How to teach vocabulary to kids: How to Teach Vocabulary Words

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How to Teach Vocabulary Words

It’s hard for students to read and understand a text if they don’t know what the words mean. A solid vocabulary boosts reading comprehension for students of all ages. The more words students know, the better they understand the text. That’s why effective vocabulary teaching is so important, especially for students who learn and think differently.

In this article, you’ll learn how to explicitly teach vocabulary using easy-to-understand definitions, engaging activities, and repeated exposure. This strategy includes playing vocabulary games, incorporating visual supports like graphic organizers, and giving students the chance to see and use new words in real-world contexts.

The goal of this teaching strategy isn’t just to increase your students’ vocabulary. It’s to make sure the words are meaningful and relevant to their lives.

Watch: See teaching vocabulary words in action

Watch this video of a kindergarten teacher teaching the word startled to her students:

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Read: How to use this vocabulary words strategy

Objective: Students will learn the meaning of new high-value words and how to use them.

Grade levels (with standards): 

  • K–5 (CCSS ELA Literacy Anchor Standard L.4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases)
  • K–5 (CCSS ELA Literacy Anchor Standard R.4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text)

Best used for instruction with:

  • Whole class
  • Small groups
  • Individuals

How to prepare:

Choose the words to teach. For weekly vocabulary instruction, work with students to choose three to five new words per week. Select words that students will use or see most often, or words related to other words they know. 

Before you dive in, it’s helpful to know that vocabulary words can be grouped into three tiers: 

  • Tier 1 words: These are the most frequently used words that appear in everyday speech. Students typically learn these words through oral language. Examples include dog, cat, happy, see, run, and go.
  • Tier 2 words: These words are used in many different contexts and subjects. Examples include interpret, assume, necessary, and analyze. The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium has a partial list of Tier 2 words, broken down by grade levels. 
  • Tier 3 words: These are subject-specific words that are used in particular subject areas, such as peninsula in social studies and integer in math. 

When choosing which vocabulary words to teach, you may want to pick words from Tier 2 because they’re the most useful across all subject areas.

Select a text. Find an appropriate text (or multiple texts for students to choose from) that includes the vocabulary words you want to teach.

Come up with student-friendly definitions. Find resources you and your students can consult to come up with a definition for each word. The definition should be easy to understand, be written in everyday language, and capture the word’s common use. Your definitions can include pictures, videos, or other multimedia options. Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary, and Wordsmyth Children’s Dictionary are all good resources to help create student-friendly definitions.

How to teach:

1. Introduce each new word one at a time. Say the word aloud and have students repeat the word. For visual support, display the words and their definitions for students to see, such as on a word wall, flip chart, or vocabulary graphic organizer. Showing pictures related to the word can be helpful, too.

For English language learners (ELLs): Try to use cognates (words from different languages that have a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation) when you introduce new words. For more information about using cognates when teaching vocabulary to ELLs, use these resources from Colorín Colorado. You can also ask students to say or draw their own definition of the words — in English or their home language — to help them understand each word and its meaning.

2. Reflect. Allow time for students to reflect on what they know or don’t know about the words. Remember that your class will come to the lesson with varying levels of vocabulary knowledge. Some students may be familiar with some of the words. Other students may not know any of them. If time permits, this could be a good opportunity to use flexible grouping so students can work on different words.

3. Read the text you’ve chosen. You can read it to your students or have students read on their own (either a printed version or by listening to an audio version). As you read, pause to point to the vocabulary words in context. Use explicit instruction to teach the word parts, such as prefixes and suffixes, to help define the word. If students are reading on their own or with a partner, encourage them to “hunt” for the words before reading. Hunting for these words first can reduce distractions later when the focus is on reading the text. 

4. Ask students to repeat the word after you’ve read it in the text. Then remind students of the word’s definition. If a word has more than one meaning, focus on the definition that applies to the text.

