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Targeting Vocabulary

Vocabulary Forms*

Oral/Sign (English or ASL) Listening/Seeing Speaking/Signing
Print (English) Reading Writing

*adapted from Diamond & Gutlohn, 2006

Vocabulary instruction can be purposeful. Some children who are D/HH can learn vocabulary from their environment, but many children have language delays that prevent them from learning words incidentally- which is the ability to learn words without direct or explicit adult instruction.

Teachers can intentionally pick words to boost their students’ vocabulary. Whether you are targeting vocabulary at the Oral/Sign level or the Print level depends on the age of the child. Research supports a three step process for intentional instruction: (1) Target 5-7 words per week and provide simple (child-friendly) definitions; (2) Teach the words in a meaningful context; and (3) Encourage active engagement with the targeted word where students have to understand the meaning and use the words right away.

See the three-step process in action!

Kaylea [Minute 3:10 of video]

  1. Target vocabulary: words related to winter (i.e. snowman, stack, snowball, roll, soft, white, etc.). For her words, no verbal definition was needed to explain the word; she could just show them a picture since many of the words are concrete ideas. 
  2. Meaningful context: making a snowman
  3. Engagement with the targeted words: students use the words to build the snowman and talk about what they did.

Jillian [Minute 5:15 of video]

  1. Target vocabulary: words related to a concept: hibernation (i.e. bear, woodchuck, cave, sleep, winter, a long time, warm, spring, etc.). Now, let’s consider the dictionary definition of the word hibernation: To pass the winter in a dormant or torpid state. This definition would be inappropriate for her students. Instead, she uses a simple, and child-friendly definition
  2. Meaningful context: a storybook reading
  3. Engagement with the words: comprehension questions related to the story.


Diamond, L. & Gutlohn, L. (2006). Vocabulary Handbook. CORE Literacy Library: Berkeley, California.  Educators and reading specialists from elementary to high school will get in-depth, ready-to-use guidance on the three main elements of high quality vocabulary instruction: specific word instruction, independent word-learning strategies, and word consciousness. For each of these elements, four sections give teachers the what, the why, the when, and the how.

Biemiller, A., & Boote, C. (2006). An effective method for building meaning vocabulary in primary grades. Journal of Education Psychology, 98, 44-62.  Teaching vocabulary to primary grade children is essential. Previous studies of teaching vocabulary (word meanings) using story books in the primary grades reported gains of 20%–25% of word meanings taught. The present studies concern possible influences on word meaning acquisition during instruction (Study 1) and increasing the percentage and number of word meanings acquired (Study 2). Both studies were conducted in a working-class school with approximately 50% English-language learners. The regular classroom teachers worked with their whole classes in these studies. In Study 1, average gains of 12% of word meanings were obtained using repeated reading. Adding word explanations added a 10% gain for a total gain of 22%. Pretesting had no effect on gains. In Study 2, results showed learning of 41% of word meanings taught. At this rate of learning word meanings taught, it would be possible for children to learn 400 word meanings a year if 1,000 word meanings were taught. The feasibility of teaching
vocabulary to primary grade children is discussed.

National Reading Panel. (2000). Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The Summary Report is an ideal resource for anyone who wants to understand the purpose, methodology, and results of the National Reading Panel's findings on reading instruction research.  This 35-page report explains the origin of the Panel and its congressional charge. It succinctly describes the research methodology used and the findings of each of the Panel subgroups: (1) Alphabetics, (2) Fluency, (3) Comprehension, (4) Teacher Education and Reading Instruction, and (5) Computer Technology and Reading Instruction. This report also offers insightful information provided by Panel members on reading instruction topics that may require further exploration. This report is an excellent resource for parents, teachers, administrators, or anyone interested in learning about reading instruction research.

Senechal, M. (1997). The differential effect of storybook reading on preschoolers’ acquisition of expressive and receptive vocabulary. Child Language, 24, 123-138.  The present study was conducted to assess the effect of didactic techniques used during storybook reading on young children's acquisition of new vocabulary introduced in storybooks. Thirty children for each group of three- and four-year-old children were read one storybook individually. The study included three storybook reading conditions: single-reading, repeated-reading and questioning. In both the repeated-reading and the questioning conditions, the storybook was read three times. Children in the questioning condition were asked, during each reading of the storybook, to label target items with the novel words. Listening to multiple readings of a storybook facilitated children's acquisition of expressive and receptive vocabulary, whereas answering questions during the multiple readings was more helpful to the acquisition of expressive than receptive vocabulary. These findings suggest that, under certain conditions, didactic techniques used by adults have differential effects on preschoolers' receptive and expressive vocabulary.