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How to teach vocabulary for reading comprehension

Updated: Oct 15, 2020

A little about vocabulary

Vocabulary tiers

Vocabulary can be divided into three tiers. They are:

Tier 1 - common in oral language, likely learned from everyday experiences (e.g. ‘eat’, ‘animal’)

Tier 2 – academic, procedural, common in written language, essential for reading and writing (e.g. ‘evaluate’, ‘conceptualise’)

Tier 3 – domain specific, common in written language, essential for specific/specialist subject study (e.g. ‘isotope’, ‘aphasia’)

How we learn words

When we first start learning words we are very young. For most children this happens through hearing speech sounds joined together to form words and having word meaning attached to that sound combination. This is phonological input and semantic association. In the simplest terms, we need to hear the word and we need someone to tell us the meaning that goes with the word’s sound properties.

Think about watching a baby. How do they learn a word? An adult will say, ‘mumma’ and refer to themselves, or say ‘dog’ over and over and point or refer to a dog (real, toy or in a book). So that’s the first part. That is how Tier 1 vocabulary develops. Phonological input paired with meaning association.

Semantic mapping (the pairing of sound with meaning) happens via what is called fast and slow mapping.

Fast mapping: To start laying down new lexical representations, students initially hear a new word, they store its phonological form and begin to map semantic features to that form. Think quick and superficial from a few exposures.

Slow mapping occurs over an extended period. Students continue to hear the word and they refine the phonological and semantic representations of the word as it occurs and reoccurs in various contexts. Slow mapping leads to deep word learning and by extension, comprehension growth. So, it is slow and occurs after many, many exposures.

Children with language and/or learning difficulties typically have slower fast and slow mapping so they need more exposures at both fast and slow mapping stages.

Many words that occur frequently in text (especially academic texts), occur infrequently in everyday spoken language. Students are therefore unlikely to learn academic language through spoken language. That also means that students from early to mid-primary school and beyond will come across unknown words all the time when reading. When there are many words that they don’t know this can be quite disruptive for Reading Comprehension (RC). Of course there is no way we can teach students all words. Through reading we continue to learn new words for most of our life. But, if we explicitly teach academic language we can reduce the number of unknown words they encounter when reading over time.

So, on top of phonological and semantic input, for RC they also need:

- Multiple exposures to the orthographic representation

- Multiple exposures to the word in a variety of sentences types (varying syntax)

- Multiple exposures to the word’s diverse morphology (i.e. to understand how the word can be modified and to what effect)

When we come across an unknown word in oral language phonological input comes first and meaning is mapped to that. In text, orthographic input comes first and meaning begins to be mapped to that. Either way, for rich mental representations of word meaning to develop, we need all of the above to occur.

How well we know a word

“Knowing a word is not an all or nothing proposition” (Beck et al., 2015, p.10).

Have a look at these two models:

Dale (1965) describes our word knowledge levels as:

1. Never saw it before

2. Heard (or saw) it but don’t know what it means

3. Recognise it in context as having something to do with _______.

4. Know it well

Beck, McKeown & Omanson proposed a more detailed model in 1987:

1. No knowledge

2. General sense (e.g. I know it means something bad)

3. Narrow, context-bound knowledge

4. Has knowledge of the word but is unable to recall it readily enough to use it/know it in an appropriate situation

5. Rich, de-contextualised knowledge of a word’s meaning, its relationship to other words, and its extension to metaphorical uses

Beck, McKeown and Kucan (2013) describe this in detail in their book which I have put as a suggested resource below. Developing high quality mental representations of words involves teaching all aspects detailed above. Make sure your vocabulary instruction has a large focus on text level language. Multiple repetitions and/or multiple encounters are required. We are aiming for “rich, de-contextualised knowledge of a word’s meaning, its relationship to other words, and its extension to metaphorical uses” (Beck, McKeown and Kucan, 2013, p.11).

