If you have questions about teaching new vocabulary words to learners in grades K-5, you’re in the right spot! This post kicks off a 9-part series with everything you need to know!
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Phonemic awareness. Phonics. Comprehension. Fluency.
Am I missing something? What’s another key element to reading instruction?
Isn’t that how it often works? We think of vocabulary as that thing we get to – if we have time.
But we’re making a mistake.
Words are the tools we use to access our background knowledge, express ideas, and learn new concepts. The words children know will determine how well they can comprehend texts, in the upper elementary grades, in middle and high school, and in college. Reading is far more than recognizing words and and remembering their meanings, but if the reader does not know the meanings of a sufficient proportion of words in the text, comprehension is impossible.”
Stahl & Nagy, Teaching Word Meanings
Let’s take a look at 10 mistakes to avoid when teaching vocabulary.
Mistake #1 – Choosing the wrong words
Choosing the vocabulary words that you’ll teach is something of an art. It doesn’t mean buying a Word of the Day book and following it without deviation. It also doesn’t mean choosing a big word just because it’s big and impressive.
We need to make sure we’re choosing mostly Tier 2 words – words that our students will encounter and use in their reading, speaking, and writing. Not sure how to choose these words? Not to worry! I’ll get into that in week 2.
Mistake # 2 – Having your students look up words and copy their dictionary definitions
This is arguably one of the worst ways to “teach” new vocabulary. All of us know how unhelpful the dictionary can be when trying to grasp the meaning of a new word. We must go beyond this out-of-date teaching method.
Mistake #3 – Only having students write the word in a sentence
This is a step in the right direction, but it’s just a step. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen too many sentences that still didn’t show that my learners understood the meaning of the sentence.
She inquired a question.
I collided my little sister.
Mistake #4 – Failing to go beyond a surface understanding
Having students copy definitions from the dictionary (please don’t) and having them write the word in a sentence (a good start, but just a start) will not get our learners very far. There’s so much more we can do to help them make the words their own. We need to help them write kid-friendly definitions, come up with synonyms and antonyms (or examples and nonexamples), and more.
We will go into this in depth in the posts about teaching vocabulary to primary learners and teaching vocabulary to intermediate learners.
Mistake #5 – Having a hit or miss approach
I completely and fully understand how hard it is to squeeze another thing into your day. It’s only when we grasp the vital importance of vocabulary growth that we choose to make time for it.
But it must be more than hit or miss – something we do just once a week or only when we find extra time. We must make it a regular part of our days. If you’re concerned about how on earth you’ll fit in something else, take a good hard look at everything else. Where can you cut or substitute?
Then – design a regular routine for your vocabulary lessons to make them as efficient as possible. That brings me to mistake #6.
Mistake #6 – Neglecting to have a solid strategy for teaching new words
It’s important to do some research and think through exactly how you’re going to introduce and reinforce new vocabulary words. How will your learners really own those words?
Not sure where to begin? I’ve got a few ideas to share with you in this series.
Mistake #7 – Having a “set it and forget it” mindset
If we teach the word on Monday – a “word of the week” approach – and refer to it halfheartedly throughout the week (or, some weeks – let’s be honest – not at all), we haven’t accomplished much.
Our students need more than a quick introduction and an encouragement to use the word. They need active vocabulary learning. That brings us to mistake #8.
Mistake #8 – Making vocabulary instruction boring
It may be hard to imagine how learning new words could be fun – especially if you were subject to copying word definitions and writing endless sentences when you were in school (as I was). But the fact is that there are many, many ways to turn vocabulary learning into a game.
Those are coming up in the blog posts about whole class and small group vocabulary activities. Stay tuned!
Mistake #9 – Losing track of your ultimate goal
As you know, our ultimate goal is to have students do well on the vocabulary quiz at the end of the week.
No! No it isn’t!
Certainly we want our students to show their understanding by performing well on our assessments, but our ultimate goal is that our students use the words in their reading and writing. This is the true test.
Mistake #10 – Forgetting to celebrate word learning
In Word Nerds, by Overturf, Montgomery, and Smith, the authors have classroom celebrations at the end of each vocabulary cycle. They combine vocabulary review with a small class party.
Even if you don’t feel ready for that, keep an ear open for good vocabulary use all day long – whether that’s at recess, in the lunchroom, or during a social studies lesson. Get excited about those big brain words your students are using – and praise them for it!
This post was just the beginning. Stay tuned for a variety of helpful posts. You’re about to become a pro at teaching vocabulary!
Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7
Do you have Part 8 available?
No, but I know lots of people are waiting for it. I am very busy with some big projects but will definitely get to it when I can!
