Learning, as a language based activity, is fundamentally and profoundly dependent on vocabulary knowledge. Learners must have access to the meanings of words that teachers, or their surrogates (e.g., other adults, books, films, etc.), use to guide them into contemplating known concepts in novel ways (i.e. to learn something new).

Baker, Simmons, & Kame'enui, 1998. See References

Expressive Vocabulary: Requires a speaker or writer to produce a specific label for a particular meaning.

Receptive Vocabulary: Requires a reader to associate a specific meaning with a given label as in reading or listening.

Hart & Risley, 1995 (see References)

Children enter school with "meaningful differences" in vocabulary knowledge.

  • What doesn't matter: race/ethnicity, gender, birth order.
  • What does matter: relative economic advantage.
  1. Emergence of the Problem

    In a typical hour, the average child hears:

    Family Status Actual Differences in Quantity of Words Heard Actual Differences in Quality of Words Heard
    Welfare 616 words 5 affirmations, 11 prohibitions
    Working Class 1,251 words 12 affirmations, 7 prohibitions
    Professional 2,153 words 32 affirmations, 5 prohibitions
  2. Cumulative Vocabulary Experiences
    Family Status Words heard per hour Words heard in a 100-hour week Words heard in a 5,200 hour year Words heard in 4 years
    Welfare 616 62,000 3 million 13 million
    Working Class 1,251 125,000 6 million 26 million
    Professional 2,153 215,000 11 million 45 million
  3. Meaningful Differences

    By the time the children were 3 years old, parents in less economically favored circumstances had said fewer different words in their cumulative monthly vocabularies than the children in the most economically advantaged families in the same period of time.

    Cumulative Vocabulary
    Children from welfare families: 500 words
    Children from working class families: 700 words
    Children from professional families: 1,100 words

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Simplifying Direct Vocabulary Instruction: Matching Instruction to Your Goal

  • There are a limited number of ways to teach vocabulary directly!
  • The way you teach depends on learner knowledge and what you want students to be able to do.
  • Three Prominent Oral Vocabulary Teaching Strategies:
  • Modeling (Examples):
    When it is impossible to use language to explain the meaning of a word (e.g., between, in).
    When a student knows a word(s) that can explain the meaning of a new, unknown word (e.g., damp means a little wet).
    When students have adequate language to understand a longer explanation and when the concept is too complicated to be explained through a synonym (e.g., service station is a place where gasoline is sold and cars are repaired).


  1. Model positive and negative examples of the new concept. (e.g., "This is a mitten." or "This is not a mitten.").
  2. Test student on their mastery of the examples (e.g., "Is this a mitten or not a mitten?").
  3. Present different examples of the new word along with examples of other previously taught words. Ask for names (e.g., "What is this?", "What color is this?" or "Tell me how I'm writing.").

Examples of Content Teaching

Teaching Red Concept Model Teaching Over Concept Model Teaching Bird Concept Model


  1. Teacher equates a new word (sturdy) with a known word(s) (strong). (e.g., "Here is a new word. Sturdy. Sturdy means strong.").
  2. Teacher tests a set of positive and negative examples for the new word. (e.g., "Tell me sturdy or not sturdy.").
  3. Teacher provides practice in applying several recently taught synonyms. (e.g., "Is that sturdy? Is it tidy? Is it mild?").

When Teaching Synonyms

  • Use words students know
  • Test on a range of positive and negative examples
  • Huge means very big.
  • What does huge mean?
  • Tom put his pet in his pocket. Was his pet huge?
  • The animal wouldn't fit through the door. Was the animal huge?


  1. Teacher tells the students the definition and has them repeat it. (e.g., "An exit is a door that leads out of a building. What is an exit?").
  2. Teacher tests the students on positive and negative examples to ensure that the students understand the definition and that they are not just memorizing a series of words. ("Is this an exit or not an exit? How do you know?").
  3. Teacher provides a review of previous words. ("What is this? How do you know?").

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TIP: For more information about Vocabulary, including additional teaching strategies, visit the Big Ideas in Beginning Reading website.