The aim is a literate lexicon

“The ‘literate lexicon’ includes difficult words that occur in academic contexts, particularly in middle school and high school classes that students often take. In science, for example, students may encounter words such as prediction, deformable, exploration, and genetic; in mathematics, literate words may include algebraic, Pythagorean, transformation, and geometric; and in literature, students may encounter affectation, luminous, meticulous, and contiguous (Nippold, 2017a). Of note, all of these words are morphologically complex in that they each contain a root word and one or more affixes (prefixes and suffixes) and that all of the words express abstract meanings and have a low frequency of occurrence in the language.” (Nippold, 2018, p.211-212)

A literate lexicon includes well developed Tier 2 (and 3) vocabulary. The capacity to define words, and create associations, combinations, and relations between words, are critical skills in the academic context, and they are essential skills for RC. Learning in context is not enough.

Good vocabulary knowledge is associated with good RC in the literature. Knowing many words in oral language is helpful for RC, but what is more helpful is knowing many words in the context of text. As much as possible we should base our vocabulary work in text. My view is that it is best to develop Decoding (D)/Word Recognition (WR) and oral language in the first two years of school then get stuck into text-level approaches as detailed below.

How to choose words

Beck, McKeown and Kucan (2013) and others are clear that Tier 2 words are the most important and valuable to teach. Of course, domain specific words matter too (Tier 3). The work of Averil Coxhead (2000) has been so helpful in this regard. She developed and evaluated The Academic Word List (AWL) as part of her master thesis.

If you are interested in reading about the development, evaluation and later reflections, these are the details you will need:

Some word list links are provided in the suggested resources below.

You can also select Tier 2 words from read-alouds which tend to have more advanced words in them than students' have in their oral language, especially as students progress through the grades. You can take Tier 2 words either directly from texts, or by teaching Tier 2 synonyms (more interesting, more abstract, less common) words based on Tier 1 words that appear in the texts. For example, if the grandmother said, "My cup of tea tastes good", expand upon 'good' by teaching some Tier 2 words that could be used in its place. If there are limited numbers of Tier 2 words in your read-alouds, use the ideas discussed or expressed in the texts to generate a list of Tier 2 words to teach. That is, what are the key themes? What are some key Tier 2 words to teach that are in line with the central theme, common emotions experienced, etcetera?

Attention should also be paid to topic/content specific Tier 2 and 3 words, so another option is to review ahead of time the topic to be taught, and to decide which words are appropriate Tier 2 and Tier 3 words to focus on within the lesson.

Deliberate, direct, teacher-led instruction

I mostly use the work of Hollingsworth and Ybarra (2018) to guide me in developing instruction and lesson plans. I’ve listed their book below in the suggested resources.

Below is a brief sample outline of part of one lesson. It’s an example of what the first slide might look like when teaching a new word. I’ve chosen a rare word to make this is bit more interesting for you. I suggest developing a base slide or two. Develop a list of Tier 2 words that you want to teach. You can then insert the target word and appropriate examples for each slide.



[Dictionary definition: To leave suddenly or abruptly]

Student friendly explanation: It means someone leaves very quickly. They could be leaving a person or place very quickly or suddenly.

Synonyms: abscond, bolt, depart, disappear, flee, scram, run off

Antonyms: stay, arrive, stand still (only provide antonyms if you feel that they are not too conceptually difficult to provide; opposite meanings can confuse students about the actual meaning early on in instruction)

Sentence examples:

During the important meeting, the woman apologised about her need to absquatulate.

I was at the park hoping my toddler would not absquatulate like last time.

When caught digging in the garden my dog seems to absquatulate.

This is tedius. In my mind I am absquatulating.

The shopkeeper absquatulated with the day’s earnings.

As an introvert, absquatulation is my favourite pastime.


Here are some examples of partial scripts and steps to guide you:

Today we are going to learn a new word.

Repeat both the word and the student friendly explanation 2-3 times.

Activate prior learning and link to real life examples.

Ask students to tell you (out loud) what the word is.

Ask students to tell their partner what the word is.

Ask the students to write the word.

Then I’ll say the word again and they’ll say the meaning (all aloud)

Then I’ll say the meaning and they’ll say the word (all aloud)

I will ask 1-3 students to tell me the meaning of the word (random selection)

Then: Let’s talk about some synonyms. Remember a synonym is a different word with the same meaning. [go over the synonyms]

Let’s talk about some antonyms. Remember an antonym is a different word with the opposite meaning, [go over the antonyms]

Present written sentence examples. Start simple and straightforward (3-5 clear sentence examples that use the word correctly). You can use a picture to support each sentence if you’d like.

