Why “Covering” Vocabulary Fails to Get the Job Done and What to Do Instead

Why Covering Vocabulary Fails to Get the Job Done and What to Do Instead title image

Think back to when you were a student in school. Do you recall how vocabulary was taught to you? Do you remember copying the definitions from the dictionary? Or maybe you used them in a story? (better) You might have even had a vocabulary workbook. Well, certainly, things have changed, and we now realize how important it is for students to have explicit vocabulary instruction, multiple exposures to the words, their meaning, and their usage, and we even know that all words aren’t equal (or the ways that we teach them!)

So, what is a teacher to do?  With so many demands on time, how do we get the most bang for the teaching buck? The answer…make vocabulary instruction part of all instruction with a purposeful plan. How you might ask?

When I completed my program in reading education, Bringing Words to Life was the text for one of the courses, and I found it to be THE BEST book for vocabulary instruction. It is filled with simple lesson ideas that require few materials, but are easy to implement. You can purchase it for about $15.00, and you will not regret it because it will be a text you’ll go back to periodically for a refresher.

Bringing Words to Life vocabulary instruction recommended book

So, here are a few takeaways I’ve gotten from this book. My plan is to share five today in this post, but as I type, I may come up with more and in that case, there will be a second installment on this topic.

Be strategic with your read alouds.

Choose read alouds that have rich vocabulary and prior to reading, select the words that you wish to specifically teach your students. Discussion is a must with teaching vocabulary because students need 12-15 exposures to a word for it to sink in. Discuss examples and non-examples, how to use the word, and compare it to other similar words in intensity. As you discuss the words, record and post them for future reference.

Celebrate “wow” words in writing.

Using a graffiti wall where students can share their “wow” words for others to copy encourages your students to focus on word choice as they write, and we know that reading and writing go hand-in-hand. Another way to celebrate wow words is to have a funeral for dead words.  I love this bulletin board idea from Learning Focused. Here’s another from Fabulous in Fifth.

dead word cemetery for vocabulary instruction

Preselect and preteach Tier 2 words from your guided reading sets.

As part of the prereading process, teachers are encouraged to preselect and preteach tier 2 words.  What are these words?  These are the high utility words that add spice to writing and description to reading. Tier 1 words are your high frequency words that students already recognize and use without hesitation. Tier 3 words are technical words that students may need to know with a specific context, but they are words that the student is unlikely to use often in conversation or writing. As students read, teachers may need to offer support for Tier 3 words, but the focus for instruction and practice is placed on the Tier 2 words since these are used regularly.

With instruction for tier 2 words, teachers should go through a routine with them.

  • First, the teacher explains a new word by sharing the word, how it’s used, adding details about the word.
  • Then, the students take a turn working with the word by giving a meaning in their own language. Students can record it in writing or through discussion.
  • Once students have explained the word, adding a picture or way to remember the word would be next. In this step, pairing students adds in a little discussion and extra thinking about it.
  • As a follow up, have your students work with the words in activities to deepen their knowledge of the new word. Have them compare words or categorize them.  (part of speech, words related to XXX, etc.)
  • Continue during your week to allow your students discuss the new word (pair-share, elbow partners). Games such as Would You Rather? work well for this step.
  • As maintenance, have your students periodically play games to review new vocabulary to keep them solidly in mind.

Remember to teach “test talk” words.

One of the biggest obstacles for the students I have worked with is a lack of understanding with what I call test talk.  They can visualizing and give examples of synonyms and antonyms.  They can make an inference, but the challenge for them are those words, visualize, synonym, antonym and inference. Things get muddy for kids who struggle with reading. Their brains go into “meltdown” with all of the technical details they have to manage. So, if we tackle these words as we do other vocabulary, we can help our students keep them straight.  

I started posting all of these words in a Reading Vocabulary Word Wall a few years ago, and as we focus on the words, I put a special clip on them so my students see the word in print, can refer to it often on our wall, and recognize it more quickly when they see the word used in assessments. To see it in more detail, you can click the image above.

Weave in word play throughout the day.

You can get a lot of mileage out of two minute snippets. You can discuss vocabulary as a cue to line up as you wait in the hallway. If you have a spiral index card notebook, keep a running list of the words you have taught. Discuss the “odd one out”. For example, share three adjectives and one noun say or three synonyms and one other.

Another technique you might try is having a word wizard for the day. The word wizard’s job is to listen for colorful words being used by students, and you might include a word of the day that isn’t part of your other curriculum. Last year, I purchased this book and found it helpful for knowing which words are best for each grade.  

For other strategies like these, you might also grab the book, Word Nerds by Brenda Overturf. It has strategy suggestions as well.

recommended reading for vocabulary instruction

As predicted, we got to #5 fairly quickly. I will try to get a second installment of this post together to share next week sometime. These ideas may or may not be new to you. Even so, I hope they are a reminder that it’s important to be strategic with vocabulary instruction all…the…time.

vocabulary resources in my shop:

Blog Posts about vocabulary instruction:

As you can see, lessons without a vocabulary focus just won’t do.


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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. Great Post, Carla. I love teaching vocabulary. I give an extra "sticker" on journals if they use a vocabulary word. It makes them want to use them…and the more they use them…

  2. Great post. Vocabulary has been a focus for us this year. We are using Isabel Beck's structure found in "Text Talks." This is an amazing program that can be used with any read alouds. This post provides some great ideas and guidelines.

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