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How to Teach Vocabulary

Note: We strongly urge you to purchase the following book by Ruth Beechick, before attempting to use our vocabulary suggestions:

How We Teach Vocabulary

When we were students, we remember having lists of vocabulary words to learn each week. Starting in the younger grades, we would have to learn three or four words per week, with definitions. The words were easy and predictable at first, with common prefixes and suffixes. As we matured, we found ourselves learning up to twenty new vocabulary words per week, and that was not counting the words we memorized for other subjects, such as math, history and science. I remember cramming for each Friday’s test, desperately looking for some way to remember all the precise definitions. As a good student, I consistently scored well on these tests – until the time came for an end-of-the-year review. I never did well on that test! There was just no way to remember the meanings of an entire year’s worth of unfamiliar words.

This is why we’ve been searching for a better system of learning what words mean. Like so many subjects in school, I want to have a good answer for my children when they ask, “How will I ever use this in life?” Because I’m a “pack rat” and have kept most of my books from my own school days, I can say with assurance that I’ve never used the majority of the vocabulary words I memorized.

On the other hand, I understand the importance of having a rich vocabulary. On February 24, 2004, USA Today published an interesting article by educator and author, E.D. Hirsch, Jr. In it he argued that students must have more than phonics decoding skills if they are to be literate. They must also have a basic cultural literacy, an understanding of the contextual meaning of words and of basic history, science, art and music, if they are to be well educated. Our vocabulary is often an indicator of our level of knowledge, but even more importantly, without a rich vocabulary, it is very difficult for us to read for understanding or enjoyment. (See

For that reason, we strongly encourage you to develop an individualized approach to learning vocabulary. We want to give you the tools you need to teach vocabulary to your children, in the context of the other subjects they are learning.

Ruth Beechick gives several pointers to keep in mind when you are teaching vocabulary. First of all, there must be a memorable context around each word that you teach your child. She tells how learning the dictionary’s definition of a “compass” might still not give your child any clue what a compass really is. However, if your child meets a compass in real life, or even in the pages of a picture book or story, he will have a much greater understanding of what a compass is and how it is used. Secondly, she states that a child must meet a word fifteen or more times before it becomes a useful part of his vocabulary. This happens as you read about the word, research more on the topic, discuss it as a family over several days, and write about it. Obviously, this is a process that can’t be rushed.

Please note that greater learning can be done as a family, since everyone can learn from each other and build context based upon the family discussions you have. For this reason, we do vocabulary together, across the ages and grade levels. However, I choose words that will be helpful to each of my children. I figure that even the older students will profit from hearing the definitions that a first grader learns, and vice versa.

Let’s look at a typical week:

  • Before the week begins: Mom should look through the child’s history, science, Bible, family read-aloud books, art, or other curriculum, and choose several words to learn. We suggest limiting the words to a maximum of five per week. It is a better use of time to learn few words well than many words poorly. Write these words in large letters, one per page, at the top of the form we have provided. We prefer to punch holes in our pages so that they can be inserted, in alphabetical order, into a vocabulary notebook at the end of the week. However, in the meantime, just put these pages on your clipboard. I also keep several blank forms handy on my clipboard, in case, while we’re reading, one of the children asks about a word he hears.
  • Monday: Introduce the week’s vocabulary words. Through discussion, have your children come up with beginning definitions for the words. Write these definitions down, but then go to a good dictionary for an “official” explanation of the words. Write these down as well. If it would be helpful, draw a picture illustrating the word. Even crazy pictures can help your visual learners remember the meaning of the word. If a word has a prefix or suffix, be sure to define that part as well. Often the national origins of a word will shed new meaning on it.
  • Tuesday through Thursday: Try to use each word at least three times per day. The words could be used in discussion, as you encounter them in their original contexts (such as the history textbook, etc.). If you have access to a library, you might ask your children to read additional material about these words. You should take advantage of the vast resources of the Internet, as well as any encyclopedias you can access. Your children could call grandparents and discuss the words with them. If you have family friends who are experts in the appropriate field, have your children interview them. Have your children use the words in a sentence, or better yet, write paragraph reports or even stories about what they’ve learned. Use our form to record all the different ways you come into contact with the week’s vocabulary words. (I often forget to keep track of all this during school. Make it a point to make appropriate notes on your clipboard at least once a day. I usually take a moment to glance through my clipboard as my students are finishing their last assignments for the day. When I see the vocabulary forms, I remember to make notes!)
  • Friday: Test your children on how well they know what each word means. You could ask them to write a definition, which is the standard way schools test children on vocabulary words. You could also ask them to give an oral report on the words to Dad at supper. It doesn’t really matter how you test them, as long as you are convinced of their ability to use the words in conversation, and that you have recorded this ability in your records. Note: It might also be wise to test them over a random word they studied previously, just to be sure they really did learn it. In our opinion, this tells you much more about how much they’re really retaining!

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  1. The type of books read also make a difference. I try to find books printed before 1960 when literature was written at a higher reading level. I search out unabridged versions of the classics. Ones marketed to children are often rewritten, using a less rich vocabulary and shorter sentence structure. I also seek out the originals of series like the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, Hardy Boys, and others. Unfortunately, many of those classic series were rewritten in the 60’s and 70’s. I had heard about the rewrites but didn’t give it much thought until I picked up one of the newer Bobbsey Twins books at a thrift shop. I sat down to read it to compare it to the original and couldn’t get past page 3 before I tossed it into the trash. The writing was bland and torturous (is that a word?) and I wouldn’t inflict it on my children : )

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