Category Archives: methods of teaching vocabulary

Important academic words for K-2 students to learn

Discouraged child thinks there are too many words in a book she is readingLittle children need to learn so many words, but 15 are especially important for answering questions in school and on tests.  For example, if students think “compare” means to show how two things are different, they will answer a test question incorrectly.  Knowing the meaning of direction words is vital.


According to Marilee Sprenger*, who analyzed the Common Core standards and other sources to develop this list, the words for kindergarteners, first graders and second graders are

  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • Describe
  • Distinguish
  • Identify
  • Retell
  • Demonstrate
  • Determine
  • Draw
  • Explain
  • Locate
  • Suggest
  • Support
  • Comprehend, and
  • Develop

These words are not everyday words for little children.  Children need to learn these words’ meanings from teachers and parents.  How?

First the adult says the word properly and explains what it means, using it in the context of something the children already know.  Next the children repeat the explanation, paraphrasing the adult’s explanation and using an example of their own.  Children then might draw a picture of the word’s meaning to show that they understand.  The adult should use the word many times and encourage students to write down the word and its meaning.  The adult should continue to use the word in situations where students must act to show if they understand the word.  Finally, occasional word games, like vocabulary bees and word BINGO games, reinforce the word and its meaning.**

Sometimes we suppose students know words because they have heard them over and over.  But that does not mean they know them.  I worked with a seventh grader who thought “compare” means “contrast.”  It’s important for us to take the time to teach these words so when children encounter them as directions for homework, quizzes or tests, they can perform correctly.

*Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core; 55 words that make or break student understanding,  by Sprenger, 2013

**Building Academic Vocabulary:  Teacher’s Manual by Marzano and Pickering, 2005

A few students in my class read quickly. What do I do to keep them on task?

You could prepare a quiz ahead of time on the reading selection. Let the quiz focus on the pages to be read.  Ask students to raise their hands when their reading is done, give them the quiz and watch.  Since the quick readers are often gifted students, ask questions not at the knowledge level, but at higher level thinking.  Ask inference questions too which everyone finds tough.  Ask students to write not only the answer but the page and paragraph or line number which proves their answers.  Collect and check the quizzes to know if the quick readers are skimming or truly gaining knowledge.

dhild running with book in hands

You could ask quick readers to outline the reading passage. If it is nonfiction, then the outline could name the way information is presented, such as chronological, problem and solution, cause and effect, or whatever is appropriate.  Then the students could write one sentence per paragraph describing the information in each paragraph.  If the reading selection is fiction, then the outline could state the type of writing, such as description, dialog, action, or whatever is appropriate.  Writing one sentence per paragraph might not work for fiction, but one sentence per scene or character might.  The point is for the students to prove to you that they comprehend what they have read.

You could ask students to choose five words from the passage that they don’t understand or that they think their classmates might not understand and use a classroom dictionary to look them up. Then students should write each word in sentences to show what the word means.

You could ask students to write one (or two or more) questions about the reading which require thoughtfulness to answer. Collect them, shuffle them, and then use them for class discussion or homework.

Notice that all of these assignments focus on the original reading selection and either extend or deepen students’ understanding of it.  Students need only paper and pen and possibly a dictionary to do the work.  If you have the extra assignments printed up to use as needed, you can pass the appropriate one out any time a student finishes early.  And most of the ideas work well in science and social studies classes as well as in ELA classes.

Of course you could always have early finishers take out books and read them.  If the books’ Lexile numbers fit the students’ reading levels, this works.  But it does not enrich the reading lesson, and it could cause resentment among the slower readers who might feel punished for their slower progress.

Work with kenesthetic learners’ strengths–their bodies

Most preschoolers and many school-aged children are kenesthetic learners, that is learners who learn best when they are physically active.

Should my child sit still when she learns to read?

Ask such a child what “humongous” means, and she will spread her arms as far as she can reach.  Ask a one-year-old what the dog in the picture is doing, and the child will get down on all fours and sniff.  Ask a child the difference between up and down, the child will stand on a chair and say, “up,” and then jump to the floor and say, “down.”

These children use as much of their bodies as possible not only to learn but to demonstrate that they have learned.

