20+ Strategies for Vocabulary Instruction

Decorative: "Terminology Makes the Difference" beside an image of an open book out of which are arising various random letters


A. "Strategies for Vocabulary Instruction" (post) outlines some appraoches to "domain-specific, Tier 3 vocabulary terms ... in complex science texts [that] can present a major comprehension obstacle for students."

  • Note: Though both of resources provided here focus on sicence vocabulary, the strategies outlined are useful across the disciplines.

1. Two Basic Approaches

Instructors "are tasked with supporting students in building their knowledge of science vocabulary and enabling them to use scientific terms meaningfully in both discussion and in writing."

  • Common approach: "[P]re-empt difficulty by front-loading all or most unfamiliar terms"
  • "[B]est approach": "[T]houghtfully plan the learning sequence that involves students observing or investigating phenomena prior to presenting definitions, and having them construct their own definitions, with teacher support, based on their observations"

2. Questions to Ask

"[M]ake decisions ahead of time about how to facilitate science vocabulary instruction": 

  • "Do any terms need to be pre-taught?" 
  • "If so, what visuals, interactive models, or videos might be helpful?"
  • "Which terms will the teacher coach students to determine the meanings of based on context?"  
  • "Are there words that are unfamiliar but not terribly critical in the context of the lesson?"  

B. "Effective Strategies for Teaching Science Vocabulary" (pdf) "shares research-based strategies for science vocabulary instruction that are effective for all students, including English language learners."

1. Limits of Traditional Instruction

  • "Traditional science lessons ... often ... presen[t] students with science vocabulary words and as[k] them to write the words, find the definitions in a dictionary or the glossary of the textbook, match the words to definitions, or use the words in a sentence."
  • "[W]ords are often presented in isolation and students are tested on the words alone, without application to concepts."
  • "Many of us were 'taught' this way, so we remember how little these practices contributed to conceptual development." 

2. Active Strategies for Teaching (Science) Vocabulary (Each elaborated in the pdf.)

a. Time to Talk

  • "[P]romote students’ dialogue as they have instructional conversations."
  • "[P]rovide students with opportunities to use their colloquial language and translate back and forth with scientific and technical terms." 

b. Giving Instructions

"[S]upport students’ information processing by supplementing auditory information with visual clues ...using a variety of visual or aural support materials":

  • "[D]rawings, diagrams, and pictures to support the spoken word"
  • "[W]ritten instructions on word cards or SmartBoard along with verbal instructions"
  • "[S]et-up examples to supplement written lab instructions"
  • "[A]udiotaped instructions alongside written directions"
  • "[P]ictures with words in stages of lab procedures that students can sequence"

c. Reading Science Text Cards

i. "Text cards help students interact with words and their meanings."

  • "[C]reate science text cards by writing statements about science concepts on index cards."
  • "Working individually or in small groups, students discuss the statements before sorting."
  • "These cards can be used in two different ways":
    • "Pass out one card to each student, and have them find the other students who belong in their group."
    • "Mix up the cards and have students work in small groups to sort the characteristics into the appropriate groups."

ii. "A number of different formats can be used":

  • "True/false cards. These cards include statements drawn from the text. Students sort the cards into true and false piles."
  • "Agree/disagree cards. This format works well for more value-laden or controversial topics. One statement (including appropriate vocabulary) is written on each card. Students sort the cards into three categories: 'agree,' 'disagree,' or 'not sure.'"
  • "Matching pairs. Students are given a stack of cards and asked to match a term with its associated function, symbol, scientific name, etc." [StudyStack, Quizlet, etc. can be used this as well.] 
  • "Sequencing. For cyclical concepts ..., create one card for each stage in the cycle. Have students arrange the cards in a circular formation to represent the stages of the cycle."
  • "Classification. Make a set of index cards naming vertebrates, for example, and another set with characteristics of each group — one characteristic per card."

d. Word Lists/Word Banks

  • "[E]ncourage students to use the language of science in their verbal and written communication." 
  • Work with students to group words by their features:
    • Procedure words: compare, describe, investigate, test, recognize, alter, minimum, similar, same, size, support
    • Opposites: strong/weak, long/short, fast/slow, soft/hard, cool/heat, cold/hot
    • Movement words: slide, travel, roll, slow down, speed up, accelerate, sink, float

e. Word games [Again, StudyStack, Quizlet, etc. can be used this as well.] 

i. "Traditional games can be adapted to help students experience the language of science."

  • "For ... students, making their own games using science vocabulary promotes in-depth understanding of words and their meanings."

ii. Some game options:

  • "Hangman" 
  • "Odd One Out"
  • "Charades"
  • "Bingo"
  • "Scrabble"
  • "Trivial Pursuit"
  • "Pictionary"
  • "Dingbats"
  • "Twenty questions"
  • "Who am I?"
  • "Breaking words down into smaller words"

f. Word Parts

  • "[R]einforce the structure of words as students identify and interpret prefix, suffix, base word and their meanings:
    • "photosynthesis — photo (light), synth (make), isis (process)"
    • "metamorphosis — meta (large), morph (change), osis (process)"

g. Graphic Organizers

  • "When students interact with science words in multiple ways, they are able to approach words and their meanings more fully."
  • "Graphic organizers can help to present words with a range of contextual information."

h. Additional Strategies

  • "Use lots of pictures and labels. ... [V]isual reinforcement supports comprehension and retention." 
  • "Teach definitional information When you read definitions with students, be sure they understand how to read pronunciation keys, parts of speech, etc." 
  • "Use repetition ... [to] clarify pronunciation and provid[e] opportunities to transfer words from working memory to long-term memory." 
  • "Present words in multiple contexts ... [to] giv[e] students a model for how words are used appropriately." 
  • Use direct instruction of word learning strategies, including structural analysis  ... [E]xamine the component parts of a word — e.g. the root word, suffix, and prefix — to determine the word’s meaning. Teaching students this strategy can empower them to decode unfamiliar words." 
  • "Conduct collaborative group work."
  • "Build on students’ prior knowledge ... [I]dentif[y] students’ misconceptions and addres[s] them." 
  • "Engage students in instructional conversations ... [S]tudents have discussions with other students and the teacher on topics that are relevant and have meaning to them ... not to get correct answers to test questions, but instead to explore ideas." 
  • "Integrate technology into your instruction ... [E]ngage students ... with a variety of visual and aural alternatives ... to reinforce word meanings and provide students with multi-sensory connections." 
  • "Encourage 'science talk' brainstorming. Provide students with opportunities to brainstorm ideas about science and encourage them to ... talk about the natural world." 
  • "Limit traditional vocabulary instruction. Traditional science vocabulary instruction, in which words are taught in isolation, is not conducive to conceptual development." 
  • "Pair students with peers during reading." 
  • "Use active voice when introducing or discussing concepts ... 'Animals use oxygen,' for example, rather than 'Oxygen is used by animals.'"
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