By Cheryl Sandora

Let’s spend a few minutes taking a trip down memory lane. Think back to when you were a student. What do you remember about vocabulary instruction? I remember my teacher’s instructional routine very clearly. The teacher handed us a list of words on Monday, and we spent the period looking up the definitions in the dictionary. Then, we spent the week reviewing the words at home, and Friday we took the test. Woohoo! We were so excited (insert rolling eyes emoji) to match the words to the definitions and then use each word in a sentence. These activities only provided a superficial understanding of the words, enough to pass Friday’s test, yet not to the point of ownership that is required to influence comprehension.

Although we’ve moved away from the more traditional approaches to vocabulary instruction, vocabulary is often the ELA content that is short-changed because of time. Why does it matter if we short-change vocabulary instruction? The answer is simple. Vocabulary plays an important role in students’ comprehension of complex texts and language development, and it also impacts students’ writing.

So, we know that vocabulary instruction is important for all students, and it might even be more critical for some of them. Studies have recognized the differences in vocabulary knowledge that students bring to school. Hart & Risley (1995) found that by age 3, there is a variation of vocabulary knowledge for children of different SES groups, and by first-grade, children from higher SES groups know about twice as many words as children from lower SES groups (Graves, Brunetti, & Slater, 1982; Graves & Slater, 1987).  There are systemic reasons outside of school that contribute to students of different SES having different levels of vocabulary, so it is critical that we make time for vocabulary instruction that provides all students experiences to be exposed to and interact with rich vocabulary.

Teachers recognize the importance of vocabulary instruction, and in working with teachers, we have seen various models and approaches. The approach we recommend is Robust Vocabulary Instruction, a research-based approach developed by Dr. Isabel Beck and Dr. Margaret McKeown. The approach was further developed and explained by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan in Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2013), a text The Guardian recommended as one of the top ten books all teachers should read. Robust Vocabulary Instruction is a simple approach that outlines the process of effective vocabulary instruction from the selection of words to implementation of lessons. What follows outlines this simple approach to Robust Vocabulary Instruction.

Selection of Words

In their early work, Beck and McKeown developed a three-tier system that considers that words have different roles and utility in language. Below is a description of each tier:

    • Tier One (base of the triangle): Words that are more common to students and words they likely learn in everyday language. For example, house and happy would fall under the Tier One category.
    • Tier Two (middle of the triangle): Words that appear in a wide variety of texts that students will encounter, are used in the written and oral language of more mature language users, and often reflect a familiar concept but an unfamiliar word for that concept. For example, students know what it means to “have to” do something, but they may not know the word require. Other examples would be emerge and ecstatic.
    • Tier Three (top of the triangle): Words that typically reflect specific topics or domains. They are often found in Science and Social Studies lessons and include words such as filibuster and stalagmite.

Because Tier Two words are high-utility words that reflect more sophisticated vocabulary, they are the words suggested for vocabulary instruction.

The three-tier system is especially helpful when engaging emergent-multilingual students (EML) in vocabulary instruction. Although they are less familiar with Tier One words, the approach advocates for a simple explanation, and if appropriate, a picture to represent the unfamiliar Tier One word. For Tier Two words, the focus of Robust Vocabulary Instruction, EML students will have the same unfamiliarity of Tier Two words as students whose home language is English, so the instruction is similar, although including work on cognates will support EML students.

Instructional Routine
After identifying a set of words (a set typically consists of 3-10 words depending upon the grade), the teacher follows the instructional routine.

    • As students encounter the words in the text, the teacher provides a student-friendly definition, so the unfamiliar word doesn’t interfere with comprehension.
    • After the text has been read, the teacher introduces the words by revisiting the context in which students first encountered the word.
    • Next, the teacher provides examples of the word used in contexts different from the ones in the text.
    • Finally, students engage in follow-up activities that allow them to interact with words in ways that deepen their understanding of the words.

Follow-up Activities
Once students have been introduced to and revisited the words in the text, the next step is to design follow-up activities that allow students to engage with the words in meaningful ways. Several examples are provided below and check out this menu of ideas for younger and older students.

Present students with statements and ask them to determine which ones reflect the meaning of the vocabulary words, which do not, and why. This activity works well when students are beginning to develop an understanding of the words.

Examples for the word redeem:

        • The team’s poor performance was made up for in the last inning of the game with a home run hit. (yes)
        • All was lost when a ship went down in a violent storm at sea. (no)

Actions with Words
Provide students with opportunities to demonstrate the meanings of the words through physical actions. This activity works especially well with younger students.

Example: A first-grade class might show what it means to stroll across the room.

Word Association
Students can work in pairs creating associations for words and having another pair provide explanations for how the association reflects the meaning of the targeted word.


Famished A person who had been lost in the woods for 4 days. The person may not have eaten for those days and is likely starving.

Students demonstrate an understanding of the words through their writing.

Example: Students work in pairs to create paragraphs reflecting one or more of their vocabulary words, and another pair identifies the vocabulary words and explains how the meaning is reflected in the paragraphs.

Application to Practice
We spent the last several months designing vocabulary resources for our IFL instructional units, and Manchester Academic Charter School, one of our partner schools, has been implementing one of the resources. I recently observed students working on one of the tasks where they had to respond to the question, “What are some ways you might adapt eating food if you had a loose tooth?” One student said she would eat only softer food. The teacher asked how that would be an adaptation, and another student responded, “Because you are eating just soft food, and soft food won’t push the tooth too hard and make it fall out.” I met with the teacher after the lesson, and she said students are really engaged in the lessons and especially liked when they create word associations and other students are challenged to explain how the association reflects the meaning of the word.

 If you would like more information on our vocabulary resources, please reach out to Faith Milazzo (


Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Graves, M. F., Brunetti, G. J., & Slater, W. H. (1982). The reading vocabularies of primary-grade children of varying geographic and social backgrounds. In J.A. Harris & L.A. Harris (Eds.), New inquiries in reading research and instruction. Rochester, NY: National Reading Conference. 99-104.

Graves, M. F. & Slater, W. H. (1987, April). Development of reading vocabularies in rural disadvantaged students, intercity disadvantaged students, and middle class suburban students. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, New York.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (1995). Meaningful differences in the everyday experience of young American children. Baltimore, MD: Brookes Publishing Company, Inc.