5. Use a quick, fun activity to reinforce each new word’s meaning. After reading, use one or more of the following to help students learn the words more effectively:

  • Word associations: Ask students, “What does the word delicate make you think of? What other words go with delicate?” Students can turn and talk with a partner to come up with a response. Then invite pairs to share their responses with the rest of the class.
  • Use your senses: Ask your students to use their senses to describe when they saw, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled something that was delicate. Allow students time to think. Then ask them to give a thumbs up if they’ve ever seen something delicate. Call on students to share their responses. Do the same with each of the senses.
  • A round of applause: If the word is an adjective, invite students to clap based on how much they would like a delicate toy, for example. Or students can “vote with their feet” by moving to one corner of the room if they want a delicate toy or another corner if they don’t. This activity works especially well if you pair the new adjective with a familiar noun.
  • Picture perfect: Invite students to draw a picture that represents the word’s meaning. 
  • Examples and non-examples: Give one example and one non-example of how the word is and isn’t used. For instance, you could tell students that one thing that is delicate is a teacup. One thing that isn’t delicate is the cement stairs into the school. Then invite students to share their own examples of things that are and aren’t delicate.

After students do one or more of the activities above, have them say or draw the word again.

6. Play word games. Throughout the week, play word games like vocabulary bingo, vocabulary Pictionary, and charades to practice the new words. Include words you’ve taught in the past for additional reinforcement. 

7. Challenge students to use new words. They can use their new vocabulary in different contexts, like at home, at recess, or during afterschool activities. Consider asking students to use a vocabulary notebook to jot down when they use the words. You can even get your colleagues or school administrators in on the fun by asking them to use the words when talking with students or in announcements. Praise students when you hear them using those words in and out of the classroom. 

Understand: Why this strategy works

Rote memorization (“skill and drill”) isn’t very helpful when it comes to learning new vocabulary. Students learn best from explicit instruction that uses easy-to-understand definitions, engaging activities, and repeated exposure. Teaching this way will help students understand how words are used in real-life contexts and that words can have different meanings depending on how they’re used.  

This explicit approach helps all students and is especially helpful for students who learn and think differently. This includes students who have a hard time figuring out the meaning of new words when they’re reading. It can be difficult for them to make an inference or use context clues to figure out what a word means.

Explicit vocabulary instruction with student-friendly definitions means there’s no guesswork involved. Repeated exposure and practice help to reinforce the words in students’ memories.  

Share with families this resource they can use at home to help students grow their vocabulary. You can model some of these strategies for families at back-to-school night or another family event.  

Research behind this strategy

“Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2nd ed.),” by Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan

“A review of the current research on vocabulary instruction,” from the National Reading Technical Assistance Center, RMC Research Corporation

“Building Academic Vocabulary: Teacher’s Manual,” by Robert J. Marzano and Debra J. Pickering

“Teaching Word Meanings,” by Steven A. Stahl and William E. Nagy

About the author

About the author

Cheryl Lyon, MAT is a PhD student in educational psychology with a focus on special education and literacy.

Reviewed by

Reviewed by

Allison Posey, MEd, CAST, Inc. is a curriculum and design specialist at CAST.

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17 Ways for Kids to Learn New Vocabulary

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By Melissa Taylor

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Fluent readers need a big vocabulary. The more words a child knows, the better reader and writer they are. (Anderson and Freebody, 1981; Graves, 1986; Stahl, 1998) (DOE, NAEP, 2011) It’s up to us as parents to help our children learn and develop a large vocabulary.

The best way to learn new words is to use them, play with them, listen to them, and apply them. While it is possible to learn new words out of context, like with flashcards,, or word-of-the-day calendars, to actually have a word stick in a child’s memory, you need to use it. Repetition and application are essential.

How to Help Your Kids Learn New Vocabulary

What can you do to help expose your children to new words–and then use those words? Here are some activities to try.

1. Expose your child to vocabulary words — talking, singing, listening!

2. Have conversations.

Talk to your children using a rich vocabulary. Explain words. Listen and respond to children’s dialogue with new words and related information. (This is often called “Motherese” — it’s when kids say something in kid talk such as “me want ma” and the parent responds with, “yes, you want more milk, don’t you? You are still thirsty. ”)

According to a study by Meredith Rowe in 2012:

  • Children under the age of two benefit from exposure to lots of words.
  • Two- and three- year olds benefit from hearing a variety of sophisticated words.
  • Preschoolers benefit from conversations about past and future events as well as explanations.

3. Provide experiences.

Parents make new experiences (and familiar ones) rich with learning when pointing out new things and talking with kids. Introducing new words helps kids acquire vocabulary.

4. Read aloud stories.

Reading to children is one of the most beneficial activities you can do for their literacy skills. Find read aloud book lists for grades 1 to 8.

5. Invent your own stories.

6. Read.

The more your child reads, the more words they learn. Find book lists by age.

