Increasing the Vocabulary of Our Scholars


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Studies done on children are showing a huge difference in vocabulary—a gap of up to 15 million words by the age of five. The studies have shown that even by two years old, the vocabulary gap is evident between children who have been in a language-rich environment and children who have not been exposed to or interacted with as much language.

Due to the “exposure discrepancy” of the language a student has or has not been exposed to in their environments before coming in to your classroom, you may have students struggling with an area of content simply because they are not understanding the terms used in the textbook. Vocabulary, and especially academic vocabulary (science-specific terms such as “electron,” “proton,” and “neutron” or literature-specific terms such as “principle,” “style,” and “theme”), is largely the responsibility of the teacher. More than likely, the students will only encounter this kind of vocabulary within the classroom. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that as educators, we go out of our way to help students develop their language. (Himmele and Himmele, 2009)

In order to set your students up for success, I encourage you to spend time with the vocabulary before entering a unit of study. I have compiled a list of ways to introduce academic vocabulary to your students that will require them to engage with the vocabulary before encountering the words in your study unit.

Classifying and Categorizing Words

When entering a new unit of study in science or history, students are usually introduced to a list of vocabulary words that they will need to understand in order to understand the unit, interact with the material, and use in speech and writing to show evidence of their learning. Those vocabulary words are often highlighted, italicized, or written in bold throughout the unit. As a teacher, you can use a variety of methods to introduce this vocabulary to your students and help them to think about how the words fit within the larger picture of the unit, how the words relate to the others, and how they can be filed away with the schema or the learning the students already have on the topic.

  • You can compile several as a class, on a worksheet to be done independently, or have them create their own using the new vocabulary word list. This exercise often works best as a whole-group activity.
  • Paired-Word Sentence Generation. The students use a list of vocabulary words and combine as many new words as they can into a sentence or paragraph.
  • Semantic Mapping. The students cut apart the words from the list. Using a large paper or poster board, they organize the vocabulary words into a web or map. For example, if their word list included “taste” and “delicious,” “taste” could be placed under a heading entitled the “5 senses” and “delicious” could branch out underneath “taste.” Have the students work in pairs then share their maps with the rest of the class. For a free semantic map printable, check out this basic option as a starting point.
  • Concept Circles. This activity is beneficial before starting a unit of study in science or history. The students place the vocabulary words into two or more circles and label the circle with a broader concept. For example, with a unit on the human body, the vocabulary words “tibia,” “femur,” and “humerus” could be placed in a circle called “bones.” The words “liver,” “lung,” and “heart” could be placed in a circle called “organs.” I recommend you conduct this activity as a group.
  • Categorization.
    • Have a list of words such as “generals,” “troops,” “armies,” and “warriors,” and they choose the word in each group that categorizes the other words: “warriors.
    • Have a list of words and the student chooses the word that does not fit.
    • Have a list of words and an empty spot for them to write or draw a word of their choice that also fits with the list.

Developing Word Meanings Through Stories and Writing

When reading stories or a chapter book to your students, you can tend to think of this time as a break. Sometimes no planning or thought goes into the book of your selection other than, “I like this book, and I think my students will like it too.” Being intentional about discussing the vocabulary within the book is one way that you can go further with this teaching moment in your day.

  • Vocabulary-Rich Book. Choose a vocabulary-rich book with words that your students do not use in their every-day language. For example, within Charlotte’s Web you will find the following words: “salutations,” “runt,” “enchanted,” and “specimen.” Quickly scan the chapter before reading it, choose five words, and write them on the board. After brainstorming possible meanings of the words, have students listen for those words while you read. They can evaluate whether their definitions were accurate according to how the word is used in the story.
  • Semantic Analysis to Writing. After each chapter, have the students compile a list of three to five words that sum up the theme of the chapter. In Charlotte’s Web, Chapter 1, push your students to change their words such as “sad,” “not-fair,” and “worried” to “dejected” and “injustice.” You can do the same activity at the end of the book to sum up the theme of the book.

Vocabulary Development and Intervention

With the words that your students have been introduced to, can you be intentional on having them use those words throughout their day? As much as possible, you do not want the words kept in isolation. Rather, you want them to connect the words to the rest of their life and their daily conversations. You want to keep the focus higher on word knowledge and usage rather than correct pronunciation.

  • Indoor Recess. Create a laminated Candy Land board, Jeopardy board, or Sorry game board (really, any game can be tweaked) and write the current vocabulary you are discussing on the boards. As the students play and land on words, they need to use those words in sentences.
  • Listening Ears. I know of several teachers who used a tallying system for any student who heard a vocabulary word being used outside of the classroom environment such as at church, on the radio, or in adult conversations. The student needed to remember the context/conversation with the word and report it to class the following day. The total number of vocabulary conversations heard outside of the classroom were tallied each month. Normally, some type of prize was given to the one who contributed the most tally marks that month or given to the entire class if the tally marks exceeded the previous month.

In this post, I have offered ideas for implementing vocabulary learning for all the students in your classroom (whole-group learning). In a future post, I plan to give you a few tools to help students to develop word definitions when coming across new vocabulary. As teachers, it is our job not only to teach them academic 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.

Source: Himmele Pérsida, & Himmele, W. (2009). The language-rich classroom: a research-based framework for teaching English language learners. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

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4 years ago

Thanks for the question, Walter. We reached out to Kendra for comment (see response below). Just to clarify, the 15 (or 30) million words refers to the total amount of words children are exposed to by a certain age, not the amount of words in their vocabulary (which, of course, would be impossible unless they were polyglots).From Kendra:Yes, the word gap does seem ridiculously high. The articles that I link will refer to a 30 million word gap; but as a conservative, I tend to stay on the safe side 😉 so I stayed at 15 million. Himmele, explains it well in his book Total Literacy Techniques, as the Matthew Effect where he refers to Matt. 25:14-30. It is the story of the wise and foolish investor. It could also be considered as a “snowball effect”. Essentially, the more vocabulary a child knows, the more vocabulary they will learn. The less vocabulary they know, the less vocabulary they will learn. I highly recommend his book for practical teaching on how to implement a higher level of literacy into a classroom.Here are articles concerning the word gap study that was done: • Language Matters: Denying the Existence of the 30-Million-Word Gap Has Serious Consequences (• The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3 (( Another great resources is NAEYC ( so much for your interest and response to my article!

Anna Zehr

4 years ago

There are various studies that point out huge word gaps. Here’s a summary of the original landmark study:

Walter Witmer

4 years ago

I would like to question the beginning statement of this article. Fifteen million words? Can you post a link to that study?

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