How do you know if a child is a kenesthetic learner?

Child sitting with legs outstretched, forming the letter L

  • The child loves sports—running, jumping, dancing, and tumbling.
  • The child seems more active than other children of the same age.
  • The child gestures while talking.
  • When the child sees a demonstration, the child wants to try it herself.
  • The child ends the day dirty—dirt under his fingernails, peanut butter in his hair, shoes scuffed—and he is oblivious.
  • When reading or writing, the child kneels on a chair, stands, sits on the desk, stands on the chair and leans over, and does all of these in the span of five minutes.
  • The child fidgets while learning—tapping her fingers, puffing up her cheeks, wriggling her shoulders—yet she pays attention.
  • The child loves Legos, puzzles, and toys that can be put together or taken apart.
  • The child has great hand-eye coordination, and can learn to control pencils, paint brushes, screw drivers and tools with ease.

dhild running with book in hands

How does such a learning style affect reading?  What can you do?

  • Since a kenesthetic learner often reads later than his peers, you might panic that he is lagging his classmates. It helps if you can accept that for this child, reading is a low interest activity.  You can reinforce what he is learning by connecting it to activities he loves.  “A is for arrow.  B is for basketball.  C is for coach.”
  • Because the child needs to move, let him swing his legs, stand, lie on the floor, or move a rubber ball from hand to hand as he listens to instruction.children moving letter tiles
  • Break up reading lessons into mini-lessons with in-between times when the child is free to move around. Use this time for the child to act out what he has learned.
  • Since the child likes to use his hands, teach using manipulatives such as letter tiles, pictures to sort by sound, parts of sentences cut into phrases, flashcards, and online work which includes using a mouse. Vary the writing instruments the child uses since the feel of some will attract the child to work.
  • Suggest that the child draw what he is learning. Have her fill in boxes and use arrows to show relationships.
  • Use repetitive physical activity to deepen learning. Throw a ball back and forth while spelling new words.  Take a walk while discussing subjects and predicates.  Move magnetized words into sentences on the refrigerator while shifting weight in a dancing rhythm.  Draw mind webs while reading to show comprehension.
  • Teach a hard concept after physical activity.

My middle grader needs to read Romeo and Juliet next fall. It is so HARD to understand. How can I help?

Reading Shakespeare is reading a foreign language to 21st Century English speaking people who struggle with 400 years of changes in pronunciation, meaning, and even the existence of many words.

Reading a children’s version of a classic can help establish the main ideas and character relationships.

Even so, educated English-speaking people are expected to know Shakespeare.  Words from his plays are quoted or alluded to more often than anything except the Bible in Western literature.  Shakespeare is to the English language what Lincoln is to American democracy.

So how can you help a student to read Shakespeare?

  • Buy your son his own copy of Romeo and Juliet so he can write in it. The No Fear Shakespeare series which prints the original Shakespearean version on the left and a modern paraphrasing on the right, is good.  So are other annotated versions.
  • Keep and annotate a list of characters which your son can use as a bookmark. Shakespeare populates his plays with many characters.  List Romeo and his friends, for example, and identify them (hot-tempered, funny, talks in puns, or mixes up words).
  • Read Shakespeare as you would read poetry, with pauses at punctuation, not at the ends of lines. Shakespeare wrote in verse.  Some of the lines end with a period or comma, and you should pause there.  But many lines end without punctuation and should be read without a pause until the next punctuation mark, usually in the next line.  Reading this way will help with understanding.
  • Rewrite the words in normal word order if they don’t make sense the way they are written. In English, we usually have a subject–verb-direct object word order.  But Shakespeare sometimes uses a direct object-verb-subject word order.  “Never was seen so black a day as this:” (Romeo and Juliet, IV, v) puts the verb before the subject.  The quote makes more sense if you read it as “No one has ever seen a day as black as this.”   If there is not room in the margin, rewrite on tiny post-it notes.
  • Supply missing words. Just as we leave out words today (Haven’t seen y’in a while), so did Shakespeare.  Since his original audiences left out or shortened the same words he did, there was no problem to understand what he meant then.  But now, 400 years later, you need to write in the missing words or parts of words. Shakespeare contracted words to keep the meter of the verses and because his generation used those contractions.
  • Identify pronoun antecedents. Identifying who or what the pronouns refer to helps with understanding.  If your son owns the copy of the play he is reading, he can draw arrows to show relationships.  Or you can highlight using matching markers.  Take, for example, this quote from Romeo and Juliet (the boldface is mine):

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun!
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art more fair than she:

“It” refers back to light.  “Who” refers to the moon.  “Thou” refers to Juliet.  Both “her” and “she” refer to the moon.  Drawing arrows helps.

