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Finding the Balance on Teaching Vocabulary

By Angela Bunyi on February 11, 2011

With any skill we are entrusted to teach, the issue often becomes finding the best and most efficient route, among all the possibilities, to "getting it in." Helping my students become more strategic in their vocabulary acquisition is a large goal for me each school year. I'd like to share some ideas we have incorporated both this year and in the past. Your students CAN learn up to 4,000 new words this school year. Read on to learn how.


The Power of Books . . .

All the wonderfully rich vocabulary you could ever dream of your students using is already sitting right there in your classroom library. You've probably noticed that your students with the largest speaking and writing vocabulary read the most. In Essentials of Elementary Reading, Michael Graves, Susan Watts-Taffe, and Bonnie Graves estimate that students learn 3,000 to 4,000 new words each year, with the typical student knowing some 25,000 words by the end of elementary school. Where are most of these words acquired? In a basal series that introduces five new words each week, maxing out at fewer than 200 new words for the school year? Probably not. It's in your classroom library. And it's in the daily practice of allowing your students to read independently for a sustained amount of time. Books can become one of our best teaching companions when we set out to aid our students in learning new words. Here are a few ways we make the most of our time:

Individualizing Vocabulary Through Literature


One of the weekly goals in our classroom is to collect and record new and unknown words found while reading. Students are issued a Reader's Notebook at the beginning of the year. The notebook has sections for a reading log, weekly reading reflection letters, note taking, spelling, and vocabulary. In the vocabulary section of the notebook, students are issued five post-it note flags. Students use these flags to mark interesting and unknown words read during the week. At the end of the week, they go back and collect these words in their notebooks.

What I adore about this plan is that it is naturally individualized for each student. No, it doesn't get us closer to explicitly teaching 4,000 new words this year, but it does help our students to be readers who are mindful of interesting words. I believe that this habit of mindful reading does more to help students acquire a larger reading, writing, and speaking vocabulary than any other method. Handing students, all students, the same five to ten vocabulary words does not do it.

The format we use to collect words while we read is as follows:

~Title of book


~Sentence where the vocabulary word was found

~A guessed (or in some cases checked) definition of the meaning

During my weekly conference with students, I take a second to look at the vocabulary words they collected and at their attempts to figure out the meanings. I can help them expand their strategies if needed and identify the level of their reading material and their vocabulary development.

If you would like to know more about using a Reader's Notebook in your classroom, visit my post "The Reader's Notebook: Grades 3–12."

Three Vocabulary Strategies That Help

If you are not convinced that the act of reading itself is our most powerful ally, then consider these statistics:

Achievement Percentile    Min. Read/Day                 Words/Year Exposure
90th                                         40.4                                  2,357,000
50th                                         12.9                                  601,000
10th                                         1.6                                    51,000
Table adopted from Anderson, R. C., P. T. Wilson, and L. G. Fielding. "Growth in reading and how children spend their time outside school." Reading Research Quarterly, 23, (1988): 285–303.

2,357,000 words. How many of those words will be new to your students? Will those 2,357,000 words be the same for your lowest reader and highest reader? Reading naturally exposes students to an individualized vocabulary plan of action. A vast majority of vocabulary is learned in the context of reading, and the research supports it.

Knowing that students will develop their vocabulary through the act of reading, I spend my classroom time instructing students on how to attack unknown words while reading. Below I am providing three strategies to support your readers in becoming vocabulary virtuosos. 

Vocabulary Strategy Tip #1: Replace the Unknown With the Known


Let's take the last paragraph as an example. Did you have to look up the definition of "virtuosos" in the dictionary before proceeding? Probably not. More than likely, you have heard the word "virtuoso" before and recognized "virtuosos" as a plural noun. If that wasn't the case, you probably replaced the word with another word that made sense to you, e.g., "Learn how to support your readers in becoming vocabulary virtuosos-experts."

This strategy can explicitly be taught to your students. Through read-alouds, you can model this thinking process by saying, "I'm not sure what 'virtuosos' means, but when I reread the sentence and replace it with the word 'expert' . . . it seems to make sense. Readers often do this while reading." This can be followed up with practice during the reading block. The strategy can also be discussed during book talks and share time.

Here is another way of practicing:

TadpoleUtilizing a big book, strategically cover up some challenging (and even not so challenging) words with post-it notes. As you read to the class, stop and discuss how a reader can figure out the covered word(s). This builds on the strategy above and is an easy way to focus on new vocabulary within a read-aloud. This also demonstrates how readers sometimes use picture clues to help identify an unknown word. In this case, seeing the circular steps aids in identifying the word "cycle." 

This is the strategy my proficient readers most cite as being helpful. We sometimes imagine the word has been smudged or has Wite-Out on the word. Replacing the unknown word and moving on is an excellent way to acquire new words.

Vocabulary Strategy Tip #2 : Know Your Word Parts!

