Developing Vibrant Vocabularies: How to Address the Word Gap

As vocabulary is reduced, so are the number of feelings you can express, the number of events you can describe, the number of the things you can identify! Not only understanding is limited, but also experience. Man grows by language. Whenever he limits language he retrogresses!
— Sheri S. Tepper, A Plague of Angels

Do you remember having a favorite vocabulary word from your school days? Petrichor ... That was my favorite vocabulary word. I loved the sound of the letters together, the way it felt when I said it aloud, and its meaning (the scent of rain on dry earth). I had a complete sensory connection with the word, and I beamed with joy at any opportunity to use it in context. Unfortunately, not all of our students come to us with this passion and penchant for learning vocabulary. Indeed, some students have critical shortcomings when it comes to academic language development. Nonetheless, it is our job to spark within them a love of language and the ability to master complex words. The development of vocabulary cannot be understated and could be argued to be one of the most crucial components to students’ success in all academic areas (Marzano, 2004).

Research has shown that reading comprehension is closely linked to vocabulary knowledge (Eksi, 2011). The direct relationship between vocabulary knowledge and comprehension of texts can either be a cycle of growth and proficiency or one of stagnation and struggle. The more extensive a reader’s vocabulary, the easier it will be for her to access a text. The more successfully she comprehends texts, the more likely she is to read on her own. Of course, the more she reads, the more her vocabulary will develop – thus propelling her into a wonderful spiral of deep learning, varied experiences with text, and consequently a robust, (mostly) independently-acquired vocabulary. The opposite is also true. Those who have limited vocabularies struggle with reading and therefore read less frequently resulting in substantially less exposure to new vocabulary. This cycle contributes to the gap between good readers and poor readers. High-performing first grade students know about twice as many words as their lower-performing classmates. And the top-performing high school seniors know about four times as many words as their lower-performing peers (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). It is the old story of the “rich get richer and the poor get poorer.”

Indeed, more than just an adage, it is a literal truth when we investigate the importance of vocabulary development. Students who are raised in high poverty areas begin their education with a 32,000,000 word deficit when compared to students from middle and upper class homes. Beyond the lack of quantity of words, quality is also a factor in the 32,000,000 word gap. Low SES parents tend to read to their children less frequently and use more limited vocabulary (more directives and less descriptive language) when speaking to them (Hart & Risely, 2004).

As educators we have the unique opportunity to mitigate this disadvantage and help stop the negative spiral. If we consider research that students should learn approximately 3000 words per year, we can break that down to 8-9 words a day (Nagy & Anderson, 1992). It is not possible to directly teach that many vocabulary words, but explicit instruction of anywhere from 300-500 words per year (8-12 a week) will significantly increase students’ ability to acquire more vocabulary on their own. If we provide students with a strong foundation of vocabulary knowledge, they will then be able to use the foundational skills we give them to independently acquire the vocabulary necessary to meet the 3,000 words yearly expectation. Remember – the more words a student knows as a foundation, the more vocabulary she will be able to learn from implicit instruction and independent reading (Robins & Ehri, 1994).

With the importance of developing vocabulary at the forefront of our minds, we at Infinite Horizons have created a list of the: Top 10 Ways to Create a Language-Rich, Vocabulary Boosting Experience for Your Students!

1. Word Walls – Word Walls are a great tool for use in all grade level and content areas to create a language-rich classroom environment. They can serve as a reference for students to master the spelling of words, as an anchor for remembering definitions, and a support to making connections to new terms. There are many fun, interactive exercises that you can use to make your word walls come to life. 
View this video for an example of word wall lesson in an elementary classroom.
Here's a photo example of a high school math word wall. 
Check out this resource at for a list of more activities.  
2. Vocabulary Journals – Students should have a way to record new words that they learn through content areas and independent reading time. These journals can be organized in a variety of ways depending on the needs of the content area. Provide opportunities for students to revisit and revise definitions as they encounter the words in a variety of contexts. This experience will deepen their understanding of the words and encourage students to incorporate the new vocabulary in their daily speech. A vocabulary journal can also be a system for inciting students to be curious about words they encounter and would like to investigate further.

3. Prefixes & suffixes – Teaching students how prefixes, suffixes, and root words work will give them the ability to access a vast array of words that previously may have seemed incomprehensible. The skill of combining the essential components of a word will allow students to independently deduce the meaning of new terms. Try devoting a page to each prefix or suffix in the students’ word journals to encourage them to continue to interact with the word part. Every time they find a new vocabulary word with that prefix or suffix, they can add it to the page, thus creating a web of words with that word part in common.

4. Independent Reading Time – Provide time during each school day for students to read for pleasure. Model independent reading during this time so that students can see how much teachers value the experience of reading as well. Dedicating time each day for reading will offer students the opportunity to acquire many new vocabulary words on their own & instill a love of reading which will help them throughout their lives.

5. Read Alouds – Students of all ages love read alouds. In order to focus on vocabulary development during reading, teachers should pre-read the text on their own in order to select a few words to discuss with the students. Call the students’ attention to those words before reading the book. Allow them to discuss what they know about the word and what they think it means. Define the word together and then discuss its use in context after reading the book together. Call it the “Magic Word,” and see who recognizes it when read in context. Discuss the definition and how it complements the author’s intended meaning. Using read alouds in content areas like math, social studies, and science is a great way to infuse literacy development into subject specific classes (for all* grade levels).

6. GAMES!! – Have fun with words! Making learning into a playful experience is not only engaging and enjoyable, but it also lowers students’ affective filter and allows them to take in and retain more information. English language learners especially benefit from this low-stress, highly engaging approach to instruction. 

See our freestuff resource for a list of vocabulary games to play with your students.

7. Visuals and Realia –  Use visual representations and realia (the actual object) whenever possible when introducing students to new words. These supports help transition a word from abstract to concrete in a student’s mind. Visuals are helpful for all students, but English Language Learners and students with limited background experiences will especially benefit from their use.

 8. Graphic Organizers – Graphic organizers can be used to show relationships among many words, deepen students’ understanding of the nuanced meaning of words, as well as allow students to self-assess their knowledge of the vocabulary. Visit the links below for ways to use graphic organizers in vocabulary instruction.
9. Technology – Today’s educators are always looking for ways to infuse technology into their daily instruction. There are numerous resources available online that are excellent for vocabulary development. 
See our freestuff resource for a few ideas on how to use technology to encourage vocabulary development.

10. Involve the Parents  – Learning doesn’t stop when students walk out of our classroom doors. Empower the students’ parents to help their children learn new words with some parent-friendly, family building tips in our freestuff resource. 

Recognizing the critical disadvantage that the word gap presents for some students, we must proactively build language skills as early as possible. It is arguably one of the most powerful and profound practices we give students for success beyond our classrooms.

Written by:  Michelle Leip, Alicia Duncan, and Kathleen Kryza