  • Paraphrase confusing verses. The above quotation can be rewritten as, “But wait.  What is that light starting to come through the window from the east?  That light is Juliet, the sun.  Rise up, beautiful sun, and overshadow the envious moon which is already growing dim. The moon realizes that you, Juliet, are more beautiful than it is.”  Not as elegant as Shakespeare’s words, for sure, but the rewrite in modern English is easier to understand.
  • Figure out metaphors. Shakespeare used lots of them.  Encourage your son to write them in the margins of his book.
  • Identify allusions. Just as authors today refer to Shakespeare, Shakespeare referred to the Bible, to British history and to ancient Greek and Roman myths.  Again, annotate.
  • Untangle wordplay. Shakespeare delights in puns and words with double meanings, especially words whose secondary meanings are sexual.  Some children need help understanding the secondary meanings.  Write the meanings in the margins.
  • Use a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words. Even though almost all of Shakespeare’s words are still in use today, some are not, or their meanings have changed over the centuries.  In dictionaries, such meanings might be listed as archaic.  A long list of such words can be found at
  • Reread some parts several times. Once your son has analyzed words, phrases and verses, another reading will make more sense.  And if he reads aloud, the play will make even more sense.
  • Watch a good film or stage play after you have analyzed the written play. Even then it might take some getting used to the British accents (if it is a BBC production) and to the unfamiliar word patterns.  But Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted out, not read on a page, and will come to life when acted.

How to make vocabulary stick

academicvocabIf you teach students vocabulary, check out 101 Strategies to Make Academic Vocabulary Stick by Marilee Sprenger.

Let me identify a few of the strategies:

  • Create a chart marked noun, verb, adjective and adverb. Make sure students know what those parts of speech are.  When you teach a new word, ask the students to write the word in the appropriate column.  Then talk about different forms of the word.  “Predict,” for example is a verb.  But “prediction?”  A noun.  “Predictable?”  An adjective.  “Predictably?” An adverb.
  • You, the teacher, “wear” the new word on your person. Write the word on masking tape and tape it to yourself.  Let students observe you walking around wearing the new word.  Let them think about that word.  Later, let students offer their thoughts about the word before you define it for them.
  • Teach students how to annotate their books or articles in order to learn new vocabulary words. For example, teach students to circle words they don’t know.  Write the meaning in the margin.  Now draw a line connecting the new word with the margin meaning.  Or draw connecting lines between a new word and its synonym or antonym.
  • Act out a word, and let students guess what the word might be. This is a good way to reinforce synonyms too.
  • To teach prefixes and suffixes, create a graphic organizer with the affix in the center. Around it write four words using this affix.  From each word, like spokes of a wheel, write the definition of the word.  Still farther out on the spokes, write a sentence using the words properly.
  • To categorize shades of meaning, draw five squares next to each other, forming a “train.” Study five words (on the board or on sticky notes for each student or group).  Using the squares, line up the five words in some kind of order (strongest to weakest, most informal to most formal, or most general to most specific, for example).
  • Use online dictionaries, but not just any online dictionaries. can offer students a definition every time they click on an online word they don’t know. defines a word, tells its part of speech, and shows images from Flickr, Google and Yahoo. tells a word’s meaning, a synonym, an antonym, its pronunciation, and words which rhyme with it.  Wordhippo translates words into other languages too.  These dictionaries are great for English language learners.

These are just seven of the suggestions in 101 Strategies to Make Academic Vocabulary Stick.  Further information about each strategy is available in the References section of the book, including the names of educators who “invented” the strategies and the research to back them up.

And you thought you were creative!