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Ministry of Education.

Effective instruction develops vocabulary and vocabulary solving skills

The significance of acquiring domain specific vocabulary and understanding the way lexical items are used is very important. In general the more vocabulary a student has, the more vocabulary they are able to learn and the more they are able to cope and learn from complex academic tasks.

Hiebert & Kamil, 2005

Much vocabulary instruction in secondary content area classrooms appears to be focused on understanding new terms (that is, receptive vocabulary) but students also need extensive instruction and practice in using new vocabulary in speaking and writing (that is, productive vocabulary).

It is also important that content area teachers provide instruction to develop general academic and lower frequency vocabulary as well as subject-specific vocabulary.

Students benefit from the explicit instruction in and reinforcement of common strategies for vocabulary problem-solving. Such strategies include the use of morphological strategies (for example, prefixes), technical resources and dictionaries, checking across contexts, knowledge of parts of speech, and collocations.

Vocabulary learning is most effective when new terms are taught in the context of a current unit of work. One reason for this is that people need to experience and use a new term lots of times, and in a relatively short amount of time, before they can understand and use it confidently.

A vocabulary learning sequence

An effective sequence of vocabulary learning will include these steps:

1. Inquiry to identify students’ existing receptive and productive knowledge of vocabulary related to that topic, e.g.:

  • teacher informally monitoring a ‘Vocabulary Jumble’ activity or ‘Before and After Vocab Grid’
  • pre-unit vocabulary test, which could include questions about understanding words in context and activities where students have to use the words in context.

2. Explicit instruction in new terminology, e.g.:

  • word lists with definitions
  • annotated examples
  • visual representations
  • teacher examples.

3. Repeated opportunities to practice – both receptive and productive, e.g.:

  • matching activities
  • clines
  • clustering
  • picture dictation.

4. Metacognition – students reflecting on their own learning, e.g. discussion or written reflection about:

  • strategies they use for remembering meanings of words,
  • strategies they use for working out the meaning of unfamiliar words
  • teacher modelling a ‘think aloud’ in which they talk about their own strategy for working out the meaning of a particular word.

5. Inquiry into effectiveness of teaching sequence, and planning next steps.

Further reading about vocabulary

  • For further reading about vocabulary refer to Chapter 2 of Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9 to 13.
  • Find examples of  vocabulary teaching activities.

Some key questions to focus teachers’ inquiry about students’ knowledge of vocabulary

  • What important new vocabulary (in this topic or text) will my students need support with to understand and use?
  • What strategies do my students have for solving unfamiliar vocabulary when they encounter it?
  • Are my students able to use this vocabulary effectively in their own speaking and writing (as well as understand it when reading and listening)
  • What strategies do my students employ when they encounter unfamiliar vocabulary?

Published on: 08 Jan 2018