We explicitly teach vocabulary through root words, prefixes, and suffixes each week. This helps us to attack hundreds upon hundreds of unknown words. There is not a single week where I have not helped a student figure out an unknown word by looking at a root word, prefix, or suffix. I find myself becoming an etymology expert and hope my students are budding ones. I often ask students to talk out loud while they are trying to figure out unknown words. One of the mental checklist items should be, "Do I see any word parts I know?" It makes a substantial difference. So, how do we teach it?

In the past, we utilized Heather Renz's amazing word study lists and resources, and I still have her work posted on my site with permission. Heather has 21 weeks' worth of slide shows, study stem lists, and tests, and I added more to create 31 weeks in total. Last year, I could not believe how often the study of these words benefited us. By teaching five stems a week, you are actually teaching hundreds of words throughout the year. The best part is that our studies are individualized, with some students attacking easier words like "biceps" while others attack complex words like "bicuspid." The test format also allows students to show what they have learned, based on where they are as a reader.

Each week, five words go onto our word study word wall. Of importance:

~ We don't start the year with the words already posted. They go up as they are taught.

~ The word stem is written with a one-word definition.

~ A picture clue is included for each stem.

~ The cards are student-made, not store bought.

~ Students use movement to remember each stem. Example: crossing your arms in an "X" for "anti."

This year, I am utilizing a purchased program that focuses on etymology and SAT prep. Though the format and information is very similar to what I have above, you can find out a little more by reading "Expanding Your Roots Through Greek and Latin Word Study."

Vocabulary Strategy Tip #3: Expanding Vocabulary as a Class


Building on the 2Sisters CAFE menu (from The Daily Five), we have used our shared read-aloud time as an opportunity to develop our vocabulary in context. This year we will create and utilize this notion with our next class novel. If you are not familiar with the process, it's rather simple. Together, we take note of the new words we are exposed to throughout the year. When we are reading something and an interesting word is discussed, we record it on the board. My only suggestion is that it doesn't include words from independent reading, or it will quickly become a board of random words for your students.

The Importance of Reading and Writing

And lastly, please remember that reading and writing are integral to each other. The words read posted on the expanding vocabulary chart, jotted down in Reader's Notebooks, or added to the word-part word wall will be the new words tried out during writing time. It is when words are applied in writing that we truly see an understanding of the word. 

While completing our statewide writing assessment recently, I thought about a post I wrote two years ago regarding vocabulary lessons for writing. Replacing "She was sad" with "She was depressed" doesn't correct the usual suspect of telling instead of showing in our writing. Please consider reading more about vocabulary instruction through writing lessons in "Replacing Overused Words: Just a Band-Aid."





Comments (8)

Hello Elizabeth,

We don't have more time in our schedule as well, so I know where you are coming from. The quick answer is that I make time to reinforce the skills we teach during my individual reading conferences (making the most of our lessons). We just blend in vocabulary lessons into the reading plans as much as we can, when we can.

At the minimum, we have one direct vocabulary related reading lesson a week. If, for example, we are addressing the word parts from our word wall we can review that while getting ready for lunch or waiting in line (word part called, hand movement shown without talking).

I hope that helps!



Thank you for the great post. I always struggle with finding time to fit in vocabulary. Can you describe a bit more how you find the time in your day/week? Thanks!


Yeah on you receiving the book. :) It only took me a billion years to mail them off!


Hello Brittney,

I'm glad you have found my resources helpful and have incorporated ideas in your classroom.

And this Friday I will have a post on themes, incorporating author studies into this (many authors have repeating themes in their novels). I hope that will work for now. :)


I just wanted to say that I got the book that I won, yesterday in the mail and started reading right away. Thank you so much for the gift and for your ideas they are great and practical. Melissa

Hello Angela! I have been following your blog for almost a year now and I love it! I have incorporated many ideas from your blog and class website into my classroom. I am a second year teacher. I went from second to fourth this year and I thank your blog for easing my transition. I was wondering if you ever thought of writng a blog on the author studies and novel studies you do as a class? I would love some ideas in this area.

Thank you again!


Hello Sandy,

I taught 3rd grade last year, and we used the combined list on Renz/my site. I didn't address the etymology origin last year, but I would now that I know better. It hasn't taken much to add it in, and it can be fun guessing if a word part is Latin, Greek, or Middle English. Also, many of our students go on to a middle/high school that has a killer Latin course. It's a tiny step, but I feel better exposing them to the concept.

I hope that helps. The program I use now is identified as 6th grade, but it isn't more challenging than the list Renz and I put together.



Hey Angela, I have looked at your post on word parts and noticed the material on Mrs. Renz's site before. I have been intrigued, but never used it. Our school has noticed a weakness in the area of vocabulary in our test results, and we have had a lot of material presented this year, but to be honest nothing... that has really made any difference in my own classroom. I definitely see the weakness and I see my lowest group reading much of the same old material, not because they don't want to be challenged, but vocabulary is an issue. I was just wondering if you have used your etymology with 3rd graders before and if you saw a difference.

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