Vocabulary is an important focus of literacy teaching and refers to the knowledge or words, including their structure (morphology), use (grammar), meanings (semantics), and links to other words (word/semantic relationships).
Oral vocabulary refers to words that children can understand or use while speaking and listening. Oral vocabulary is closely related to their reading vocabulary, which is the words that children can recognise and use in their reading or writing.
Words all have:
- meaning, which can vary according to context
- phonology – that is, sounds
- morphology – that is, word parts
- syntax, that is, the way in which words are arranged to form phrases or sentences
- uses, which may be multiple, depending on context.
The importance of vocabulary
Children need to have a rich vocabulary that continually grows through language and literacy experiences, in order to comprehend and construct increasingly complex texts, and engage in oral language for a variety of social purposes.
Focussing on vocabulary is useful for developing knowledge and skills in multiple aspects of language and literacy. This includes helping with decoding (phonemic awareness and phonics), comprehension, and also fluency.
Theory to practice
Learning vocabulary is a continual process of language and literacy development, which begins in the early years of life, and continues through schooling and beyond. Sinatra, Zygouris-Coe, and Dasinger (2011) note that:
Knowledge of vocabulary meanings affects children’s abilities to understand and use words appropriately during the language acts of listening, speaking, reading, and writing. Such knowledge influences the complexities and nuances of children’s thinking, how they communicate in the oral and written languages, and how well they will understand printed texts. (p. 333)
It is crucial that children have explicit and robust instruction in vocabulary, to support their verbal and written communication. The explicit teaching of vocabulary allows students to access academic language and discourse, and facilitates their comprehension of increasingly complex texts.
Vocabulary plays an important role in oral language development and early literacy (Hill, 2012). Paris (2005) identifies vocabulary as one of the unconstrained skills, meaning that it is a skill that we continue to develop over our life span. Konza (2016) notes the importance of explicit teaching of vocabulary to support students to become confident in a word’s meaning and use in context so that it will become part of their own repertoire.
Effective ways teaching of vocabulary involve the following main components (Sinatra, Zygouris-Coe, & Dasinger 2011):
- explicit teaching of appropriate vocabulary words (see tier 2 vocabulary below)
- multiple exposures to same words in varying contexts (speaking/listening, reading, writing)
- working with a partner or small group to analyse words
- story retelling using key vocabulary from texts
- use of props or concrete objects to explain vocabulary
- explicit discussion of comprehension together with vocabulary
- ensuring vocabulary instruction is embedded across the curriculum.
Supporting EAL/D learners to develop vocabulary
Increasing EAL/D learners’ vocabulary is crucial in developing school literacies and participating in learning activities across the curriculum. EAL/D learners may already have the words to describe a known concept from their prior learning or past experiences. This knowledge can be transferred to English by using translation as a learning process.
Some strategies for translating vocabulary in the classroom include:
- using printed bilingual dictionaries or home language picture dictionaries
- using online translation tools or dictionaries
- creating a ‘translation’ or ‘home language’ column on vocabulary or spelling lists
- displaying multilingual word walls or vocabulary lists in the classroom
- checking translated vocabulary lists with family members, same language peers or Multicultural Education Aides.
Translation alone is not a sufficient strategy to help students learn how to use new vocabulary. Students require ongoing support to infer the meaning of words using contextual clues, and to break words into morphemes and understand how each part relates to the meaning of the word.
Developing translation and vocabulary learning skills and strategies also helps EAL/D students continue to develop their home language and literacy, which in turn supports learning in English. During the translation process, students may notice gaps in their vocabulary, and become aware of the differences of meaning between words and grammatical structures in different languages.
Additional ways of supporting EAL/D students’ vocabulary development include:
- identifying and teaching key vocabulary in context across all subject areas
- providing opportunities to reuse key vocabulary in a range of texts and situations
- providing displays of vocabulary and concepts, with illustrations and/or translations in the classroom. The teacher might need to demonstrate how the students could use the displays in their learning
- explicitly teaching comprehension strategies for inferring and checking the meaning of new words that are encountered in reading, listening and viewing
- playing word games such as I spy, Hangman or Bingo to reinforce vocabulary
- discussing techniques and tools for recording and remembering vocabulary such as Apps or personal dictionaries
- using graphic organisers to classify words into definitions and characteristics, with examples, non-examples and notes in English and/or home languages.
Multilingual graphic organisers, word walls or cognate charts scaffold EAL/D students’ understanding of English words and make other languages visible in school spaces. Students who speak English as a first language may be able to use these strategies with the vocabulary that they are learning in school.
