A well-developed vocabulary is essential for student success, both in the classroom and beyond. That’s why it’s so important to give students comprehensive vocabulary instruction at every stage of their academic journey.

However, like most areas in English language arts instruction, there’s no single best method for teaching vocabulary. Instead, successful vocabulary instruction blends indirect and direct teaching methods to help students build stronger language skills.

Read on to learn about four different vocabulary teaching strategies to work into your lesson plans!

1. Direct: Roots-based Vocabulary

Studying Latin and Greek roots is certainly an effective way for students to build better vocabularies. After all, over 60% of all English words contain Latin or Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes. If your students understand a word’s etymology, they'll have a huge advantage when it comes to learning new words and deciphering word meanings on their own.

While it’s possible to structure your entire vocabulary curriculum around Latin and Greek roots, you don’t have to make any drastic changes to cover root study. Just as you can teach students a few vocabulary words each week, you can teach them a few roots, prefixes, and suffixes, focusing on commonly used ones like uni-, tele-, and -logy.

One fun way for students to study Latin and Greek roots is to have them construct and define their own words using a few roots, prefixes, and suffixes. It doesn't matter if the words your students create are "real" words. As long as students can attach a realistic definition to the words they build, they're on the right track. The more practice your students get with roots, prefixes, and suffixes, the more confident decoders they'll become, and students love activities in which they can show a little creativity.

Roots-based vocabulary learning is also beneficial for ESL students. Many languages, such as Spanish and French, include words that are based on Latin and Greek roots. For instance, both the English word primary and the Spanish word primero contain the Latin root prim-, which means “first.” By making direct connections between roots and words in their native language, ESL students can learn to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar English words.

2. Indirect: Vocabulary in Context

Although learning words in isolation may help students memorize vocabulary lists in the short term, using this method on its own probably won’t help students retain that word knowledge after test day.

Instead, try to teach vocabulary in context. Not only will this strategy help students determine word meanings from surrounding context clues, but it also invites them to actually think about what they’re reading and draw meaningful inferences from the text.

One quick way of developing larger vocabularies through reading is by helping your students learn to identify the following context clues:

  • Root words: A frog’s life cycle is complete when it metamorphoses into an adult.
  • Logic: Many frogs are carnivorous, eating only insects, fish, and small mammals.
  • Compare/Contrast: Unlike humans, a frog’s ears are internal, hidden by a layer of skin.
  • Definition: Aquatic frogs primarily live in the water.
  • Illustration: Some frogs inhabit terrestrial environments, including deserts, jungles, and mountains.

Whether you're writing your own examples or selecting specific passages to teach vocabulary, one thing is always important: You must make sure the selection you choose gives students enough context to determine the meaning of the word you're teaching.

3. Direct: Vocabulary from Literature

Want your students to remember the vocabulary words you're teaching them? Make new words an integral part of your literature curriculum. Teaching your students vocabulary words that come from the books they're reading for class is a great way to combine literary and vocabulary study.

Before starting a unit on a specific text, read through the book and identify potentially challenging words from each chapter or section. Then, you can build activities and exercises based on those words. The words you include in these activities will be familiar when your students encounter them in the text.

Another approach is to identify themes in the text you're teaching and create vocabulary word lists that relate to those ideas. This is a great way to bring in words not found in the text but that may be relevant—and vocabulary study needs to be relevant, or students simply won't store the words you teach in their long-term memories.

4. Direct: Domain-specific Vocabulary

Teaching domain-specific vocabulary is more important than ever, thanks to the emphasis placed on it in the Common Core State Standards.

Domain-specific words, sometimes called Tier 3 words, are technical terms or jargon relevant to a specific subject, such as tangent in mathematics, constitution in history, and explicate in language arts. Some Tier 3 words have multiple meanings—for example, aside from being a legal document, constitution can also refer to a person's state of health. But their domain-specific meanings are important to any student who needs to write about or discuss those words in context.

If your students read nonfiction or informational texts, they'll be sure to encounter domain-specific vocabulary words. Before your class begins reading, consider creating a list of the words your students should expect to encounter. You may want to have students attempt to define words in context using some of the previously mentioned strategies before turning to the dictionary, though some nonfiction texts make this task more difficult than others.

If you find yourself struggling to come up with domain-specific vocabulary terms, you can enlist your students to help. Have them discuss and analyze terms from other classes, like math or science, that they may have trouble understanding. Not only will exercises like these help strengthen vocabulary skills, they’ll also reinforce students’ knowledge in other areas of academia.

A Blended Program

Trying to implement multiple vocabulary teaching strategies into a single course can be tough, especially when you have so many other English language arts areas to cover.

That’s why we developed a digital program designed to strengthen students’ core vocabulary skills in just minutes a week. Vocabulary Power Plus Online takes a multifaceted approach to vocabulary instruction, combining short lessons and interactive exercises to maximize learning. If you’re interested in learning more about this exciting program, download our white paper!