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4 Components of Effective Vocabulary Instruction

May 2015, Volume 38, Issue 9

Vocabulary instruction might be the most studied facet of education because it has implications across the disciplines and subject areas. With all of that research comes just as many methods, strategies, and pedagogies. It’s enough to confuse even the most seasoned educator.

There are, however, some universal truths to how students can best acquire word knowledge. According to Aradhana Mudambi, a principal in the Providence (Rhode Island) School District, these are the four components that are included in any successful vocabulary strategy.

1. Word Connection

Students need to be able to connect the words they are trying to acquire with words and concepts with which they are already familiar. According to research Mudambi conducted while at Harvard, lessons that related new words to existing concepts were judged to be the most helpful among any other vocabulary strategies.

When embarking on a schoolwide vocabulary strategy, organize the new words into a monthly coherent theme. Have classes post their evidence of learning, such as graphic organizers or pictures displaying the new words, in the hallways so students can start making the connections to the new vocabulary as they move around the school.



2. Significance

The practice of defining unfamiliar words with other unfamiliar words is useless, yet that is what the common dictionary often does for a young student. The target vocabulary word has no significance to the student because the definition is also lacking in significance. Definitions should be written in age-appropriate language and accompanied with other tools with which the student can attach significance, such as pictures and narratives.

Warmup time is great for these kinds of activities. Break up the desired vocabulary into chunks of a word or two per day (provided with a friendly definition, of course). Then give students time to draw, write, and organize their thoughts about the word(s).

3. Context Clues

When a student is drowning in an ocean of unfamiliar words, it’s often context clues that serve as the life preserver. But what if they were a lifeboat instead? We often use context clue strategies that only provide a sentence or two with no effective narrative. The truth is that if we provide a more complete narrative structure that serves as a series of context clues, the target word is more likely to be moved into long term memory.

Instead of a list of vocabulary words with definitions, consider organizing the words into a longer narrative structure. Then, not only are you providing deeper context clues, but you also have enough real estate to practice other strategies.

4. Word-Rich Environment

One-and-done is simply not effective when it comes to vocabulary instruction. Mudambi says students should be exposed to a new word at least six times, if not more. But repetitive strategies are also ineffective. Students should encounter the unfamiliar words as naturally as possible. That comes from a word-rich environment where words and literature are king.

This is why the word wall is such an effective tool. Students naturally find themselves looking at the wall multiple times during the day. In a schoolwide approach, that word wall needs to be in the cafeteria or the main entrance. Instruct your teachers to draw attention to the wall as much as possible, asking for the students to work with the words each time.

This article was adapted from Aradhana Mudambi’s “When Old Becomes New.” Read it for more strategies on integrating vocabulary instruction schoolwide.


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