Building Vocabulary

posted in: Reading | 0

Types of Vocabulary

We can categorise vocabulary as being:

  • Oral vocabulary – words which when spoken, you understand. This is usually the largest pool of known words in a person’s vocabulary knowledge. Although, generally people understand more words that they hear than they would confidently use when speaking.
  • Reading vocabulary – words that are understood when encountered in the printed format. These are words that are not only understood, but can also be accurately decoded.
  • Written vocabulary – word that are used when writing. These are words that are understood, but can also be spelled correctly. Generally, this category contains the fewest number of words.

There is a high correlation between these different types of vocabulary. Consequently, an increase in one area generally leads to an increase in other areas. This is particularly true going from the bottom up (i.e., if you learn to spell a word and its meaning, then you will be able to accurately read, understand and use the word).

Strategies for Developing Vocabulary


  • Daily conversation and discussions: Make every effort to include more ‘complex’ words in your everyday interactions with your child. Instead of saying, “That’s a great idea!” substitute ‘great’ with ‘splendid’, ‘impressive’, ‘superb’ or ‘marvellous’. Take the time to discuss a range of ideas and subjects.
  • Movies, audio books and other media are all likely to contain new vocabulary.
  • Books and other printed material: Encourage your child to read widely. This can include independent reading, reading with your child and reading to your child.

Direct instruction:

  • Explicitly teach vocabulary: This can be the explicit teaching of how words are pronounced, the meaning of words, the spelling of words and, if relevant, the etymology of words. As a part of this process, it is important that these words are not taught in isolation but are then embedded into text and multiple exposures to the words are provided. This strategy is effectively incorporated into the Cracking the ABC Code Reading for Comprehension books.
  • Word analysis: Explicitly teach morphemes (root, suffixes and prefixes) and then apply this knowledge to multiple words to show how an understanding of one concept (e.g., the prefix ‘un’ means ‘not’) can then assist with the understanding of many other words.
  • Concept maps: Explicitly teach the multiple meanings of words and words related to a specific topic or idea.
  • Systematically and incidentally (as it occurs in context) Investigate idioms, synonyms, antonyms, homophones and homonyms

Common Mistakes in Teaching Vocabulary

  • Assigning too many new vocabulary words at one time. From an intervention perspective, expecting students to learn more than 10 spelling words or 20 reading words a week, just leads to cognitive overload and minimal retention.
  • Teaching vocabulary words out of context.
  • Expecting students to master vocabulary after a single exposure to a word.
  • Not explicitly and systematically incorporating vocabulary development activities into a literacy program.

More Posts on Developing Vocabulary

Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

Increasing Young Children’s Vocabulary

Subject Specific Vocabulary

Impact of Oral Vocabulary on Reading

The Impact of Learning to Spell on Reading

Find the Words

Word Knowledge Builds Fluency


Biemiller, A. (2003) Vocabulary: Needed if more children are to read well. Reading Psychology, 24(3-4), 323-335.

Stanovich, K. & Cunningham, A. (1992). Studying the consequences of literacy within a literate society: The cognitive correlates of print exposures. Memory & Cognition, 20(1), 51-68; Beck & McKeown (2007). Increasing young low-income children’s oral vocabulary repertoires through rich and focused instruction. Elementary School Journal, 107(3), 251-271.

Elleman, A., Lindo, E. Morphy, P. & Compton, D. (2009). The impact of vocabulary instruction on passage-level comprehension of school-age children: a meta-analysis. Journal of Educational Effectiveness, 2(1), 1-44.

Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Word wise and content rich: Five essential steps to teaching academic vocabulary. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman.

Marzano, R.J. (2010). Teaching basic and advanced vocabulary. A framework for direct instruction. Boston, MA: Heinle Cengage Learning.

Mol, S. Bus, A., & deJong, M (2009). Interactive book reading in early education: a tool to stimulate print knowledge as well as oral language. Review of Educational Research, 79(2), 979-1007. Mol, S. & Neuman, S.B. (2012). Sharing information books with kindergarteners: the role of parents’ extratextual talk and socioeconomic status. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Nagy, W., Berninger, V.W., & Abbott, R.D. (2006). Contributions of morphology beyond phonology to literacy outcomes of upper elementary and middle-school students. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 134-147.