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English Language Arts Blog

The home of Vocab Gal and other educational experts K–12 resources

August 18, 2023 ELA K-5, ELA 6-8, ELA 9-12, ELA PD - Vocabulary, ELA Focus - Vocabulary

Increase Comprehension by Building Word Knowledge

In this article, we will examine why it’s important to teach vocabulary explicitly and systematically to students and share some research-based best practices for effective vocabulary instruction. We’ll also share a link to some engaging vocabulary games that give students the opportunity to be social while learning vocabulary.


Vocabulary and Why It Is Important

Vocabulary is essential for students in reading, writing, and speaking. But what is vocabulary, exactly? Vocabulary can be defined as the set of words a person knows and uses, or a compiled set of words.

Vocabulary knowledge is at the heart of school learning. From the early grades, vocabulary predicts later academic achievement; a child’s vocabulary is one of the best predictors in how well that child will understand text and be able to communicate in writing (Stahl & Nagy, 2006). Vocabulary is the largest contributing factor to reading comprehension; students rely on vocabulary for making meaning from what they read, view, or listen to. Research shows that vocabulary plays a critical role in learning to read and comprehend text (Biemiller 2003; Stahl & Stahl 2004). As students progress through the grades, they will encounter increasingly more specialized words utilized in academic disciplines and subjects; understanding this academic vocabulary is critical to students’ achievement.


From the early grades, vocabulary predicts later academic achievement; a child’s vocabulary is one of the best predictors in how well that child will understand text and be able to communicate in writing (Stahl & Nagy, 2006)

The Connection Between Vocabulary and Comprehension

We can look to the Science of Reading research to understand the relationship between vocabulary and reading comprehension. The Simple View of Reading (Gough and Tunmer, 1986) states that reading comprehension is a product of decoding (including phonics) and language comprehension, which includes vocabulary and content knowledge.


Another established model of reading, Scarborough’s Reading Rope (2001), provides more detail about the interwoven aspects of reading instruction. In this model, “Figure 1.9” from the image of the Reading Rope,”you can see vocabulary as one of the many Language Comprehension strands essential for skilled reading.


Best Practices for Vocabulary Instruction

Best practices for vocabulary instruction have been shaped by the research of Isabel Beck, Andrew Biemiller, Michael Graves, Margaret McKeown, Steven Stahl, and many others.

Effective vocabulary instruction must be explicit and systematic. Direct instruction of academic vocabulary plays a significant role in academic achievement. Students’ reading comprehension is supported through explicit instruction of the application of vocabulary skills, strategies, and processes. To be effective, direct instruction of academic vocabulary must consider:

  • The selection and grouping of words. A research-based word list that goes beyond literature supports students and draws from the vocabulary students will encounter and use in their reading and writing. Word lists matter. Words can be classified into three tiers (Beck and McKeown 2002). Understanding these classifications help teachers to provide effective vocabulary instruction.
    • Tier one words are encountered frequently in everyday speech and are learned early on (Biemiller 2007).
    • Tier two words are less common in conversation and more common in texts—academic vocabulary important for academic learning (Beck, McKeown & Kucan 2008).
    • Tier three words are less frequently encountered than Tier 1 and Tier 2 words, because they specific to a domain, discipline, or field of study.
  • A language-rich environment. Text-rich and language-rich classrooms help build students’ awareness and interest in words and support students in learning the meaning of words.
  • Effective modeling. Teachers who think about, use, and teach vocabulary words and strategies (such as using prefixes, suffixes, and context to determine meanings of unknown words) help students to acquire these words and strategies
  • Peer interaction. It’s important that students interact with their peers as they practice and use the words in a social context in which they benefit from listening and speaking. Varying instructional groups (i.e., small groups or partners) provides engaging opportunities for students. Vocabulary Games allow students to practice in engaging and social ways as they challenge students to think creatively in new contexts.

    vocabulary games for reading comprehension
  • Guided and independent practice. Students must be engaged with a variety of activities that offer multiple opportunities for students to use the words with a gradual reduction of support to build independence.
  • Multiple and varied exposures. Repeated exposure to words in different contexts supports retention and enhances learning, both in the ELA classroom and beyond.
  • Opportunities to practice. Students must be engaged with a variety of activities that offer multiple opportunities for students to use their new words, (i.e., organizing and comparing words using graphic organizers, and responding to open ended questions). Writing and writing activities are another rich and necessary extension of word learning that invites students to put vocabulary into practice.

Assessing Word Learning

Through explicit instruction and opportunities to practice, students will master words and build stronger and more robust vocabularies. In addition to ongoing assessments, a quick differentiated weekly assessment can support teachers as students learn new words.

Download the Differentiated Weekly Vocabulary Assessment Handout to supplement vocabulary assessments for students in grades 1–12. This alternative assessment allows teachers to quickly see students’ depth of knowledge for learned words.


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