Vocabulary Strategies

Think Aloud

Think Aloud is a powerful tool for teachers because it gives them a look at the thinking that goes on in the brain of a learner.  It can be an especially powerful tool for modeling word attack skills.  When teachers read aloud to students they can expose their word learning strategies by stopping at words students might find hard or confusing.  They can think aloud about how to uncover the meaning of such words by rereading and noting the context clues, by looking at the root and affixes of the word, by remembering where they might have seen the word before, or even by stopping to look the word up.  These are all strategies that students need to know and be able to use to learn new words and incorporate them into their own vocabulary.

The Vocabulary Self-Selection Strategy

The Vocabulary Self-Selection Strategy (Haggard, 1986) is a small group activity for word learning.  In this activity, students read a text selection and the teacher and each student is responsible for bringing two words to the attention of the group.  Students are encouraged to choose words they have heard or seen in previous reading, but may not be able to define.

Each student shares a word and talks about where it was encountered, what it might mean, and why the word would be important for the class to know.  After everyone in the group has had a chance to share, the group determines which 5 to 8 words they want to target for the week.  After the list is made, the teacher leads a discussion about the words to refine, clarify and extend the definitions.  This discussion is critical to the process. Students enter the words and the definition (in their own words) into their Vocabulary Logs and practice the words in various activities during the week.

Contextual Redefinition

This vocabulary strategy (Cunningham, Cunningham and Arthur, 1981) will help students identify unfamiliar terms and associate the term’s meaning with its use in context.  Students first determine what they think the words mean outside of the context.  After students have discussed what they think the words mean, the teacher will record suggested definitions on the whiteboard or chart paper.  Students will then read the assigned text, noting the vocabulary in context.  Students will then discuss and revise their initial definitions based on the use of the word in the text.  The teacher and students can also discuss how context affects multi-meaning words.

PAVE Procedure

The PAVE Procedure (Bannon, Fisher, Pozzi, & Wessel, 1990) was developed to encourage students to check the dictionary definition against the context in which the word appeared.  It also helps students remember word meanings by associating the word with a visual image.  PAVE stands for the four parts of the procedure – prediction, association, verification, and evaluation.  Students should predict the meaning of the word based on the context clues, associate the word with a mental image, verify the word’s meaning by consulting a dictionary, then evaluate the prediction they made.  While this procedure seems time-consuming, students report that it helps them remember the words better.


List-Group-Label (Taba, 1967) is a vocabulary strategy where students are asked to generate a list of words, group them according to their similarities, then label the group.  This would be a great companion activity for AlphaBoxes.  For example, if the teacher asked students to brainstorm a list of words they associate with danger, students might list words like run, enemy, shout, gun, snake, alarm, scream, spider, warn, scare, poison, cry, siren, stranger, escape, fire, bear, and shelter. Students would group the words according to the categories they identify.  Students might group the words run, shout, scream, warn, cry, and escape as things they would do if faced with danger.  They might group the words enemy, gun, snake, spider, poison, stranger, fire, and bear as things that could cause danger.  If words do not fit in a specific category students can either create a miscellaneous category or brainstorm new words to add to the list.  This exercise allows students to practice and develop their vocabularies without being concerned with looking up definitions.  The act of categorizing supplies a structure for students to begin learning meanings of unfamiliar words or deepening their understandings of words with which they were already familiar.

Student VOC Strategy

This strategy targets specific content vocabulary by having students work to acquire a deeper meaning of a vocabulary word.  Teachers list the key vocabulary for the topic or unit.  From the list students identify one or two words that are unknown or unclear.  Students then complete the Student VOC Strategy Sheet on their own.  Teachers can use this as a classroom assessment for learning by observing which words students select.  Clarifications of word meanings can be done with individual students or with small groups.  This strategy also promotes differentiated instruction because students identify the words they need. A connection between the reading content and students’ prior knowledge is made as students devise a way to remember the word.

Student VOC Strategy Sheet

Vocabulary Word:_________________________________________________

Write the sentence where the word is found in the text.

Based on the sentence, what do you think the word means?

Consult an “expert” for the actual definition (friend, text, dictionary).

Write the word in a sentence of your own.

Choose one of the following ways to help you remember the word’s meaning: draw a picture; create a movement; connect the word to a story, song, or news report you’ve heard.  Write down how you are going to remember this word.

Explain why you chose this method to remember the word.

Word Banks

Word Banks are places where students can keep a list of words they have learned so that they can refer to them as needed.  Word Banks can be kept in journals or placed on index cards to be used as flash cards.  The index cards can also be placed on rings for organizational purposes.  Students should be expected to use the words in their writing and their speaking.

Concept Definition Mapping

Concept mapping provides a framework for organizing conceptual information in the process of defining a word.  The concept map also supports vocabulary and concept learning by helping students internalize a strategy for defining and clarifying the meaning of unknown words.  Students write the concept word or target word being studied in the center, and then work outward into the boxes writing words that describe the target word.  The framework of the concept map contains: category/class the concept or target word belongs, properties of the concept word or target, and examples of the concept or target word.

