Introduction | Vocabulary Instruction | Indirect Instruction

Instructional Activities for Vocabulary Development:
Direct Vocabulary Instruction

pixVocabulary knowledge is closely tied to achievement and to comprehension of oral and written language. You are, therefore, charged with supporting your students' vocabulary growth. Providing your students with multiple opportunities to read a variety of texts and teaching strategies to your students that will enable them to indirectly learn vocabulary are two ways to support vocabulary growth. Directly teaching vocabulary in a meaningful context is another way.

Direct vocabulary instruction is commonly done once prior to a reading and reviewed or assessed after the reading. Stahl suggests providing contextual information while addressing definitional information. Practice throughout the week with new vocabulary has historically revolved around writing definitions and sentences. Research, however, shows that in order to "learn" a word, it must be revisited approximately 8 to 10 times. Additionally, word learning is most effective when done in meaningful contexts where students are encouraged to take ownership of words. Owning a word is not getting a word right on a vocabulary quiz; owning a word is using it correctly in conversation and writing. These essential elements are only as effective as the learning environment is encouraging. Word Power suggests an encouraging learning environment that involves children more actively. Students should be relating new information to known information, putting the new into their own words, and thinking of examples/non-examples as well as antonyms/synonyms.

Each activity described in this section of the Vocabulary Guide involves direct teaching of word meanings with repeated exposure to words in contextualized settings. Concept maps, word cards, and four square vocabulary target new words using definitional and contextual information while concept sorting and list-group-label utilize the activity of compare and contrast to solidify word meanings. Each activity listed below can be modified and used in an oral format for use with younger students.

Concept Maps

Teaching a word directly first involves providing definitional and contextual information. Stahl suggests various ways you can provide definitional information: teaching synonyms and antonyms (requiring your students to consider the critical features of words); rewriting definitions (allowing students to show their understanding of a word); providing examples and non-examples (another way of requiring your students to consider the critical features of words); and discussing the differences between the target word and related words (concentrating on the meaning of the word). Contextual information can be provided for your students through various methods: providing opportunities for students to write sentences using target words (demonstrating a solid understanding of the word rather than being vague); discussing the meaning of the same word in various sentences (demonstrating the meaning of the word in multiple contexts); constructing a scenario (providing a richer context than a single sentence); and creating silly questions using a pair of target words (demonstrating understanding of word meanings and their relationships). A concept map can provide you with multiple ways to address both definitional and contextual information during vocabulary instruction.

Concept maps provide a visual organization of information about a word including classification, examples/non-examples, and description. Research has shown that identifying the critical characteristics of a word, giving the category to which it belongs, and discussing examples/non-examples results in increased comprehension. Concept maps allow teachers to directly teach vocabulary while providing a context for the new word. Concept maps can be used as "word cards" for students' own word collections or made larger to display in the class.

What is this?

Cold-blooded animal
with moist skin





What is it like?

Moist skin
Lives on land
Lays eggs in water

Word Cards

As your class begins to work with vocabulary, your students can keep a record of the words covered. Stahl and Kapinus outline a variation of a Concept Map, which is described next. Word Cards provide students with the opportunity to have collections of studied words that can be reviewed routinely. Stahl and Kapinus suggest that a word card include the word, its definition, any relevant contextual information (such as a sentence), and a personal clue to help remember the word (see figure below).

Definitional Information Contextual information
Personal clue

A sample Word Card for the word repeal may look like this:

To withdraw or
take back
The senate decided
to repeal
in the park.
The city repealed its decision to hold a parade.

After students have a collection of word cards, they can engage in various activities to practice. Word cards can be sorted by parts of speech (i.e., nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs) or by semantic categories. The students could also sort words without specified categories and then explain the basis for their categories. Pairs of words can be used to make up sentences. Students can also find words that have certain connotations such as good and bad, desirable and undesirable, etc.

Another way to keep a collection of words is keeping a vocabulary notebook. Vocabulary notebooks are not lists of words with definitions. A more effective version of a vocabulary notebook should include contexts (e.g., parts of stories, paragraphs, poems, songs) where the words appeared, pictures of the word, and synonyms and antonyms for the words.

Four-Square Vocabulary

Another activity suggested by Stahl and Kapinus is Four Square Vocabulary Squares. This activity is a type of concept mapping which uses explanations, examples, non-examples, and definition generation (providing both definitional and contextual information). The following describes an adaptation to this activity. To set up the "4-squares," have students fold a sheet of paper into quadrants and in the upper left box, dictate the word that is being taught, for example passive.

You then describe the word (e.g., "when someone is passive, they are not active"). When describing the word, provide a contextual example. For example, you could say "last night I was passive when I was watching TV, because I was sitting on the couch without being active." Generate examples of that concept along with your students. For passive, students might provide "napping," "spacing out," "daydreaming." After discussing, have students write four or five examples in the top right box.

Next, have students provide non-examples of the concept. For passive, students should offer activities that are not passive (e.g., "dancing," "playing sports," "playing music"). Have students write four or five non-examples in the lower right box after you have discussed non-examples as a group. See a sample completed Four Square below.

After you have described the word and examples and non-examples have been discussed, have your students write a definition of the concept in the lower left box. These definitions should be written in their own words and can then be shared with the class.


Napping Watching TV "Spacing Out" Daydreaming

When you are not doing much.

Dancing Playing Soccer Playing Piano Asking Questions

Concept Sorting

When introducing a new unit, one manner to amass information is to sort the words into main categories (an activity outlined by Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, and Johnston). Categorization allows your students the opportunities to solidify their knowledge of word meanings through comparisons. We continually categorize by finding order and similarities among new information to help us make sense of the world.

Before beginning a unit/chapter, select important concept words. Together with your students, review the list of words and come to a consensus by dividing the list into categories. Through this process, your students will be comparing, contrasting, and analyzing already known concepts while expanding their knowledge of unknown concepts. This exercise allows you to assess and build background knowledge. While the students are reading and come across a sorted word, they can move it to another column if it is not correct. If it is correct, they may highlight the word. The sort is then revisited after the reading for further discussion. See the sample concept sort below.

Medieval Times
People Place Things
Monarch Mint Armor
Knight Court Longbows
Page Kingdom Jewels


The List-Group-Label activity (an activity described by Tierney and Readence) introduces and reviews new vocabulary on a specific topic through the process of categorization. This activity is a form of semantic webbing, without requiring a graphic organizer. Students must have a working knowledge of the concepts in order to be successful with this activity. The purpose of the activity is to solidify meanings of words and concept knowledge.

To begin, you would select one or two target words as a stimulus and write the words on the board or chart paper (i.e., volcano). You and your students proceed while brainstorming a list of related words (i.e., lava, fire, Pompeii, erupt). For the next stage, you orally read the list of brainstormed words, pointing to each word. Using only the list from the board, partners group related words together and title each list to indicate the shared relationship between the words (not unlike a concept sort). Your students should then share their grouping strategies with the class, verbally stating why the words have been categorized in the particular manner (i.e., lava, ash, rocks, dust, smoke are all things emitted from a volcano).

Pictorial Case Study for Vocabulary Development

Please feel free to download and use any of the activities and information that we have provided. You may contact the Reading First office at the University of Virginia if you have any questions.

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