About this blog Subscribe to this blog
« Prev: Support Your Budding Writers Easy Movie Making with a Green Screen: Next»

Vocabulary Strategies That Help


It is estimated that students learn between 3,000 and 4,000 new words each year, with the typical student knowing some 25,000 words by the end of elementary school (Graves and Watts-Taffe, 2002). It is obvious that five pre-selected vocabulary words from a basal textbook doesn't make the grade. Even if a new word is taught each day, in addition to five pre-selected vocabulary words for the week, that is still less than 400 words a year. So, how can we maximize vocabulary acquisition? Here are five ways to support your readers in becoming vocabulary virtuosos.

Learning Vocabulary in Context
The key words today are research-based and direct/explicit instruction. As teachers we need to be informed of the most up-to date research, and we need to individualize our instruction with focused, intentional concentration. However, when direct instruction is the game, independent reading suddenly looks like the bad guy. But do not fear, the reading research is here! In regards to teaching vocabulary, research shows that independent reading is not only the good guy in your corner, but it is our super hero!
Vocabulary Strategy: Exposure to New Words Through Reading
Citing Richard Allington's work, the time spent reading in class is critical to vocabulary acquisition. Consider these numbers tied to achievement:
Achievement Percentile    Min. Read/Day      Words/Year Exposure
90th                                         40.4                                  2,357,000
50th                                         12.9                                  601,000
10th                                         1.6                                    51,000
*Source adopted from Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding, 1988.
2,357,000 words. How many of those words will be new to your students? Will those 2,357,000 words be the same for your lowest reader and highest reader? Reading naturally exposes students to an individualized vocabulary plan of action. A vast majority of vocabulary is learned in the context of reading, and the research supports it.
Vocabulary Strategy: Replace the Unknown with a Known


Let's take the introduction to my post as an example. Did you have to look up the definition of virtuosos in the dictionary before proceeding? Probably not. More than likely, you have heard the word virtuoso before (the arts perhaps) and recognized virtuosos as a plural form. If that wasn't the case, you probably replaced the word with another word that made sense to you.
Example- Learn how to support your readers in becoming vocabulary virtuosos-experts.
This can explicitly be taught to your students. Through read-alouds, you can model this thinking process by saying, "I'm not sure what virtuosos means, but when I reread the sentence and replace it with the word expert...it seems to make sense. Readers often do this while reading." This can be followed up with a practice in application during the reading block. It can also be discussed during book talks and share time.
Vocabulary Strategy: What's Under the Post-It Note?


Utilizing a big book, strategically cover up some challenging words with post-it notes.  As you read to the class, stop and discuss how a reader can figure out the covered word(s). This builds on the strategy above and is an easy way to focus on new vocabulary within a read-aloud. This also demonstrates how readers sometimes use picture clues to help identify an unknown word. In this case, seeing the circular steps aids in identifying the word cycle.
Vocabulary Strategy: Word Study Word Wall



We explicitly teach vocabulary through root words, prefixes, and suffixes each week. We utilize Heather Renz's amazing word study lists and resources, and I have her work posted on my site with permission. Heather has 21 weeks worth of slide shows, study stem lists, and tests and I added more to create 31 weeks in total.  Last year, I could not believe how often the study of these words benefited us.  With the teaching of five stems a week, you are actually teaching hundreds of words throughout the year. The best part is that our studies are individualized, with some students attacking easier words like biceps while others attack complex words like bicuspid. The test format also allows students to show what they have learned, based on where they are as a reader.

Each week, five words go onto our word study word wall. Of importance:

~ We don't start the year with the words already posted. They go up as they are taught.

~ The word stem is written with a one word definition.

~ A picture clue is included for each stem.

~ The cards are student made, not store bought.

~ Students use movement to remember each stem. Ex- crossing your arms in an "X" for anti.

More detailed information can be found on our class page, including the day to day process of enforcing the word stems we are learning.

Vocabulary Strategy: Expanding Vocabulary Chart


Building on the Sister's CAFE menu (authors of The Daily Five), we have an expanding vocabulary wall in our room. The use of the board is simple. We take note of the new words we are exposed to together throughout the year. When we are reading something and an interesting word is discussed, we record it on the board. My only suggestion is that it doesn't include words from independent reading as it will quickly become a board of random words for your students.

And lastly, please remember that reading and writing are integral to each other.  The words read together and posted on the expanding vocabulary chart can be the new words tried out during writing time.  It is when this is applied in writing that we can truly see an understanding of the learned word.