The ‘form, meaning, and use’ (Larsen-Freeman & Celce-Murcia, 2016) model can also be used to help EAL/D learners understand:
- the ‘form’ (the word parts, the spelling, the sound of the word)
- the ‘meaning’ (the concept of the word)
- the ‘use’ (how the word is used in a sentence).
If EAL/D students are literate in their home language, they may include the 'form, meaning and use' model alongside drawings, images or known phonetic symbols to develop their academic vocabulary in both English and their home languages. If a teacher or a support staff shares some of the home languages of the students, they will be able to check students’ translations for accuracy. Otherwise, the teacher can ask students to identify and explain any differences between their languages and English.
Links to curriculum
Speaking and listening
- Understand the use of vocabulary in familiar contexts related to everyday experiences, personal interests and topics taught at school (Content description VCELA167)
- Identify the parts of a simple sentence that represent ‘What’s happening?’, ‘Who or what is involved?’ and the surrounding circumstances (Content description VCELA178)
- Explore differences in words that represent people, places and things (nouns, including pronouns), happenings and states (verbs), qualities (adjectives) and details such as when, where and how (adverbs) (Content description VCELA179)
Speaking and listening
- Understand the use of vocabulary in everyday contexts as well as a growing number of school contexts, including appropriate use of formal and informal terms of address in different contexts (Content description VCELA202)
- Understand that nouns represent people, places, things and ideas and include common, proper, concrete or abstract, and that noun groups/phrases can be expanded using articles and adjectives (Content description VCELA216)
- Learn some generalisations for adding suffixes to words (Content description VCELA217)
- Analyse how different texts use nouns to represent people, places, things and ideas in particular ways (Content description VCELY223)
Speaking and listening
- Understand the use of vocabulary about familiar and new topics and experiment with and begin to make conscious choices of vocabulary to suit audience and purpose (Content description VCELA237)
- Understand how texts are made cohesive by the use of resources, including word associations, synonyms, and antonyms (Content description VCELA224)
- Recognise most high-frequency words, know how to use common prefixes and suffixes, and know some homophones and generalisations for adding a suffix to a base word (Content description VCELA250)
Speaking and Listening
- Understand that verbs represent different processes (doing, thinking, saying, and relating) and that these processes are anchored in time through tense (Content description VCELA262)
- Read different types of texts for specific purposes by combining phonic, semantic, contextual and grammatical knowledge using text processing strategies, including monitoring meaning, skimming, scanning and reviewing (Content description VCELY287)
- Understand how to use banks of known words, syllabification, spelling patterns, word origins, base words, prefixes and suffixes, to spell new words, including some uncommon plurals (Content description VCELA312)
- Understand the use of vocabulary to express greater precision of meaning, and know that words can have different meanings in different contexts (Content description VCELA325)
- Investigate how vocabulary choices, including evaluative language can express shades of meaning, feeling and opinion (Content description VCELA325)
- Understand how ideas can be expanded and sharpened through careful choice of verbs, elaborated tenses and a range of adverb groups/phrases (Content description VCELA351)
- Investigate how vocabulary choices, including evaluative language can express shades of meaning, feeling and opinion (Content description VCELA352)
- Understand how to use banks of known words, word origins, base words, prefixes, suffixes, spelling patterns and generalisations to spell new words, including technical words and words adopted from other languages (Content description VCELA354)
Word Classes and Grammatical form and function
Words are categorised into grammatical forms or word classes including the commonly known nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, as well as determiners, prepositions, conjunctions. Different word classes have different functions in terms of their grammar (including morphology, and syntax).
Students need to develop understandings of different types of words, as part of their metalinguistic awareness (knowing how language and literacy works, and the words that describe these phenomena).
When introducing vocabulary it is crucial for students to know the type (or class) of word it is. If ever students are unsure, they can be encouraged to check a paper or online dictionary, which will always provide the word class in the listing.
