocabulary

Tiny Cards – Big Results

In my previous post I addressed the importance of moving knowledge from working memory to long-term memory.  Of course, practice is an important factor, but did you know you can speed up retention by carefully timing that practice?  Spaced repetition uses a research-based formula to present information in the most efficient order for learning.

Now, one of the biggest challenges my struggling readers face is a puny vocabulary.  The deficit impacts their comprehension.  It also causes them to miss test questions measuring concepts they know because they’re unfamiliar with the vocabulary in the answerchoices.  As you can imagine, I put a lot of time into developing their vocabulary.  I find I get the most bang for my buck by teaching root words and affixes – since I can teach one root, and they can extrapolate from that the meaning of dozens of new words.

Recently, I discovered a flash-card program that lets me combine the power of spaced repetition with the power of root words… and I was amazed at the results.  In just 15-20 minutes of practice with TinyCards, my intensive reading students learned 25 root words with 80% accuracy.  We continued to revisit the cards from time to time, and on our end-of-quarter test students demonstrated they had not only retained the knowledge of these common roots, they were able to apply it to new word identification with the same 80% accuracy.

The TinyCard program is free, and I’m sharing a link to the root word cards referenced above.  I added simple illustrations to my card set, since illustrations have been proven to increase retention.  If you decide to try it, or if you’ve used these cards before (or a similar program called Anki), I’d love to hear about your results as well.