Research-Based Guidelines for Teaching Vocabulary

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  • 0:04 Building Vocabulary
  • 1:01 Word Play
  • 1:56 The STAR Model
  • 2:57 Independent Problem-Solving
  • 3:31 Reading Alone & Together
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll learn some best practices for teaching vocabulary words to students. We'll work to understand the insights of researchers who have spent decades discovering what works best.

Building Vocabulary

How many English words do you think you know? Is it 3,000 words, 17,000 words, or 100,000 words?

If you are a native or experienced English speaker, you probably know roughly 17,000 unique words, give or take a few thousand. Feeling impressed with yourself now? After all, when you first started talking (or first learned English), you could only say a few words. Now you know thousands and thousands.

Does this significant growth in your vocabulary happen all on its own? While it may seem like you just came to know all of these words naturally, a lot happened to get you to this point. Teachers and parents play a big role in supporting this outcome in youth.

In this lesson, you'll learn what the research says about effectively teaching vocabulary. We'll focus on four key recommendations from the work of education professors and former classroom teachers Camille L. Z. Blachowicz and Peter Fisher as published in Education Leadership in 2004.

Word Play

Researchers have worked hard to identify best practices for improving students' vocabularies. But guess what? They want you to play! That is, they want you to give students opportunities to play with words. Word games can range from traditional crossword puzzles to creative, spontaneous ideas for highlighting new words. One example, given by Blachowicz and Fisher, is a word wall, where students are encouraged and even given points of some kind when they write a new word they have learned on the wall and explain where they have seen or heard the word.

A word wall is also a good example of personalizing word learning. This means that, as a teacher, you aim to connect word meanings to a student's experiences. For example, a teacher who wants to teach the word ''permeate'' might ask the students to consider past experiences that involve the meaning of this word. Or the teacher could ask students to draw a scenario involving something that ''permeates'' an area.

The STAR Model

Explicit instruction involves clearly explaining the goals of a structured activity and then actively engaging students in the activity. The particular explicit instruction approach highlighted by Blachowicz and Fisher is known as the STAR model.

  • The S in STAR is for select, meaning choose which words you want to teach.
  • T is for teach, using any one of many possible methods. For example, one way to teach would be to have students learn the meaning of a word from the dictionary definition, while another way is to have a student read a passage that includes that word and find the meaning from its context.
  • A means activate, or involve students in the activities such as discussions and writing assignments in which they use the new words they've been taught. This step can also get creative. Think charades or acting out a scene related to a particular word.
  • Finally, R stand for revisit, which refers to finding ways to come back to the new words in later activities so that students have a chance to commit the new words to memory for the long-run.

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