Below is a table which summarises each word class (or form), including their function, examples, and any inflectional or derivational morphemes that attach to these.
|Noun (incl Proper Noun)||person, place, thing, typically objects (concrete and abstract)||junk idea rainbow reaction debate earthquake|
- Plural (-s, -es)
- Possessive (-'s)
|e.g. -ance -ion|
-ment -ity -ism
|Pronoun||stand in for nouns or noun phrases ||I you they him she this these some their his myself ourselves each other||n/a||n/a|
|Determiner||specifies the noun. e.g. whose noun it is or which noun is meant||the a an
her their our
those this that
many more neither
|Adjective||words which typically modify a noun, denoting qualities or states (answer question such as Which one? What kind? How many? Whose?)||long pointy childish imaginary sisterly |
- comparative (-er)
- superlative (-est)
|-ish -ary -able
-ly -y -ful
|Verb||generally denote actions, states, processes and events||run play determine sorted synchronising thinking|
- third person singular
e.g. (she) walks
- past tense (-ed)
|-Ify -ate -ize -en|
|Adverb||modifies (adds meaning) to verbs adjectives, and other adverbs||slowly foolishly very mostly ||n/a||-ly |
|Prepositions||provide additional information by specifying location or space
i.e. they tell us about the relationships between events and things
|in, at, on, off, into, onto, towards, to, about, as, with||n/a||n/a|
|Conjunctions||used to join words, phrases, or sentences together||and or but because whenever after before||n/a||n/a|
When using personal dictionaries (where new vocabulary is added progressively as students learn new words), students should be encouraged to record the word type in their entries. Adding an example sentence can also be useful. These strategies help develop students' independence in their understanding and use of new vocabulary.
Morphology is the study of words and their parts. Morphemes (like prefixes, suffixes, and base words) are defined as the smallest meaningful units of meaning.
All words can be broken down into their morphemes:
|Some words have also 1 morpheme||system||system||(1)|
|Some have 2 morphemes||systematic||system+atic||(2)|
|Or 3 morphemes||unsystematic||un+system+atic||(3)|
|Or 4 morphemes||unsystematical||un+system+atic+al||(4)|
Other examples of words with multiple morphemes are: roll+er driv+ing under+stand+able class+ic+al
Morphemes are important for vocabulary, as well as phonics (reading and spelling) and comprehension. Teaching morphemes is useful because they help to analyse the parts of words, often have a consistent purpose and/or meaning, and are often spelt the same across different words (even when the sound changes).
For more information, see:
Teaching vocabulary is also about how words relate to other words. Semantics is the study of word meanings, and includes semantic relationships (how words are related to other words).
Here are some examples of types of word/semantic relationships:
- Homophones & Homographs
- Homonyms (words with Multiple Meanings)
The most effective way to teach vocabulary is to show how new words relate to other words, especially ones that students already know. It is important to explicitly teach the relationships between words.
For more information about word/semantic relationships, including Categories, Antonyms, Synonyms, Connotations, Homophones & Homographs, see:
Word/Semantic Relationships (docx - 233.6kb)
Choosing Words to Teach - Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3
Vocabulary Words that we explicitly teach should also be as functional as possible, so that students have multiple opportunities to comprehend and use these words. Beck and McKeown (1985) have categorised words according to three Vocabulary Tiers:
For more information, see:
Choosing Words to Teach - Tier 1, 2, 3 Vocabulary (docx - 209.43kb)
The origins of words and morphemes, and their meanings, is a crucial part of exploring the richness of vocabulary, and how words connect with one another.
Ideas for explicit introductions to concepts
- Identifying word types
- Identifying morphemes
- Building words, breaking words down
- Finding word meaning(s)
- Semantic/Word Webs or Maps Flow charts and visual organisers for words
- How well do you know a word?
- Use for one context/purpose
- Use of multiple contexts/purposes
As well as embedding Vocabulary teaching within the various teaching practices, there are numerous activities that introduce students to concepts of Vocabulary.
Beck, I. L. & McKeown, M. G (1985). Teaching vocabulary: Making the instruction fit the goal. Educational Perspectives, 23(1). 11-15.
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.
Hill, S. (2012). Developing early literacy: assessment and teaching (2nd ed.). South Yarra, Vic. Eleanor Curtain Publishing.
Konza, D. (2016). Understanding the process of reading: The big six. In J. Scull & B. Raban (Eds), Growing up literate:Australian literacy research for practice (pp. 149-175). South Yarra, Vic. : Eleanor Curtain Publishing.
Larsen-Freeman, D., & Celce-Murcia, M. (2016). The grammar book: Form, meaning, and use for English language teachers (3rd Ed.). Boston: National Geographic Learning.
Nation, P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nation, P. (2005). Teaching vocabulary. The Asian EFL Journal, 7(3), 47-54.
Paris, S. (2005). Reinterpreting the development of reading skills. Reading Research Quarterly, 40 (2), 184-202.
Sinatra, R, Zygouris-Coe, V & Dasinger, S 2011, Preventing a vocabulary lag: What lessons are learned from research, Reading & Writing Quarterly, 28(4), pp. 333-334