7. Read a variety of genres.

We learn a depth of vocabulary by reading fantasy, mystery, sci-fi, nonfiction, poetry, and more.

8. Write.

Practice the words you’ve learned by using them in writing.

9. Sing.

I’ve learned so many Spanish words by singing along to popular songs. Kids will also learn words in their own language by singing.

10. Pretend Play.

You can support vocabulary acquisition by introducing play specific words to children. If you’re playing doctor, teach the word stethoscope, for example.

11. Word Play.

Children 2 – 5 Years Old:
I Spy with word clues (“I spy something that starts with t-“), I Spy things that start with B (great for the car), or rhyming words (“I spy something that rhymes with dock.”)

Children 6+:
Mad Libs, Haikubes, Going Camping game (“I’m going camping and I’m going to bring an alligator . . . “), telling jokes, WordARound, Scrabble, Bubble Talk, Sight Word Games, Boggle, Bananagrams, Yamodo, Blurt.

12. Word Collections.

13. Make Inferences.

When you’re reading and find an unknown word, help kids figure out what it means by using the context clues. I usually ask kids to substitute another word to see if it makes sense in the context of the sentence.

14. Share Cool Words.

Pick a word from your reading that you think other people in your family don’t know. Share what it is, the meaning, and use it in a sentence. Act it out if you can.

15. Do Word Puzzles.

Do crossword puzzles, Jumble, cryptograms, word searches, and play Word Games.

16. Play Vocabulary Games.

17. Word Scavenger Hunt.

Print out this indoor word scavenger hunt and look for favorite and new words

You Might Also Like:
Lemony Snicket’s 13 Words
How to Improve Your Vocabulary
Word Play with Kids – Inventing Words
Easy Found Poetry with Magazines

Follow Melissa Taylor’s board Writing Activities for Kids on Pinterest.

Melissa Taylor

Melissa Taylor, MA, is the creator of Imagination Soup. She’s a mother, teacher, author, and freelance writer. She writes Imagination Soup and freelances for publications online and in print, including Brightly for Penguin Random House, USA Today Health, Colorado Parent, and Parenting.

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5 vocabulary exercises

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How pleasant it is to listen to eloquent and competent speech when a person knows how to choose the right words and accurately describe his thought. And illiterate, “poor” speech, which is quite difficult to understand, cuts the ear just as much. It is a large vocabulary that is a sign of intellectual development and can help you in learning, working or speaking in front of a large audience.

Before starting the study of exercises to increase vocabulary, let’s look at the types of vocabulary:

  • Active vocabulary. These are the words that we use in everyday life when communicating with friends, family, colleagues. When writing letters, SMS in chat, social networks. When we speak, we do not think about the words and do not put effort into constructing sentences.
  • Passive vocabulary. These are words that we know, but do not use in conversation. As a rule, the passive reserve can be 2-3 times greater than the active one. On occasion, we can search in our head and find the right words, but we do this very rarely.
  • External vocabulary. These are words we don’t know. Usually these are specific words from the professional field of activity.

It is quite difficult to set clear boundaries in the vocabulary. Children’s vocabulary can average 1000 words, adults have 10 times more. Erudite people who are constantly engaged in self-development, read a lot of books and constantly study, have a vocabulary of up to 50,000 words. Therefore, we have selected such universal exercises to expand the active vocabulary that schoolchildren, students or specialists can perform.

  1. Alphabet exercise. You need to come up with a sentence in which all words will begin with the next letter of the alphabet. Example: «Alina runs in the thick of trees.» Try to make long sentences using words from A to Z.
  2. Noun exercise. Make up a story and tell it using only nouns. «Morning. Water. Walk. Dog. Tea. Breakfast. Metro. Job. Meeting. Tasks. Dinner.»
  3. Exercise «Verbs». Repeat the previous exercise, only using verbs instead of nouns.
  4. Exercise «Adjectives and adverbs». Also invent a story, just voice it now with the help of adjectives and adverbs.
  5. Exercise «Monophone». Remember all the words that start with the letter A and come up with a sentence with them, keeping the meaning. And do this with all the letters in the alphabet.

These exercises will be difficult to complete at first, so don’t give up too soon. Each time, it will be easier for you to come up with stories and look for the right words. You will find even more useful information on the website «Russia — the land of opportunities». The platform hosts free online courses, webinars on marketing, PR, charity, management, psychology, and finance. Follow the link to register on the site and get access to unique programs.

