So many words…so little time…and what to do about it!

We think with words, therefore to improve thinking, teach vocabulary. — A. Draper and G. Moeller

(see Edutopia: )

At first, it seems like teaching vocabulary would be so simple – straightforward, easy as pie, a cinch – right? But, how do you keep it fresh and effective, without breaking out the dictionary or sending home weekly word lists?  “Spell it, draw it, use it in a sentence” and apply close reading techniques? These strategies only go so far toward reaching the true level of vocabulary instruction needed to fully launch a student forward in their reading level and support the ability to approach a text ready for deeper thinking.

Making the Time

So, what else can we do to help students add the 2000-3000 new words a year that research suggests they need?  As with so many things, I found the first step was to decide I was going to commit the time to it.  Yet in spite of my deep commitment to word learning, I had to fight daily to make it a priority. This goal to “make time” for effective vocabulary instruction dominated my 25 years as a middle school ELA teaching and Learning Specialist. With the pressures of new standards and an ever increasing number of struggling readers, I had to think creatively and design new strategies. I studied the research and applied what I learned in my classroom.

As my passion for word knowledge led me and my husband to create our company, Word Lab Web, the evidence continued to mount up that background knowledge in the form of familiar words is the essential building block for reading comprehension. The gift of word knowledge is not a sideline to comprehension. It is the key ingredient. “…correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.”  (Hirsch, 2013).

In fact, vocabulary deficits are a primary cause of academic failure in grades 3 through 12 (Baker, Simmons, & Kameenui, 1995). What I’ve learned is that the best approaches for building word knowledge involve involve interactive activities that promote discussion, access prior knowledge, differentiate and personalize the learning while providing practice using context clues and metacognition. With this in mind I want to share with you one of my favorite activities.

FREEBIE Activity

I call it a VOCABUTRIX, but formally called a Collaborative Semantic Feature Analysis Matrix, and it is easy to adopt. And because it encourages your students to talk and share ideas, they will enjoy the new focus. Your main challenge will be to justify (to yourself and others), the idea of spending more classroom time on word learning, and I intend to share with you more of the research you need to do just that, in subsequent blogs. Meanwhile, tell me in the comments section below what your biggest challenges are when teaching vocabulary. Is it lack of time, unmotivated students, too many struggling readers, or…? Please also share your successes! I look forward to hearing from you.

Download a copy of our VOCABUTRIX grid with instructions. Read more about the research behind it here .

Email me at if you have questions. I look forward to sharing more of my struggles and my research and ideas!


Baker, Scott K., Simmons, Deborah C., & Kameenui Edward J. (1995) Vocabulary Acquisition: Synthesis of the Research.
Retrieved from

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (2013) A Wealth of Words. Retrieved from


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