Vocabulary Instruction – Best Practices

Rigorous vocabulary instruction is important because a strong vocabulary fosters academic, social, and vocational success. So, how do you ensure you’re providing rigorous, or “best practice”, vocabulary instruction? Though it is not an exact science, research supports that a few key components are extremely effective in vocabulary instruction.

Best practice vocabulary instruction should include:

Multiple contexts

Students need to be exposed to a word, across multiple contexts, around ten times before they deeply understand the nuances of a word’s meaning. According to the National Reading Technical Assistance Center’s Review of Current Research on Vocabulary Instruction, “Biemiller and Boote (2006) also found that word explanations taught directly during the reading of a storybook enhanced children’s understanding of word meanings. Nash and Snowling (2006) found that using a contextual approach to instruction produced greater vocabulary gains than lessons that emphasized learning word definitions.”


Simple language in explanations

Remember, you are often using language to teach language when it comes to traditional vocabulary instruction. It is important to use vocabulary that students already understand, or have background knowledge with, when teaching a new concept.


Active engagement

Our end goal is to have learners utilizing rich vocabulary in their own lives, writing, conversation, etc. So the more you can put students in the driver’s seat of their learning, the better. You could ask students to find other examples of the word in novels, in images, or in the text you’re reading. You can ask them to use the word in their writing! Any active engagement with the word, past the direct instruction, helps the vocabulary meaning and spelling stick with students.


Use of visuals

Using visuals during vocabulary instruction allows for two key things to happen:

  • All students are able to engage
    • Many of our learners struggle with decoding or may not be fluent readers. That limits engagement in vocabulary instruction if vocabulary instruction uses only words (i.e., definitions.)
  • Students create background knowledge
    • Images help learners engage and create pictures in their minds for the vocabulary concepts. Great readers create pictures or a “movie” as they read. By offering multiple, rich images as a method for learning vocabulary words, it helps students call upon that background knowledge as they create their internal “movie” about the text.



Understanding how words are formed, and their relationship to other vocabulary, is extremely important. Vocabulary instruction should create opportunities for learners to see the relationships between words when there is a common prefix, suffix or root.



Semantics refers to the meanings of individual words, the network of words and word relationships in our minds. According to reading researcher Timothy Shanahan, “(have students) Collect such (complex) words over time as they are learned and then later you can have kids comparing the ideas or fitting them into a continuum or network..” Source Word webs and semantic maps are helpful for this type of expansion.



Multisensory approaches to instruction combine hearing, speaking, reading, and kinesthetic (i.e., hands on activities). Incorporating multisensory activities is a great scaffold for learners. Many students benefit from seeing images or illustrations of vocabulary. They benefit from creating their own pictures, too (after they actually deeply understand the meaning of the word). Drawing, charades, finding real world examples or creating sentences of your own with the newly acquired vocabulary word are all great activities!



Most words require 10-12 exposures in order to deeply “own” the vocabulary word. This includes understanding its many nuances and contexts, whether the word has multiple (separate) meanings, its spelling, pronunciation (having the word in our orthographic and semantic lexicon).


Rigorous, and rich, vocabulary instruction takes time and planning on the part of teachers. It is multifaceted and engaging. By integrating many of these attributes, teachers can guide students in creating a deep understanding of vocabulary, which opens doors for students in every area of their learning and communication.


Looking for a way to provide independent practice that incorporates many of these best practice strategies? Hoping to save yourself hours of planning time? Check out InferCabulary. InferCabulary is an online vocabulary tool that utilizes real world images and critical thinking to help students deeply learn Tier 2 vocabulary.