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Effective and Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

Brittany Cufaude

Brittany Cufaude

Effective and Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

Effect Size: .62; equivalent to one and a half years of academic growth


“Learning, as a language based activity, is fundamentally and profoundly dependent on vocabulary knowledge. Learners must have vocabulary knowledge. Learners must have access to the meanings of words meanings of words that teachers, or their surrogates (e.g., other adults, books, films, etc.), use to guide them into contemplating known concepts in novel ways (i.e., to learn something new).” 

-Baker, Simmons, & Kame’enui, 1998 Baker, Simmons, & Kame’enui, 1998

“It is now well accepted that the chief cause of the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups is a language gap.” 

-E.D. Hirsch 2003 E.D. Hirsch 2003


Vocabulary acquisition is one of the most critical aspects of literacy; one of the defining characteristics of great readers and writers is a vast lexicon.  This document contains the pillars of highly effective and explicit vocabulary instruction so that teachers can foster word knowledge gains, accelerate students’ reading growth, and increase students’ agency in reading, writing, and academics in general.  


There are four critical considerations in effective and explicit vocabulary instruction:

  • Word selection
  • Both definitional and contextual information about a word
  • Multiple exposures to the word
  • Engagement and active practice that fosters deep processing about a word’s meaning and use (Zimmermann & Reed, 2017)


1. Word Selection

For most children to acquire a new word, they will need to use it seven to seventy times.  For many students with processing disorders, it is closer to 120 uses.  A good rule of thumb is to structure opportunities for 50-70 uses (for every student) if we want to truly cultivate widespread vocabulary gains.  Therefore, teachers must be incredibly strategic in their word selection because we want to teach high-utility and words students are guaranteed to encounter and use in various contexts and content areas.  To clarify the types of words students will encounter, we often organize words into three categories (see table 1).


Table 1. Three Tiers of Vocabulary Words for Instruction

  Definition Examples
Tier I Words used orally every day; usually taught in younger grades ball, dog, walk, read
Tier II Words that appear in written, rather than oral, language; generalizable or “travel well” across many content areas disparate, complex, establishment, principle
Tier III Words that are domain-specific; closely tied to content knowledge personification, integer, caste system, ozone, chromosome

(Zimmermann & Reed, 2017)


Teacher teams should select mostly Tier II vocabulary words as these have both the highest utility and will also be used in a variety of academic contexts. A common instructional pitfall is to teach words that are interesting, rare, archaic, or are seen as barriers to comprehending a single text or participating in a single task or process.  To avoid this pitfall, we must consider whether or not each student will use each word around 50 times in an instructional unit or year.  If not, we can count explicitly teaching rare or domain-specific words as an inefficient use of precious and limited instructional minutes. When rarer words present a challenge to comprehending a complex text or task, teachers should provide a quick, simple definition and a simple and well-known synonym; students can write the synonym in their close reading or work. Therefore, the vocabulary routine presented below is intended for high-utility words only.  


2. Both definitional and contextual information about a word

Word meaning is often nuanced and frequently changes depending on context.  This is why many of the Common Core and California ELA/ELD Framework authors suggest allowing students to encounter words in context first and then designing explicit instruction based on the context in which the words occur. Therefore, it is imperative to explicitly teach students both a student-friendly definition as well as the words used in context. Nash and Snowling (2006) found improvements in students’ vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension when teachers modeled and contextualized words before having students practice using or applying the words. The researchers concluded that ‘seeing the word in a written context provided more information (semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic) to create a well-specified semantic representation’” (Zimmermann & Reed, 2017).


3. Multiple exposures to the word

Again, due to the high number of uses required to truly acquire words, we must ensure students will use each word we teach explicitly multiple times.  A great way to ensure this is to follow these steps:

  1. Teach the word explicitly as put forth below.
  2. Create multiple sentence frames that prompt the students to use the word in a number of turn-and-talks. 
  3. Structure classroom discussions that require the use of the word. 
  4. Have students read multiple texts and/or engage in a variety of tasks that require the understanding of the word. 
  5. Design writing tasks (both short and long) that require the use of the word.


4. Engagement and active practice that fosters deep processing about a word’s meaning and use

To learn new words, students must be actively engaged in the learning as well as practice and regular use of the word. Researchers have found that while some words can vary in their required modeling techniques or practice opportunities, they still agree on a set of principles for effective and explicit vocabulary instruction (e.g., Marulis & Neuman, 2013; Silverman et al., 2013).  The following is a brief list of what this type of instruction must include:

  • Explicit instruction –  
    • Constructing definitions 
    • Analyzing word structure 
    • Exploring word relationships 
  • Multiple exposures and examples 
  • High reading volume and language volume 
  • Student engagement and active processing about a word’s meaning and use

To put these into practice, you can use the following effective and explicit vocabulary routine below.  You can also visit to access a google slides template of this routine.  Using this template will help simplify this instruction greatly.


The Routine: Time – 1-2 minutes per word

  1. TEACHER quickly surveys students’ knowledge of the word (have students hold the numbers 1, 2, or 3 close to their chests
    1. 1 = I have little to no knowledge of the word.
    2. 2  = I have heard of the word but cannot define it. 
    3. 3 = I use the word often and can define the word.
  2. TEACHER says the word
  3. STUDENTS say the word
  4. Read the student friendly definition TOGETHER
  5. Point out any examples of word families
  6. TEACHER says, “look at the picture,” and explains the word in context 
  7. TEACHER reads the word in a passage excerpt or contextual example of the word
  8. TEACHERS provide an example and a non-example; students give a thumbs up or thumbs down indicating whether the use makes sense or not 
  9. (OPTIONAL) send a quick poll

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