Becoming a Vocabulary Dynamo in 3 Easy

Use the big thinker’s vocabulary. Use big, bright, cheerful words. Use words that promise victory, hope, happiness, pleasure, avoid words that create unpleasant images of failure, defeat, grief.” 
David. J. Schwartz

Becoming a vocabulary dynamo: 

vocab2bdynamo-6001989Becoming a word wizard doesn’t just happen overnight, does it? But if we are purposeful in our choice of words like David Schwartz, we might just make that happen. It takes lots and lots of practice and lots and lots of reading for readers to grow strong vocabularies. It’s not really rocket science, but carefully crafted instruction can work wonders with our kids. 
Today, I’d like to talk about strategies you can use to grow word knowledge. Recently, I read some very shocking research, and I think it is often overlooked in the rush of daily lessons. So I’ll start with the research.

Earlier this week, I shared a post on my friend’s blog.  In preparing to write that post, I went back through the research I had completed for a workshop I presented to the staff at my school, and I was reminded about why many of our children struggle with comprehension in the upper grades.  The statistics really are shocking and left me feeling motivated to beef up vocabulary instruction within my classroom and to work toward educating parents on the importance of talking to their children. 

the research

  • Vocabulary knowledge accounts for over 80% of the variance in reading comprehension scores at grade level. 
  • In the 4th grade, 70% of the problem in reading comprehension is vocabulary. 
  • In a study by Hart and Risley, it was found that the vocabulary gap starts at age three. In low interaction homes, children acquire 2 words per day versus children in average interactive homes who gain 5 words per day versus children in high interaction homes who gain 9 words per day. (This really made me think about how very important early intervention and preschool is.) 
  • High knowledge third graders had vocabularies about equal to the lowest-performing 12th graders. (So without strong intervention, by 12th grade, the knowledge gap between high and low performing students is huge which we know is true.) 
  • By the end of second grade, kids have an average of 5500 root words that they understand versus struggling students who have an average of 3500 root words. High achieving students have an average of 7500 root word. 
  • First grade children from higher SES groups knew about twice as many words as lower SES children. 
  • Big gaps in word knowledge makes catching up difficult even thought once in school children appear to acquire new vocabulary at similar rates. To catch up, vocabulary disadvantaged children will have to acquire vocabulary at above average rates.

Beck, I., McKeown, M., Kucan, L., (2002). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction.
Hart, B., Risley, T. (1995). Meaningful Differences. Baltimore: Brookes. Co.
Biemiller, A. Teaching Vocabulary: Early, Direct and Sequential. The American Evaluator, 25 (1), 24-28.
The Partnership for Reading, (2003) Put Reading First: The research Building Blocks for Teaching Children to Read. NIFL.

So now what?

Well, in my opinion, we make vocabulary a priority by incorporating as much vocabulary instruction as you possibly can.  Here are just a few ideas that I use…
  • As you teach, you use “juicy” words and follow them with context.
  • You challenge students to improve word usage within their writing, keeping thesauruses and dictionaries readily available.
  • You read a variety of texts to your students at a higher level than they can read on their own pointing out the colorful language as you read it.
  • Teach figurative language and Tier 2 vocabulary through the use of Think Aloud to scaffold your students’ thinking.
  • Post Wow words in strategic places and place them on index cards to pull out during transitions to review with various games.
  • Use vocabulary word cards in center games to increase exposure.
  • Have students keep a personal dictionary to record the wow words they use.
  • Teach a Word of the Day and assign students as the Word Wizard.
Well, I expect a few readers will be wowed in a negative way by the sad statistics I have shared, but I hope that it will help you think about how you can increase the emphasis on vocabulary in your daily instruction.

resources you might like:

vocabulary activities for any list

Other Posts you might like:

I hope I’ve given you a few ideas, and I look forward to hearing yours.  What ideas have worked well for you? Share them in the comments below if you have a minute.



Carla is a licensed reading specialist with 27 years of experience in the regular classroom (grades 1, 4, and 5), in Title 1 reading, as a tech specialists, and a literacy coach. She has a passion for literacy instruction and meeting the needs of the individual learner.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. I agree with you. I know these statistics but it is always stunning to reread them. Every time!!!! And all of your tips are great! Thanks for linking up…it is, for sure, a WOW moment!

  2. To me, it's a sad case of kids not getting their needs met and how uneven the playing field is before children even enter school. This is what makes strive to help the underdog. When I see the data, it makes me sad for the children. When you see how hard kids who struggle to read work (much of the time), and yet they continue to struggle, you want so badly to make it easier on them. Thanks so much for commenting Em. I love the Wednesday Wow linky!

  3. Vocabulary is one of my favorite parts of literacy instruction. My kiddos are the underdogs and it is so much fun to watch their self confidence build as they start to wow others with words as the year progresses.

  4. I just find such joy and satisfaction in watching them progress. It motivates me to make every minute worthwhile and keeps me looking for better ways to "get more bang for my buck". I appreciate that you commented, and I know from your comment that you feel the same way. We can make a difference and even when our kids don't score like the top, we know the progress is there and can feel good that they are moving in the right direction.

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