Present some written sentences where it is used correctly and incorrectly and get them to identify which are examples and non-examples. I expect them to justify in full sentences why.

Get them to write three different sentences using the word (give feedback/get them to share).

Notice in the examples I’ve provided that there is an increase in complexity (via morphology). Depending on their level, you can play around with morpheme additions. Do not do this in the first instance but something like this is a good task for students during guided and independent practice. You can get students to write a range of sentences using various affixes with the root words and these can then be discussed as a whole class or they can discuss with their peers and compare/contrast their examples.

Another step-up task could be to have students write/describe a time they felt a need to absquatulate and why. This requires them to demonstrate a deeper knowledge of the word (an application).

Further step-ups relate to learning to play with the word meaning in their writing. Being able to use a word to evoke emotions, to induce laughter, to set a scene or mood, are all ways students demonstrate to us they have developed a deep knowledge of the word meaning.

Remember Beck, McKeown & Omanson's (1987) stages of word knowledge from above:

1. No knowledge

2. General sense (e.g. I know it means something bad)

3. Narrow, context-bound knowledge

4. Has knowledge of the word but is unable to recall it readily enough to use it/know it in an appropriate situation

5. Rich, de-contextualised knowledge of a word’s meaning, its relationship to other words, and its extension to metaphorical uses

Your vocabulary instruction is building stages 2-5, so sequence your instruction accordingly. Start basic and move to more complex. Stage 5 really develops over time after reading (and writing) the word in many contexts, for many purposes and audiences, and attaching and detaching various morphemes from its root.

In-context instruction and strategies for students

Of course, in-context instruction matters too. Some would say it matters more! Teaching students to monitor and self-manage their comprehension is vital. We need to explicitly teach them how to do this, not just expect them to figure it out. There are two main ways we can do this.

Contextual abstraction

This is a fancy term for guessing. Guessing is not okay when we are teaching Decoding (D)/Word Recognition (WR) as per the Simple View of Reading (SVR), but it is strongly encouraged in the Linguistic Comprehension (LC) aspect of the SVR. This is an important distinction. We need to teach students how to make informed guesses as to the meanings of unknown words, when possible.

The four contexts (as per Beck, McKeown & Kulcan, 2013, page 7)

How easy or hard unknown words are to guess the meaning for depends on the context within which they occur. The four contexts unknown words occur in are listed here from easiest to hardest:

1. Directive – the context is likely to lead to the student identifying the correct meaning

2. General – the context provides enough information for the student to place the word in a general category

3. Non-directive – the context is likely to offer no assistance as to the word’s meaning

4. Mis-directive – the context is likely to direct the student to the opposite meaning

Some key questions for students to ask

Teach students how to interrogate text-level language through demonstration and provision of guided practice, then support students to be able to do this for themselves. Key questions that we want them to be able to ask when confronted with unknown words are:

1. What is the purpose of the unknown word here? Is it acting as a noun, verb, adjective etc.? Obviously, you need to have explicitly taught word categories previously.

2. What is going on around this word? Look at meaning word by word then overall in the sentence or paragraph. Look at syntax. What is the structure telling us in part or in its totality?

3. What detail or idea is missing that this word could account for?

Then students are expected to make some educated guesses. This can be done by inserting some words they know the meaning for, in place of the unknown word. Then their role is to decide what the added word does to the sentence in terms of meaning and structure.

4. What does the hypothesised word meaning do to this sentence? Do I think I am on the right track?

5. [ask a peer] Do you think this makes sense? Why or why not? Do you have any other suggestions? What is the reasoning behind your suggestions?

Given the four contexts that I have described above, these questions can vary in their effectiveness but students are always taking something away from this learning experience with respect to their LC and Reading Comprehension (RC) if we are encouraging them to analyse and deduce in such a structured and thorough way.

In your deliberate direct vocabulary instruction you can also incorporate these contexts i.e. explicitly teach students that words can and do appear in these four contexts. Get students to write sentences with the new word(s) they have learned in the lesson, using them in each of the four ways. They can then swap with their partners/peers and compare/contrast.

Morphological analysis

First students need to know what morphemes are and how to identify them. Teaching vocabulary requires teaching morphology. A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaningful information within a word. There are two different ways we can categorise and describe morphemes.