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Expanding a child’s vocabulary —

At the birth of a child, young parents experience not only happiness, but also slight bewilderment, because now they are responsible for the development of a little person. The main issue will be the child’s vocabulary and competent methods for expanding it. The richness of the lexicon indicates a developed intellect, which is why it is so important to pay a lot of attention to this issue.

Age norms

There are strict norms for the degree of development of children’s vocabulary. Up to a year, a child knows an average of 3-4 words, with age the number increases, and during the second year it reaches 50 words, and at 3 years — up to 700 words (minimum 250). At 4 years old, the development of the baby allows you to know about 250-700 words. By entering the first grade, the vocabulary of preschoolers should be about 3.5 thousand words.

The specified limits do not apply to the exact pronunciation of each word, which is in fact impossible for a child at a young age. We are talking about active and passive dictionaries. A child is not obliged to speak in his own 7 years using 3.5 thousand words, but it is already necessary to recognize and understand the meaning. Deviations in the big direction are also allowed, when a child at two years old knows about a hundred words.

Modern techniques allow a preschooler to learn words in excess of the norm during each year of his life, but is this really necessary? Word games are useful for development, but an uncontrolled flow of information can negatively affect the baby’s nervous system.

Ways and methods to expand children’s vocabulary

Naturally, a child’s vocabulary is not replenished overnight, so specialists have developed specialized techniques to expand the vocabulary of a growing person. They are all divided by age and developmental level of children.

The main recommendation to build up your child’s vocabulary is to spend more time talking with your child, not forgetting to praise his progress. But do not speak alone, parental monologues will not develop speech in children.


Reading fiction is the best way to increase the active vocabulary of children. The influence of literature on the formation of literate speech has been proven both by specialists and in practice. A suitable option would be the books of A. S. Pushkin. You should not take books for schoolchildren and adults, children’s fairy tales are an option that will do.

While the child is in the younger group, he is unlikely to be able to read, so the responsibility for the lexicon lies with the parents. The pace of reading should not be too fast, otherwise it will be difficult for the child to grasp the meaning of fiction. When the baby starts to read, it is better to buy him books with bright illustrations, this will activate visual memory.

Methods based on children’s craving for complex words are interesting. Sometimes a child will not remember a single standard word from a fiction book, but when he hears a term from scientific literature, he will rush to repeat the phrase with a serious face.

Play-based learning

Effective methods and techniques include board games and other recreational activities. For preschoolers, speech games are great. They make up phrases, answer questions on the basis of a quiz, developing not only a vocabulary, but also general erudition. In addition, board games can occupy the attention of preschoolers for a long time.

All types of children’s crossword puzzles are suitable for older preschoolers. They will successfully cope with several tasks at once: expanding the vocabulary, training memory and developing curiosity.

To activate children’s lexicon, word games (an analogy with playing cities) and synonyms are recommended, where the child needs to name as many words as possible that are similar in meaning to the one named. You can play even in public transport, preschoolers will be carried away by such an activity.


This method has been tested by millions of parents around the world. If after work there is no strength left to communicate with your own offspring, then it is unlikely that he will have an extensive vocabulary if someone does not deal with him additionally.

When communicating, it is important to let the child express his or her opinion. This will improve the child’s vocabulary, as well as teach them to express thoughts and defend their own opinions if necessary. During conversations or pauses, pay attention to new words. The visual component is important, with it it will be easier for the baby to remember a new word.

Other methods and techniques

  • The game form helps to learn, so sticking special pictures on the walls with the names of the depicted objects (if the baby can read) gives an impetus to development.
  • Solving interesting riddles and memorizing amusing verses in the younger and middle groups gives results on average higher than those of peers who are not taught at home.
  • It is better to choose a book with pictures that can be colorfully described in words using synonyms. Strive when reading or telling fairy tales or fiction to increase the number of descriptions of the character, appearance and behavior of the characters.
  • Sufficient time is traditionally given to working with synonyms. After the formation of the minimum set of words that the child has mastered, it should be expanded by drawing an analogy with the material already studied.
  • Working on antonyms will be the next step. It will allow you to consolidate the studied volume of words, as well as allow you to learn a number of new ones. These methods and techniques will best manifest themselves in the form of a game, otherwise the child will become bored.
  • Reading fiction is ideally accompanied by a discussion with the child of the main points, otherwise the active vocabulary will not be enough to clearly express thoughts in the future.

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