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Recipes for Effective Literacy Instruction

Building Robust Vocabulary

Many of our students arrive with insufficient vocabularies.  In the case of some students, as Hart & Risley found, their exposure may be MILLIONS of words behind their peers even when they begin kindergarten.  See "The Power of Talking to Your Baby," by Tina Rosenberg (NY Times) for more information.  Parents can help by READING ALOUD to their children, and so can teachers.  For a great resource on reading aloud, see the Recommended Reading box below.

This section, “Building Robust Vocabulary,” provides a sample mini-unit of how to teach vocabulary using lessons from Bringing Words to Life, by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (New York: The Guilford Press, 2002).  In the Download Zone, you will find strategies to introduce the words, Do Nows, a game, homework, and a quiz.  Many thanks to Jessica Majerus for sharing these helpful models! 

For a video training module that explains how to teach vocabulary, check this out:


How We Teach Vocabulary MODULE:

This 12-min SELF-PACED video explains how we teach vocabulary at the MS level and demonstrates the tools we use. NOTE: Watch The Comprehension Process MODULE before this one.


For more resources to support your work around vocabulary instruction, please check out the following:



***For a detailed description of how to teach vocabulary using Vocabulary.com and TLC resources, check out Using Vocabulary.com and TLC Resources and see https://www.vocabulary.com/See also onelook.com Check out my TLC Blog post on "Techniques and Tools for Effective Vocabulary Instruction."

I also recommend Timothy Shanahan's blog post "How I Teach Students to Use Context in Vocabulary Learning" (from Shanahan on Literacy, 6/3/23) for a thoughtful, clear, nuanced explanation of how to PLAN EFFECTIVELY for contextual vocabulary learning!

And check out Rewordify.com for designing text-oriented vocabulary quizzes! Rewordify.com is powerful, free, online software that improves reading, learning, and teaching. Here's my TLC Blog post on "How to Use Rewordify.com to Make Your Life Easier". This site can: 

  • Intelligently simplify difficult English, for faster comprehension (IN OTHER WORDS, it paraphrases for you!)
  • Effectively teach words, for building a better vocabulary
  • Help teachers save time and produce engaging lessons
  • Help improve learning outcomes

Another idea: WORD-COLLECTING, AKA "Make Your Own Dictionary."
To capitalize on teachable moments, have students collect new words as they emerge during class discussions.  Establish a set of guidelines for what students should record each time:

e.g., the word, a sentence using the word in context, and a user-friendly definition.

For ideas about how to teach VOCABULARY IN CONTEXT, see Vocabulary in Context Strategies--Signals and Context Clues in the Download Zone.  Thanks to Jessika Rao for inspiring this piece!

For more information on how to teach ROOTS, see the “Root of the Week” category in the READING section.

Verbal Workout (www.verbalworkout.com) is a tremendous resource, particularly for high school teachers (and parents) who want to help students strengthen their vocabulary.  It includes key vocabulary words (esp. SAT words) from many, many commonly-read texts and provides lists (sortable in various ways, such as by chapter or frequency) and quizzes.  Moreover, it’s a great source to see lists of commonly-read texts, esp. if you are writing/revising curriculum:

--  Books Most Commonly Assigned in the 2011-12 HS Year According to a Renaissance Learning Survey

--  Books Most Commonly Read by High School Students (via Accelerated Reader)

--  Books Most Cited by AP Literature Open Response Questions Since 2000

--  College Board’s 101 Great Books Recommended for College-Bound Readers

PS--I recommend viewing the two brief (2-4 min.) video tutorials so you can see how to gain maximum benefit from this resource.  Then you’ll be on your way!  Many thanks to Jamie Sterlacci for this lead!


Achieve the Core's Academic Word Finder enables users to paste in up to 20,000 words (about 5 pages) of ANY text to find vocabulary words within that text that are on a certain grade level. It’s free and super-easy to use. Just paste in the text, select a grade, and see the results. In addition to identifying the grade levels of various words, it gives you multiple definitions and sample sentences for those words.  And here’s another benefit: If you’re trying to determine if a text is “on grade-level,” this tool will give you some indication of that.  Many thanks to Meghan Lowney at Great Oaks Legacy Charter School for bringing this resource to my attention!



FreeRice.com is a nonprofit that has two stated goals: 1) Provide education to everyone for free. 2) Help end world hunger by providing rice to hungry people for free.

The Website covers an array of subjects and enables users to learn vocabulary, grammar, and even other languages (and more!) with adaptive assessments (i.e., when you get a question correct, the next one is harder; when you get one wrong, the next one is easier).  It features a cool graphic interface that shows you how much rice your correct answers are generating for the World Food Programme.



Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., and Kucan, L. (2002).  Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction.  New York: Guilford Press.

  • This book provides practical strategies for improving vocabulary instruction K-12, addressing how to select and introduce words, how to review/reinforce meanings, and how to assess vocabulary.

Trelease, J. (2006). The Read-Aloud Handbook.  New York: Penguin Books.

  • This book explains how reading aloud to children strengthens their literacy skills, enhances their interest in reading, and ultimately leads to academic achievement.  In addition to making the case for reading aloud, it also provides an annotated list of excellent texts to read aloud.
  • For more information, check out the author's Website HERE.


Zwiers, J. (2008).  Building Academic Language: Essential Practices for Content Classrooms.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

  • This book explains how language plays a key role in learning and shows what teachers can do to help ALL students develop the language they need to succeed academically.
  • You can see excerpts and links to additional resources HERE.




















IN THE DOWNLOAD ZONE for Building Robust Vocabulary:


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