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5 Tips to Maximize Your Vocabulary Instruction

by TJ Ragan
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As a speech-language pathologist working to close the achievement gap in a charter school system, I’m always looking for the latest evidence-based practice recommendations for vocabulary instruction. Vocabulary skills contribute to word reading, writing, listening and reading comprehension skills, so I make vocabulary a priority in my day-to-day work with students. I recently read the November issue of ASHA’s SIG 1 Perspectives on Language Learning and Education, and found some wonderful ideas for maximizing vocabulary instruction.

I used these ideas to create an interactive book-reading lesson I’m planning (see below) for an upcoming winter unit using the book “The Three Snow Bears” by Jan Brett. The book guide includes target vocabulary and comprehension questions for use in repeated interactive read-alouds, as well as activities you can customize to address a variety of speech and language skills.

Here are some tips I found useful when making the plan:

  1. Know your students. What are their interests? What vocabulary do they already know? How easily do they learn target vocabulary during sessions? How well do they remember target words from one session to the next? This information helps inform your treatment. For example, for students who find learning new words to be tricky, you might try increasing exposures to target words in context during your sessions.
  2. Know the classroom focus. Tie your vocabulary instruction to classroom curricula. Communicate regularly with teachers to find out their current focus and what Common Core State Standards they’re addressing. For example, ask which high-utility (Tier 2) words from the current unit are most helpful and useful for all students to know. Or, are there certain morphemes—prefixes or suffixes—they teach that you should intentionally address in sessions at a specific time of year?
  3. Don’t be cookie-cutter. Don’t just grab any old vocabulary bingo game. Choose materials tailored to specific vocabulary targets to make the most of your vocabulary instruction. If you create a word-sort activity to address morphological awareness, for example, choose targets at the right level of difficulty for your students. Some helpful selection approaches include the useful words technique in “Bringing Words to Life” by Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown and Linda Kucan, as well as “Building Academic Vocabulary” by Robert Marzano and Debra Pickering.
  4. Make learning goals obvious. Let your students know the purpose of your lesson. During interactive book reading, for example, discuss how “we’re going to grow our brains by learning new words!” During interactive word sorts, directly point out that students are going to learn how changing pieces of words changes the words’ meaning. I hope my students can answer their teachers and parents when asked, “What did you learn in speech today?”
  5. Repeat, repeat, repeat! We all know interactive book reading is one evidence-based practice for building vocabulary. However, did you know we should repeat a book six times for optimal vocabulary instruction? And we should teach target words at least six times each during each book-reading session, for a total of 36 exposures to the vocabulary target in context. I plan to incorporate these recommendations more often in treatment as my school year progresses!

I hope these five tips help as you prepare to build vocabulary skills for your own students. To see how I plan to make this happen in my practice, check out this lesson plan I created: Vocabulary Lesson Plan on The Three Snow Bears.


T. J. Ragan, MA, CCC-SLP, is an educational consultant and the professional development manager for ASHA Special Interest Group 1, Language Learning and Education. tj.ragan@gmail.com.

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Ruth Morgan December 1, 2015 - 6:05 pm

This is a wonderful, practical post. Thank you!

TJ Ragan December 7, 2015 - 4:47 pm

Thank you for reading! Hope you find it useful, Ruth!

Full Spectrum Mama December 2, 2015 - 10:44 am

Ditto the above — and I cannot tell you how much vocabulary (including latin and greek root stuff!) my son has learned from his now-decade-long special interest in Pokemon!

TJ Ragan December 7, 2015 - 4:49 pm

Too funny! My daughter loves Pokemon, too. Glad it can serve an educational purpose, haha! 🙂

Karen Dudek-Brannan December 3, 2015 - 4:58 pm

Thanks for the insightful post! I was wondering if you knew of any studies that showed the typical number of word repetitions needed for students with typically developing language versus those with language disorders to learn new words. I have read anywhere from 8 to 12 exposures to the word before students truly grasp the meaning, but I would imagine language abilities would be a factor.

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