Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

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Building vocabulary has been identified as one of the core elements that needs to be included in reading instruction for ‘at risk’ students. Vocabulary includes all words used, both orally and in the written form, which are required in order to comprehend and communicate effectively. It is well established that in typically developing readers, vocabulary is primarily developed through extensive and independent reading. However, poor readers are generally not exposed to the same quantity of vocabulary because they are unable to or don’t read extensively. Consequently, for these students vocabulary needs to be explicitly taught and be an integral component of any literacy intervention program.

The NCIL (2022) recommend four steps in the explicit teaching of vocabulary.

Step 1: Select the word

  • Choose words that are contained in the text students will be reading.
  • Choose words that have a high level of utility:
  • The words should occur frequently in a variety of text and in oral language.
  • The words are important for understanding the concept or the text.
  • Choose words that have an appropriate level of complexity
  • Include words with multiple meanings.
  • Include words that have idiomatic expressions.
  • Include words in which the stem can be combined with a variety of prefixes and suffixes.

Step 2: Provide a student friendly definition

  • Link the word to vocabulary with which students are already familiar using sentence structures that they will easily understand (e.g., The word ‘gigantic’ means very big.).

Step 3: Illustrate the word

  • Use both examples and non-examples (e.g., a giant is gigantic, but an ant is not gigantic).
  • Use an anchor picture.
  • Ask students to draw or act out the word.
  • Read sentences from the text that contain the word.
  • Ask students to generate their own sentences using the word.

Step 4: Check students’ understanding

  • Ask students questions that will prompt answers demonstrating understanding of the use of the word and its meaning.
  • Ask students to generate examples and non-examples that demonstrate correct use of the word.
  • As students to generate sentences that include the word.

Further Ideas

  • Help students identify stems, prefixes and suffixes and their meanings.
  • Ask students create additional words using the stems, prefixes and/or suffixes.
  • Ask students provide examples and non-examples of their newly created words, either from a definition perspective or using it is a sentence.

Poor decoding skills is the number 1 reason that students perform poorly on comprehension assessments. The second most common reason is that they have poor vocabulary. An integral component of the Cracking the ABC Code Reading for Comprehension books is to build vocabulary.


National Center on Improving Literacy (NCIL), (2022). Explicit vocabulary instruction to build equitable access for all learners by NCIL, The Reading League Journal, 3 (2), 59-63.