Vocab Rehab: How Do I Teach Vocabulary Effectively with Limited Time?

Vocab Rehab: How Do I Teach Vocabulary Effectively with Limited Time?

Vocab Rehab: How Do I Teach Vocabulary Effectively with Limited Time?

Vocab Rehab: How Do I Teach Vocabulary Effectively with Limited Time?


Find out how to make time every day to teach vocabulary through direct, explicit instruction that is also creative, interesting, and fun for students. Teacher and author Marilee Sprenger explains a new and effective approach to teaching vocabulary that calls for exploration, discovery, and playing with words--all in just 10 minutes per class. She offers Advice on how to focus short lessons so that students are fully engaged. Teaching tips that help ensure new words stick. A varied selection of novel strategies for teaching new words to students. Here's a way to jump-start your vocabulary program, no matter the grade level or subject. (ASCD Arias publication, 2014) 5" x 7 3/4," 48 pages.


Think of your brain as a filing cabinet. If you create a file for each word you hear and continually add to it, the file will eventually be full of word information, and the cabinet drawer will become well-worn and easy to open. A word becomes a true addition to your vocabulary when it is easily accessible: the more information you have stored in a word’s file, the more useful the word becomes.

There are certain words that teachers need to make sure students add to their mental filing cabinets—specifically, those that don’t habitually show up in the texts that we read to our students or the books that they read for themselves. According to Marzano and Pickering (2005), we teach approximately 300 such words to our students through direct vocabulary instruction each year. Research has shown that students who receive direct vocabulary instruction in content-specific terms can raise their scores on comprehension tests from the 50th percentile rank to the 83rd (Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986).

It all sounds pretty simple: students come to our classrooms with a certain number of vocabulary words, they gain more as they listen and learn through dialogue and reading, and we as teachers add a few more each week through direct instruction. We can do that; we have been doing that. So what’s the problem? Why are students having trouble with vocabulary on tests and in their speaking and writing? I believe the answer is “vocabulary diversity.”

Our classrooms are far more diverse—ethnically, linguistically, and socioeconomically—than they ever were in the past. In one oft-cited six-year study, researchers Todd Hart and Betty Risley (2003) compared the vocabularies of children from white-collar, blue-collar, and low-socioeconomic-status (low-SES) families. They found a huge discrepancy among the three groups in the number of words the children were exposed to at home—a finding that helps explain the discrepancy in the children’s vocabulary. Bracey (2006) reached the startling conclusion that children from middle-and upper-class families actually spoke more words than mothers from low-SES families. To further underline the discrepancy, the rate of vocabulary acquisition appears to be cumulative: children with larger vocabularies learn new words faster than those with more limited vocabularies (Hart &Risley, 2003).

The more words you know, the easier it is to draw connections with new ones—an important part of forming categories. As a student learns a new word, other words are attached to it. For example, the word airplane is linked to fly, which is related to eagle, which is related to birds, and so on; these words and others form the category of “things that fly” (Stahl &Stahl, 2012). A student who learns the word determine might store it alongside such related words as decide, define, conclude, and choose. Such simple categories of related words can serve as building blocks for more complex categories, thus helping to build cognitive skills. Synonyms, antonyms, and other relevant data are added to a word’s file as storage continues to grow, expanding over time as we hear the word take on different nuances in different contexts.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.