To access more information on how we utilize word studies in our classroom- visit us here.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

Angela Bunyi


You poor thing! And yet, with the quick grade change, you are able to provide and find tons of research and materials for teaching! Again, I'd love to be able to meet you. You sound like such a great teacher and person.

I am feeling like a lazy human being. We are currently on a fall break, so my only concerns are three loads of laundry and finding our hamster, Wasabi, AGAIN (how does he escape?!?). I went through the sites you mentioned, and here are my thoughts:

Vocabulary Jars: This was very popular in first grade classrooms in my old county and would be great in your 1/2 combo. room. I saw some for sale at a small mom and pop toy store here in Murfreesboro. I'm not sold on them for 4th grade though...but you do have me thinking...maybe for students struggling with word study (I have two students significantly below grade level).

Tim Rasinski: This looks like a pretty good resource! My only concern are the amount of worksheets associated. Using all of them would be a drill and kill effort, but I do like the approach and many of the resources. Several of those ideas could be incorporated without a worksheet. I ALSO love the statistics provided at the end. Ex- Over 60% of the words students will encounter have recognizable word parts; many of them are derivatives of Latin and Greek roots (Nagy, Anderson,
Schommer, Scott, & Stallman, 1989).

Vocabulary Parade: You may be in Australia, but our minds might be on the same wave length. We have a large book parade at our school at the end of the month. Can you guess what my room (and my teacher buddy next door) is doing? I will post pictures after the event!

Side note- I don't know if you have been following politics, but today Obama and McCain will be coming to town for a debate. Yeah Nashville! Of course, it decides to rain with all the cameras here today when it literally hasn't rained for over a month.

Anyway, I am rambling. My very best wishes to you!!! I have a hamster to find!

Much love,


Michele McKinlay

Hi again Angela.( a bit long I’m sorry)

Is it September yet???? I’ve had a sudden switch to a Grade K/1 combo ( we call them ‘composite grades’ in Oz) late in our third quarter and I am having to prop open my eyelids with toothpicks! Just getting everything ready for daily Reader’s Workshop and Writer’s Workshop – let alone all the other subjects - seems to be occupying most of my waking hours outside class. The long hours of preparation time must be the big turn-off for teaching as a career now!

Angela, maybe in our new school year, January ’09, when I may again have a third or fourth grade (who knows?) I will be able to think about the video conferencing that you mentioned.

I loved learning from your vocabulary ideas, Angela, and this sent me looking for other ideas to promote vocabulary development, especially for Grades 3-6 (where my heart lies). Your comments on any of the following would be very welcome.

*I loved reading about Melissa Forney’s ‘vocabulators’ and think they would be a great ongoing project for fourth to sixth. I’ve been searching everywhere for suitable jars, without success. You can check out lots of great theme jars here:

*I found the statistics quoted by Tim Rasinski to be somewhat of a wake up call: over 90% of English words of two or more syllables are of Greek or Latin origin. (http://www.timrasinski.com/presentations/IRA07Tim_Rasinski.pdf)
I must look to include much more work on word roots to help kids unlock the meanings of new words- for when they are at school and away from school. I am going to investigate his series of 6 books for Grades 3- 8: Building Vocabulary from Word Roots. I really like the format he follows in these books: Divide, Conquer, Create and Combine. Have you seen or used any of these?
*Tampareads has vocabulary lists for Grade 1-5 (Grade 6 coming). ‘They’ say
These lists show the precise reading vocabulary your student(s) should be learning
throughout the school year in order to maintain "true" grade level progress.
Our 15+ years of research has shown when a student can fluently read the words
in any of our grade level lists - then he/she will typically score in the
top 10% on any national reading test for that grade level !!
Free download here:
Angela, do you have any views about lists of this sort?

*Finally, I loved learning about school-wide vocabulary parades- something new to me. Check out Debbie Frasier’s website for pics. These sound a fun way to look at vocabulary.

Please keep posting you great ideas!

Angela Bunyi

Don't feel silly. We all have lots to learn. In fact, my poor teaching partner Karen has to put up with my endless questions on how things are fun at Barfield. Does the pink or yellow slip go to the office? When is the Barfield Banner bash? Can you give me another form, I lost it. Really, I need to get her a good Christmas present. I don't know what I'd do without her!
So back to the point. Don't feel silly. I don't think it is too young for 3rd grade. I believe a 3rd grade teacher at my school is using the same list as well. Maybe you could focus more on just the stem meaning each week though, if you are unsure.