Thank you for all the resources about vocabulary. I could not find the Small Group lesson that was to be released in May. Please advise where I can find it. Thank you. Margaret
I’m so sorry, Margaret, but I’ve gotten behind. I have three big projects right now (an online course, a membership site, and a podcast), and I need to get all three done before I can get to unrelated blog posts. So it may not be until late fall. So sorry about that!
I like your ideas on how to teach the vocabulary because it integrates vocabulary strategies. The strategies are what we are asked to focus on the most and not necessarily a certain list of words. If they master the strategies than when they come across any word that they are not familiar with they have a way to determine its meaning and take ownership of it. Also, when taking assessments we don’t always know what vocabulary words will be on them so if they have the strategies they will still have success.
Yes, those strategies are key!
Very helpful and exciting! Thanks so much!
Thanks for reading, Ivy!
Thanks Anna, this was really a useful piece of information. Although, I love dictionary but may be you are right it is kind of an outdated method especially for kids of this era. Looking forward for the new posts and really appreciate the work you are doing here.
HI Farheen! The reason it’s out of date is because it really isn’t very effective. I’ll have lots of better ideas for you in this series, so stay tuned!
Hi! I LOVE this blog—can you give a link to the small group vocab activities, or word work ideas for use in Daily 5?
Hi Emily! I admit that I got behind on this series, and I’m currently consumed by other projects. When I get back to regular posting on the blog I’ll be sure to finish it up!
What about a post about #10 Celebrating? I would love to hear how that is done!!!
I don’t plan on a post about this Julie, but look for a chapter on it in the book called “Word Nerds.”
Looking forward to the upcoming posts! And thank you for the wealth of information and teaching tools you provide for your fellow teachers! You are so generous with your free materials and you have helped me on so many late nights when I’ve been looking for a new activity or mini book to use with my kindergarteners. I also regularly recommend your website to the parents of my students. Thank you again!
Thank you SO much for passing along my site, Karen!
oh it seems i need to change my out of date method ..using dictionary
Hi Ayu! The reason it’s out of date is because it’s simply not very effective. But don’t worry – I’ll give you lots of ideas for more meaningful activities – so stay tuned!
Iam taking so much from you, though I am aprimary school teacher of english in russia. Thank you , thank you, thank you!
You’re welcome, Inessa!
Thank you! This was very informative!
You’re very welcome, Helen!
Thanks sooooo much for the enlightenment . I am looking forward to the other post
I look forward to sharing more, Afsat!
Hello, I can’t thank you enough for your posts. I work with Deaf and Hard of Hearing students and am always trying to close the gap in their language. It is funny that this came up today as I was just speaking to their mother about their lack of vocabulary for things in their house. I have sent Mom home with post it notes and she is going to be labelling everything in the house and next week we will focus on everything to do with these words. I struggle sometimes because they have so many missing words (since they haven’t heard them). They received cochlear implants at the age of 3 and now are 7 so their hearing age is 4. Lots of catching up. I was wondering how I can download all of your posts to keep and review. I am working on comprehension with another hard of hearing student and your posts were excellent. I want to print them all off to read again and again. Thanks
Copy and paste in a document. That way, you have them for reference.
That’s one way – or you can click the tiny green “print friendly” button at the bottom of each post. Then you can print just the post without everything else in the sidebar, ads, etc.
my understanding is the most growth in vocabulary is before they even begin kindergarten. So I look forward to using the strategies in my Pre-K class as well thank you.
Most of this will refer to more systematic vocabulary instruction in grades K-5, but I do think you’ll be able to apply some of it to preschool as well, Heather!
Can’t wait for this series!!
Mohammed Aisha Is'haqu
This is an awesome piece, I look forward to learning more from you measured mum.
I’m glad this is helpful for you!
Hi Anna, I can’t wait for the coming up series! Your resources are inspiring and really helpful. Thanks a lot.
Everyone who teaches literacy needs to read Bringing Words to Life by Isabel Beck. She provides a framework for teaching robust vocabulary, avoiding all the pitfalls presented in this article. We use this methodology at the school I work at and the kids (K-12) all benefit and grow their vocabulary.
Totally agree, Sue! I love that book and have it with many others that are extremely helpful for teachers building vocabulary. I’ll be quoting it when applicable throughout this series.
Thank you for your website. I teach kindergarten and you are my go to site to get ideas and activities along with This Reading Mama. I took part in the Teaching Every Reader. I am still working on completing it but love what I have listened to so far.
I am looking forward to your vocabulary series. Where I teach we have to do our own professional learning and mine is on using vocabulary in the classroom.
Again, thank you for your website. I do share it with my parents as a resource to help with their child at home.
Thank you so much for your feedback, Cindy, and we’re so glad that you’re working through Teaching Every Reader! I look forward to sharing many helpful vocabulary posts in this series.