Strategies for Effective Vocabulary Instruction

By Phillips, Donna C. Kester; Foote, Chandra J. et al. | Reading Improvement, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Strategies for Effective Vocabulary Instruction

Phillips, Donna C. Kester, Foote, Chandra J., Harper, Laurie J., Reading Improvement

Many pre-service, novice and veteran teachers implement ineffective vocabulary instruction strategies in an attempt to save time and move quickly to more meaningful content instruction. This article describes five student-centered strategies for improving vocabulary instruction across all levels and content areas. Research and theory supporting each of the strategies is detailed and more commonly used, yet less effective, strategies are identified in an attempt to help K-12 teachers, as well as teachers in higher education classrooms to view vocabulary instruction as a means to assist students in understanding the major concepts within a discipline. The authors conclude by recommending variety and differentiation in vocabulary instruction to enhance student learning.


The following article is born of necessity. After observing student teachers, novice teachers and veterans, we have noticed that many teachers, no matter the content area, fail to stimulate and engage students when they address vocabulary concepts. Unfortunately, too many teachers resort to copying definitions as the strategy of choice in vocabulary instruction. When asked why they use this method, teachers respond that it saves time and enables them to progress to the actual content in a more efficient manner. A student-centered focus on learning would counter this response suggesting that time is actually wasted when students aren't actively and mentally engaged in language study. This article will suggest five vocabulary teaching strategies that stimulate the adolescent or child mind in a time efficient manner.

The American Federation of Teachers notes that research on vocabulary instruction consistently supports practices that include "a variety of complementary methods designed to explore the relationships among words and the relationships among word structure, origin, and meaning. (Moats, 1999, p. 8)." It can be said that all teachers are reading teachers and therefore it is necessary that all teachers develop the knowledge and skills in language arts instruction to promote student learning in the content areas. The National Board Professional Teaching Standards in language arts require accomplished teachers to strengthen student sensitivity to and proficiency in the appropriate uses of language (NBPTS, 2006). The majority of teachers, especially at the secondary level, have not taken coursework in their teacher preparation programs that provides the background knowledge to effectively address reading and language arts in their classes (Moates, 1999).

Tried but Not True

The following strategies are presented in an effort to illustrate to teachers the less effective methods that are often used in hopes that they might recognize themselves and establish an awareness of a need to change. In essence these strategies are "well tried" but least successful or true.

1. Definition Copying

The strategy of copying definitions takes many forms. Some teachers will list the vocabulary words on the board and have students look up the definitions in the dictionary or textbook glossary. Others will list the vocabulary and definitions on the board and require students to copy these postings. Hybrid versions of this strategy include definition copying as homework or searching on-line for definitions using a website like or

2. Context Clues

The practice of asking students to use context clues to help them understand word meaning is a step above the definition search strategy in that it requires engagement and questioning on the part of the student. Teachers who use this method identify a reading passage, typically part of the assigned textbook, which includes challenging vocabulary words imbedded within the reading. Students essentially guess at the meaning based on the parts of the text that they do comprehend.

Both of these widely accepted methods for helping students learn new words fail to develop relational knowledge that is necessary for true understanding of the concepts represented by the vocabulary words (Blachowicz & Fisher, 1996). …

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