The way I introduce my word study word wall is this:
Friday afternoon I have two students take the five word stems for the next week and draw them out on index cards. The cards include the stem, meaning and a picture for memory aide. I use velcro on the back so I can take it down shortly before the test. They are higher than I'd like them to be on our wall, but it's what I have to work with in my room. :(

*We address the words through movement and body. To me, it really works because I can name all of them easily...equi means equal (my hands make equal signs), de means down (I point down), etc.
*We use the powerpoint slide show two to three times a week for a quick review. *Starting this week I will have the slide show playing in the morning when everyone is getting unpacked and ready for the morning (my computer was broken before then).
*A printed sample list is given out each Monday. Rather than have students memorize two random words within the stem (ex- circumnavigate and circumference for circum-around), I build in time on Mondays to look through dictionaries for help. I don't ask students to write down the definition. Instead they use it in a sentence and add a picture for help.
* A test is given each Friday and are posted on my site. Most of this came from Heather Renz, an awesome teacher site that I am sure you have heard of. Test- know stems and meanings. Demonstrate two stem examples each. 15 points total.
*If a student is really struggling (or has an IEP), I modify it to one example per stem.
*This is the best "I only have 2 minutes, what do I do?" activity in our room.

And good luck this year. I feel bad for teachers just entering the teaching profession. I have felt the load/expectation increase over the past nine years and can't imagine the stress just coming in. Stay strong and give yourself 3 or 4 years...it will get easier, I promise. :)

Happy break,


I love your vocabulary ideas. I'm beginning my first year teaching third grade. My question is, how do you introduce your word study word wall? Is this appropriate for third grade? Sorry if these questions seem silly- I feel like I have lots to learn this year!

Angela Bunyi


How fun that you are at an international school. My husband is finishing up a guidance counselor degree, and we have thought about going international after he finishes up. We wouldn't mind selling most of our stuff, but it is the classroom items/books that keeps bothering me. I can't teach without my tools, but I can't imagine the bill for shipping it either!

Anyway (I ramble sometimes), I hope your year brings you happiness and some good travels. :) Thanks for visiting, and I hope I can help you more this year.

Best wishes,

Angela Bunyi

Hello Julie,
First, I want to say that I LOVE your last name. How cool is that to be Ms. Friend?!? Good luck on being facilitator.

On a side note, I haven't started up our classroom economy. I am planning to have it up and running within the next three weeks. That means more will come to that page shortly. :)

Happy long weekend...



I am teaching at an international school in Okinawa Japan and your ideas are wonderful for differentiating my lessons for each learner represented in my class. I have long believed in "workshops" and authentic reading, and I am so excited to see practical tips and photos of these practices on your website. I am excited to see where your year-long journey takes you.


Julie Friend

I am so happy that I happened upon your website, it is amazing! I plan on incorporating many of the techniques this year. I love your ideas from the lay out of your room to the classroom economy and the fact that I am facilitating. Thank you for all the helpful information.

Angela Bunyi

Good question! Our quiz/test has a total of 15 points available each week. Students earn 5 points for knowing the stem meaning of each word and then earn 10 points for knowing two examples from each stem. If one stem only has one word example that would be 14/15 points.

Example (3 points here for correct meaning and 2 examples)
bi- two
biceps, bicycle

The 2 examples are self-selected by students, which makes the assessment individualized. This does mean that the easiest words are sometimes used in the beginning, but I address this early on. For example, I may write a note to a student that used bicycle instead of a more challenging "bi" word if they are identified gifted. It seems to work pretty well.

Let me know if you have any other questions!

Angela Bunyi

Laura Sims

Thanks so much for sharing such great vocabulary ideas! I love especially love the expanding vocabulary chart and the word study word wall / word within a word. When the students learn the 5 stems each week and take the test on Friday, how do you grade them? Since there are only 5 questions, do you combine the scores for a couple weeks before recording them in the gradebook?

Angela Bunyi


Yeah! I am glad to hear that. Also, thank you for sharing this blog with others. Working together is one way we work smarter not harder. :)

Best wishes,


Andrea Risotto

This is terrific! Thank you so much for sharing your ideas. They are grounded in reading research, while being easy to stick into lesson plans. They are a lot of fun too! Elementary teachers need more of this kind of information. I love the vocabulary tips and the memory map! Thanks! I will share this with friends.

Comments are closed. Please see Classroom Solutions, our new blog for the 2009-2010 school year. And stay tuned for Teaching Matters with Angela Bunyi and Beth Newingham.

Recent Posts


Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in Inside Angela's 4th Grade Classroom are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Scholastic, Inc.