Engaging in Effective Vocabulary Instruction

When Willow Morningside visited Emma Martel’s class, she wanted to know just what was being taught at Wyoming Indian Elementary on the Wind River Reservation that would cause her 5-year-old grandson to tell her, “Grandma, you are a nuisance!” upon being asked to sit still. Nuisance was one of the vocabulary words Ms. Martel had taught from her vocabulary lesson in Collaborative Classroom’s Making Meaning® Vocabulary program. When asked how Collaborative Literacy was going, Emma shared this story along with another anecdote. Harrison Lone Eagle reported he had gone hunting over the weekend, and although they were “energetic when we started hunting, we were exhausted when we were done.”

Research on the importance of vocabulary in learning to read as well as general success in school has been well documented for many years. “The importance of vocabulary knowledge to school success, in general, and reading comprehension, in particular, is widely documented” (Becker 1977; Anderson and Nagy 1991). The National Reading Panel (2000) believed vocabulary acquisition to be one of five main components in learning to read and comprehend.

There is also much research on the effect poverty has on vocabulary acquisition. “It is now well accepted that the chief cause of the achievement gap between socio economic groups is a language gap” (Hirsch 2003). The well-known Betty Hart and Todd Risley study (1995) comparing vocabulary knowledge of professional to poverty-stricken homes backs up E. D. Hirsch’s belief. This study, in which the researchers spent time in actual homes analyzing amount and type of language used, found that toddlers of poverty heard strikingly fewer words per hour and that the words they did hear were often negative directions such as, “Stop that!”

So if we want to equalize this achievement gap, one of the most important things we can teach are WORDS! Teachers often feel that Making Meaning Vocabulary lessons are easy. Our lessons take only 10 to 15 minutes a day and get students to use these words in actual conversations rather than the time old method of looking them up in the dictionary, copying the definition, and writing a sentence with each word. While this activity is rigorous (or just downright painful), research does not prove it to be effective. Our lessons use words from the previous week’s comprehension read-aloud trade book so that students have already met them in context. We review the section of the book in which this word was used, give a child-friendly definition, and have students use these words in sentences and activities as they turn and talk with their partner. Our simple but highly effective method is well documented in Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan’s Bringing Words to Life (2013). Not only are these lessons effective, they are fun—proving that lasting learning does not have to be painful.

Just look at this list of activities (from page xv of the Introduction for Making Meaning® Vocabulary Teaching Guide Grade 3) third graders get to engage in to acquire their vocabulary words:

So if you want to excite students about words without being a nuisance or exhausting them, give our vocabulary lessons a try. When students begin to use these words in their reading and writing, you will re-examine what rigorous vocabulary instruction needs to look and feel like in the hands of the learner.

To read more about vocabulary instruction, see “Making Meaning Vocabulary—My Five Gems!



Anderson, Richard C., and William E. Nagy. 1991. “Word Meanings.” In Handbook of Reading Research, Vol. 2, edited by Rebecca Barr, Michael L. Kamil, Peter Mosenthal, and P. David Pearson, 690–724. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum

Becker, Wesley C. 1977. “Teaching Reading and Language to the Disadvantaged: What We Have Learned from Field Research.” Harvard Educational Review 47: 518–543.

Hart, Betty, and Todd R. Risley. 1995. Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. 2003. “Reading Comprehension Requires Knowledge—of Words and the World: Scientific Insights into the Fourth-Grade Slump and the Nation’s Stagnant Comprehension Scores.” American Educator 27, no. 1 (Spring): 10–13, 16–22, 28–29, 48.

National Reading Panel. 2000. Teaching Children to Read: An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications For Reading Instruction: Reports of the Subgroups. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health.