Frayer Model

This graphic organizer was designed by Dorothy Frayer and her colleagues at the University of Wisconsin to provide for a thorough understanding of new words.  Students are asked to provide a Definition of the word, Facts or Characteristics of the word, Examples, and Nonexamples. This graphic organizer will lead students to a deeper understanding of a word and its relationship to their own lives.


Rivet is a pre-reading activity. Its purpose is to expose students to unfamiliar vocabulary terms that might affect reading fluency and thus inhibit comprehension when reading the text.  It can be used across all disciplines.

 Semantic Webbing
Semantic Webbing builds a side-by-side graphical representation of students’ knowledge and perspectives about the key themes of a reading selection before and after the reading experience. Semantic Webs achieve three goals: “Reviving” or “reactivating” students’ prior knowledge and experience, Helping students organize both their prior knowledge and new information confronted in reading, and Allowing students to discover relationships between their prior and new knowledge. Semantic Webbing takes two forms: divergent Webbing and convergent Webbing.

Steps to Divergent Webbing:

Write a key word or phrase from a reading selection on the chalkboard.

Have students think of as many words as they know that relate to this key idea. Write these words to the side on the chalkboard.

Ask students to group these words into logical categories and label each category with a descriptive title.

Encourage students to discuss/debate the choice of the category for each word. Write the students’ conclusions (the categories and their component words) on the chalkboard.

Finally, have the students read the text selection and repeat the process above. After reading, have students add new words and categories related to the key idea.

Steps to Convergent Webbing:

Identify several themes in a reading selection. Write each theme at the top of a column on the chalkboard.

Ask students to share their prior knowledge on each of these themes. Write brief summary statements on this information beneath the appropriate category.

Encourage students to make predictions about how the text will handle the stated themes. Stress the context of the document (time frame, author’s background, subject matter, etc.) as the criteria for making these predictions.

Discuss the predictions and have the class decide which are best. Write these predictions under the appropriate category on the chalkboard.

Have students read the selection. Record any new information (beyond prior knowledge) students gained from reading. Encourage the group to evaluate the accuracy of their predictions.

Require students to revise the information recorded on the chalkboard based on their reading experience.

The Stephens Vocabulary Elaboration Strategy (SVES) requires students to maintain a vocabulary notebook. Whenever a new (or unclear) word confronts a student, the student writes and defines the term in the vocabulary notebook. Students should regularly review these words with the ultimate goal of integrating them into their working vocabularies.

This strategy stresses dictionary skills. Students use a dictionary to define new words and their parts of speech. The dictionary also points out the multiple meanings of many words. Students use critical thinking skills to analyze the specific content of a reading selection to determine the most appropriate definition of a word.

Steps to Stephens Vocabulary Elaboration Strategy (SVES):

Require students to obtain a spiral notebook to record new vocabulary words. Ask students to write any new or unclear word in the notebook. Also, ask them to write the context in which the word was used.

Require students to write dictionary definitions (including the parts of speech) by any new word in their notebooks. For words with multiple definitions, students should select the most appropriate meaning for the context. Encourage students to also define the terms in their own language and compare their thoughts with the dictionary definitions. Personal definitions should be revised to more precisely reflect the meaning conveyed in the dictionary, without sacrificing the individual’s vocabulary.

Ask students to regularly review their growing vocabulary list. Encourage students to use these new words in their written and oral presentations.

Semantic Feature Analysis

The semantic feature analysis strategy uses a grid to help kids explore how sets of things are related to one another. By completing and analyzing the grid, students are able to see connections, make predictions and master important concepts. This strategy enhances comprehension and vocabulary skills.


Word Analogies

People often wonder about the effectiveness of analogies. What do they teach? How do they work? Why are they so useful? What makes analogies so effective is their ability to get students to think critically. In order to answer an analogy question correctly, the student has to form a logical relationship, or “bridge” between two words. They must think about how the words are related. Since words represent particulars (not universals), there is a nearly infinite number of ways they might be related. It is the student’s job to narrow this number, and focus on the most essential relation — the most basic aspect of the word’s function or definition.

Word Sort
A Word Sort is a simple small group activity. Students list key words from a reading selection. (Alternatively, the teacher may provide a list of terms prior to the reading activity.) Students identify the meaning and properties of each word and then “sort” the list into collections of words with similar features. This “sorting” process links students’ prior knowledge to the basic vocabulary of a reading selection.

Vacca and Vacca (1996) describe two forms of Word Sorts:

Closed Word Sort–The teacher provides the categories (and the specific features of each) to the students. The students then match the words with the features to create the word collections.

Open Word Sort–The teacher provides only the list of words. Students work together to discern the common features and to describe the categories for collecting the word groups.

Steps to a Word Sort:

List between 10 and 20 key vocabulary words from a reading selection on the chalkboard or on index cards. Divide the class into small groups of 4 or 5 students. (Distribute the index cards if this method is used.)

For a Closed Word Sort, provide students with the categories into which they will sort the vocabulary words. For an Open Word Sort, instruct the student teams to suggest categories for organizing the words. Allow 10 to 15 minutes for the student teams to assign the words to the appropriate categories.

Conduct a class discussion with each group presenting their word list for one of the categories. Require the students to defend their sorting of terms by asking about the common features of the categories and how each specific word meets these criteria.


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