Vocabulary knowledge plays a critical role in children’s ability to read. Not surprisingly, research has shown that vocabulary knowledge is one of the factors that directly determines reading comprehension ability [1].

Beginning readers have great difficulty comprehending words that are not part of their oral vocabulary [2]. Given this fact, with young children through grade 3, it is very important to distinguish oral vocabulary abilities from written vocabulary. For example, a child’s inability to read a word may be caused as much by their lack of oral understanding of the word as their inability to decode the word.

Students playing with letter blocksIn the primary grades, the emphasis in reading advances from word decoding in kindergarten to comprehension of sentences, paragraphs, and whole stories and texts. Thus each higher grade should include additional word-teaching strategies that focus on the following:

  • oral definitions and oral use of new words
  • word retrieval strategies (for instance, use of mnemonics or a classroom word wall)
  • semantic knowledge, and
  • syntactical features of the sequence of words and phrases.

These four factors predict reading comprehension in grade 2 and beyond [3]. Knowing that students with LDs often have difficulty with word retrieval and using abstract words [4], it is even more important to teach a variety of approaches to learning and retrieving new words.

Teaching Vocabulary

Direct & Indirect Approaches

Young children learn most new words indirectly, through hearing new words used in context – either in direct conversation, listening to adults read, or through television/movies.  As they get older, children also increasingly learn new words through reading on their own.

Some vocabulary needs to be taught explicitly and directly – and this is particularly true for students with LDs. There are two types of direct instruction in vocabulary:

  • the direct teaching of specific words
  • teaching children phonological and morphological strategies for learning new words, as discussed in previous sections of this module

Semantic & Syntactic approaches

By grade 1, teachers should be adding semantic and syntactic approaches to learning new words. During the primary years, these features serve as the primary cues for constructing meaning and are the best predictors of reading comprehension [5]. At this age, semantic approaches emphasize not only the meanings of words but also their connotations.

For instance, a grade 1 teacher might draw students’ attention to the difference between the word tiny, found in a story, and the word little. These differences in word meanings make a difference to the intentions and implications of text and, as part of vocabulary development and reading comprehension, teachers need to explicitly and directly teach children to think about word choice and the implications of the words used.

Teaching Target Words

An effective routine for vocabulary building is to directly introduce new words to students before they read a text. A good way to do this is to first preview the text with the students, having them look at the title of a new text, its subheadings and the illustrations. The educator then asks what the students think the text will be about. Then ask what words they think the author might use.

These words are written on a piece of chart paper, with the educator adding additional words that they know are in the text that the students have not mentioned. This word chart then goes on the wall, with the title of the text at the top of the paper. The words might also be written on different pieces of card stock and added to the classroom Word Wall, providing each student with a quick and easy reference.

The most important activity to improve vocabulary: Reading

Research shows over and over again that the single most important activity for expanding children’s vocabulary is to read to them and to have them read. For students who are struggling with reading, explicit attention to word meaning during reading is critically important.

Shared Reading may be adapted to explicitly teach vocabulary: the educator reads the text, pausing to explain word meanings and the contexts in which they are used; the students may try constructing sentences with the new vocabulary. With the right intensity and consistency, such story-based vocabulary instruction activities can help students with LDs to learn 8 to 12 word meanings per week, which is enough to maintain average vocabulary gains throughout the primary years [6].

Preview of Shared Reading PDF

Click here to access the printable document How to Implement Shared Reading in an Inclusive Classroom.

Technology & Vocabulary

Technology supports vocabulary instruction by providing rapid access to information. When teaching new vocabulary, educators may use search engines to display a visual representation on the interactive whiteboard. Providing visual supports is particularly important for students with LDs, who may otherwise have difficulty retaining the new words.

A technology tool that supports semantic approaches to vocabulary instruction is digital mind maps. This tool can be used to complement the classroom word wall, to avoid over-crowding it, and it allows users to clearly demonstrate the relationships among words. Digital mind maps may be created by the educator, or students may create their own, serving as a personal dictionary.


[1] Stanovich, 1986

[2] Roth, Speece, & Cooper, 2002

[3] Roth, Speece, & Cooper, 2002; Vellutino, Scanlon, Small, & Tanzman, 1991

[4] German, 1984

[5] Vellutino et al, 1991

[6] Biemiller, 2007