Giving Our Students Strategies to Expand their Vocabulary


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Whether it is in a book that we read, news that we hear, a label that we read, or in a conversation with another, each one of us encounters words in our world that we are not familiar with.

What are your go-to strategies in deciding what the word means?

Can we break those strategies down and teach them to our students?  This post is about taking those skills that have become automatic for most of us, and introducing them to our students so that they have tools to attack the new vocabulary that they come across in their textbooks, messages heard over the pulpit, or in day-to-day conversations.  As teachers, our job is not only to teach them vocabulary but also to give them strategies on what to do with new vocabulary when they encounter it in the world outside of the classroom.

Knowing About Words: Morphological Structure

Because vocabulary is often learned implicitly as well as explicitly, students need to be made aware of how they can manage their own vocabulary growth.  While memorizing a list of vocabulary words has some positive results, the greater results in vocabulary growth occur when students are taught about words.  A study done by Carlo et al. (2004) on 5th graders had researchers giving students fewer vocabulary words each week and instead used that time to teach students how to use contexts to figure out word meanings and how to analyze morphological structure of the words to figure out the meanings.  For example, if your students understand that the morpheme “geo-” refers to earth in geology and “-ology” refers to the study of a subject then that will give them a place to start when they encounter the words geographic, geography, and geothermal as well as biology, anthropology, and epistemology.

If you sense the need to incorporate studying about words in your classroom instead of simply studying a vocabulary list, I suggest you start with morpheme trees.  Many students are visual and tactile learners and providing your students with this tool can give them the confidence they need to start attacking words on their own.  Here is a step-by-step tutorial on drawing morpheme trees.

Using Context Clues: Pictures, Illustrations, Diagrams, and Text

In much of nonfiction texts, a reader can pay attention to the pictures and illustrations in order to make an educated guess on the meaning of a new word.  As the student continues to read, encourage them to cross-check with themselves by asking “Do the pictures match what I think this word means?”  As a teacher of younger students, you may need to model it for them by reading a picture book.  When you come to a new vocabulary word, stop and tell the students that you are going to use the pictures to see if you can figure out what the word means.  Allow them to hear you think out loud.  When you have decided on a meaning, be sure audibly re-read the page and cross-check with yourself whether the word meaning you have chosen fits with the picture and the rest of the text.

If you are teaching older students, you may want to use a visual to give them a picture of what they are doing when they use other clues to infer meaning for a new word.   Bring a backpack into the classroom that holds items such as a water bottle, sneakers, t-shirt with a team name or business logo, and a soccer ball or other sports item (preferably a sports item used by the team named on the t-shirt).  As you open the backpack and pull out each item, ask them what clues they can derive from the items about the owner of the backpack.  For example, the sneakers’ size and color may help you to identify the gender and approximate age of the owner.  By the end of the discussion, you likely will have made many accurate inferences concerning the owner of the backpack.  Similarly, by using the clues in the illustrations, diagrams, and text as they read, students can make educated guesses when they encounter a new word.

Expanding their Toolbox with Real-life Tools

Undoubtedly, many of us turn to other people or other tools (hello, Google) when we encounter a new term.  By simply being honest concerning our own processes of learning and directing students to other word-learning tools, we can help our students to help themselves.  Students need to know how word-learning tools such as dictionaries, thesauruses, and glossaries work in order to use them successfully.   However, instead of giving students a list of words to look up, use the words that they come across in authentic texts.  For example, when you encounter a new word during your class read-aloud, have a student(s) look it up.  Rather than the stilted practice of looking up a list of words as an assignment, have the dictionary, thesaurus, and textbook glossaries within easy access in your classroom and exemplify going to the word-learning tools on a regular basis.

It is rare that a student who has not been highly successful in reading will go on to be a classroom teacher.  Which means that most teachers have been successful readers from a young age.  Which means that most of us read and expand our vocabulary as automatically as driving a vehicle.  We no longer have to think to turn on our signal, slightly turn the wheel, check our mirrors, and merge into traffic.  We hardly think about the processes.

The truly successful teacher is the teacher who can evaluate what he/she is doing and then be able to break it apart in teachable steps for another to implement.


Boushey, G., & Behne, A. (2019). The Cafe book: engaging all students in daily literacy assessment and instruction. Portsmouth, NH: Stenhouse Publishers.

Himmele Pérsida, Himmele, W., & Potter, K. (2014). Total literacy techniques: tools to help students analyze literature and informational texts. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Morphology Trees. (n.d.). Retrieved from


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