Free and bound morphemes

In the word ‘cats’ there are two meaningful elements. The ‘cat’ part tells us we are talking about an animal that can be a pet, it has whiskers, it purrs, it can scratch etc. The ‘s’ part tells us that there is more than one cat. This is the plural ‘s’ marker.

‘Cat’ is what we call a free morpheme because it is free to stand alone. We can also refer to this as the root word. The ‘s’ is what we call a bound morpheme because it needs to be bound to another word to function. On its own it does nothing.

Lexical and grammatical morphemes

Morphemes can be lexical (function as key markers of meaning) or grammatical (function as key markers of grammar).

Lexical morphemes have dictionary definitions i.e. they are free morpheme/root words. Lexical morphemes can also be affixes like 'pre-' meaning 'previous to' or 'before'. The key here is that they have meaning as opposed to grammatical function.

The word ‘happy’ is a lexical morpheme. It has a dictionary definition.The word ‘happily’ has two morphemes. The ‘-ly’ is a grammatical morpheme. An adjective has been changed to an adverb. Morphemes are grammatical when they perform a strictly grammatical function. They are not words. They are morphemes. Some suffix examples are:

- Present progressive -ing

- Plural ‘s’

- Past tense -ed

I suggest explicitly teaching affixes. The direct teaching advice I gave above works fine for this. You can find lists of prefixes and suffixes online and there are some structured word approaches available. With younger students (early years) I suggest teaching grammatical morphemes first, orally and in text form, then you can focus on teaching the many lexical bound morphemes (prefixes and suffixes) in text form from mid-primary school onward.

Teaching students to complete morphological analysis once the above has been taught:

1. Model how to do it many times

2. Guided practice with feedback

3. Independent practice

We want them to be able to independently:

1. Identify the number of morphemes

2. Identify the root word (free morpheme) and the affixes (bound morphemes)

3. Identify the meaning of as many morphemes as possible

4. Ask themselves whether this looks like or sounds like any other words that they know

5. Make a guess as to what the collective meaning could be and how morphemes are influencing one another

6. Discuss with a peer and compare ideas

7. Ask the teacher for support (provide explicit direct instruction as required)

A final note on in-context learning

There is of course scope for direct instruction in-context too, for one student, a small group, or the whole class as appropriate. I often encourage students to use their strategies first but when I can see that the context of the word is mis-directive or non-directive I will usually break from the task to explicitly teach it. Remember, strong mental representations require phonological, semantic, orthographic, and morphological features to be taught and reinforced multiple times in multiple contexts.

What the literature tells us

- Vocabulary is a predictor of RC in children and adolescents

- Once students are reading, vocabulary development depends on exposure to print NOT oral language

- Explicit teaching of words alone is insufficient and in-text/in-context experiences are vital

- Explicit vocabulary instruction research findings are mixed i.e. some studies only show improved RC for words learned, not general RC improvement (e.g. Elleman et al., 2009; Wright & Cervetti, 2017)

- Less skilled readers benefit more from explicit vocabulary instruction than skilled readers (therefore it makes a good RtI Tier 2 intervention for those who are behind)

- Interactive instruction is better than definition/dictionary based. I've described above some ways to ensure you do this. Do not just get students to look up unknown words in the dictionary. Word learning has to go so much deeper.

Suggested resources


Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Beck, McKeown & Kucan (2013)

Explicit Direction Instruction: The Power of the Well-Crafted, Well-Taught Lesson by Hollingsworth & Ybarra (2018)

Understanding and Teaching Reading Comprehension: A Handbook by Oakhill, Cain and Carsten (2015) [Chapter 5 – Knowing and Learning the Meaning of Words]



Professor Pamela Snow provides an introduction to vocabulary instruction:

Emina McLean talks about how to teach vocabulary:


Dr Danielle Colenbrander chats about vocabulary for reading instruction

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Nina Mina
Nina Mina
Jul 05

There is of course scope for direct instruction in-context too, for one student, a small group, or the whole class as appropriate. I often encourage students to use their strategies first but when I can see that the context of the word is mis-directive or non-directive I will usually break from the task to explicitly teach it. Paly free game candy clicker 2 on my website


cie kalyl
cie kalyl
May 23

When we first start learning words, Purble Place we are very young. For most children, this happens through hearing speech sounds joined together to form words and having word meaning attached to that sound combination.

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