Learn what works

In order to develop a rich understanding of new vocabulary, students must learn more than the meanings of words. They must have the opportunity to use the words repeatedly in a variety of contexts and situations. Repeated exposures help to develop the background knowledge that leads to deep understanding. The teacher’s role is to move the students beyond a simple understanding by providing multiple exposures and explaining nuances of meaning students may not discover on their own.

Repeated exposures need to continue over several days. A five-day cycle is effective. Each exposure may create a new way for a student to connect to the word. When new vocabulary is learned this way, students become able to recall the words’ meanings quickly for use in reading, speaking, and writing.

See how it works




Have students choose which target word goes with each situation. factory, market, or ranch

Which word:

  • Is often outdoors, and a place for buying goods
  • Is a place where things are made into products
  • Is a place where livestock is raised
Have students complete a chart telling a word association and giving their reason or explanation.
Word: rowdy
Assoc.: cowboy
Why?: loud, fighting, shooting guns
Word: generous
Assoc.: Bill Gates
Why?: Gives money for low income health care
Generating Situations
Ask students to give situations to illustrate target words. What would make you say:

  • You’re so gregarious!
  • You’re so industrious!
  • You’re too slovenly!

What would you say to show you are:

  • fastidious
  • generous
  • flexible

Describe what each would do:

  • a clever dog
  • an accomplished athlete
  • a splendid chef
Graphic Organizers
Students identify words and concepts they know in relation to the target word.
  • Concept Definition Map
  • Semantic Map
  • Semantic Feature Analysis
  • Frayer Model
Question Connections
Ask students questions to think more deeply about the word. Have you ever swirled something? Explain.

Which words often go with dingy? Why?

To what degree would you relish a pizza? a steak? a lobster?

Idea Completion
Provide a sentence stem requiring students to understand the word in order to complete or explain a situation. I need to tauten the … because…

He was agog because…

Questions, Reasons, & Examples
Students are asked a question and must supply a reason or example. Why would a typhoon be dangerous?

Could you swirl a crayon?

Post & Tally or Word Wizard
Tally on posted word cards each time students use the word or find it in their reading. Students can share their use or discovery of the word with the entire class.
Relationships Among Words
Students are asked to consider how two target words relate to answer questions. Why would a factory use a windmill?

Would you pay homage to something intolerable?

Facets of Meaning
Students choose between two similar situations, identifying which most closely fits the full meaning of the target word, emphasizing the uniqueness (a facet) of the target word. Berate:

a) A police officer yells at a driver whose car is blocking traffic.


b) A police officer calls a tow truck to move a car that is blocking traffic.

Word Sort
Closed Sort: Students sort words into given categories and explain.

Open Sort: Students sort into categories they notice and explain.


Concept Circles
Provide a circle with items, and students will title the circle with a concept word.

Provide a circle with items, and the students will decide which item does not belong, or fill an empty space with another example. Students will then title the circle with a concept word.

Items: bulldozer, large tools, tent, pots and pans, puppy.

Students would remove the puppy and title it equipment.

Vocabulary Notebook
Students collect words, friendly definitions, information about the word, context (parts of a story or poem where the word appeared), pictures, their own sentences, etc.
Word Wall
Students manage a bulletin board of “Hall of Fame” words they “own” or are working to “own.”
Word Pairs
Give students pairs of words they have been studying and ask them to determine if the words are categorized as:

  • Same
  • Opposite
  • Go together
  • No relation

Then have the students explain why.

slender and lithe (same)

weary and sprightly (opposite)

clog and brogue (go together)

venue and ewer (no relation)

Do what works

Vocabulary Log 1
Vocabulary Log 2
Vocabulary Log 3 (Primary)
Vocabulary Tally Chart


  • Allen, J. (1999). Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4-12. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
  • Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing Words to Life. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  • Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2008). Creating Robust Vocabulary: Frequently Asked Questions & Extended Examples. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  • Stahl, S. (1999). Vocabulary Development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.
  • Stahl, S. & Kapinus, B. (2001). Word Power: What Every Educator Needs to Know About Teaching Vocabulary. National Education Association of the United States.