Opportunities for purposeful talk in meaningful contexts, can promote vocabulary development (Alexander, 2006; Dickinson, Golinkoff and Hirsch-Pasek, 2010).

Vocabulary has been identified as a determinant of reading ability and academic success (Hindman, Skibbe, Miller and Zimmerman, 2010).

Teachers can promote vocabulary development by providing linguistically rich environments for students to learn new words and expressions. Adult role models who engage students in meaningful talk, using rich vocabulary are key.

Students then need many opportunities to use the language and recycle the language in new contexts. Children’s literature also provides exposure to rich vocabulary and meaningful contexts in which to situate the vocabulary. The use of well-chosen, linguistically rich texts can play a critical part in students’ development of vocabulary.   

Vocabulary building is particularly important for English as an additional language/dialect (EAL/D) students.

  • Learning vocabulary will assist EAL/D students to make greater connections and improve their comprehension of texts (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2013; de Courcy, Dooley, Jackson, Miller & Rushton, 2012; Stahl & Nagy, 2006).
  • It is generally understood that development of academic language proficiency (as opposed to conversational fluency) is a long process for EAL/D students (Cummins, 2001; Gibbons, 2009). Consequently, it is important to build vocabulary into the context of learning.
  • At times it may be appropriate to pre-teach vocabulary through explicit instruction. To do this, the teacher must be familiar with the vocabulary contained in the text or unit of work and front-load new or difficult words to students before work on texts occur. This is particularly important for EAL/D learners because if they “cannot comprehend at the literal level of understanding, they cannot progress to the deeper levels of critical, interpretive or creative meaning-making” (de Courcy et al, 2012, p. 6).
  • Research has shown that EAL/D students may need to hear, see and recycle a new word at least 15 times before it will become part of their own expressive repertoire (that is, words they will use in their speaking or writing) (de Courcy et al, 2012).  

The teaching of vocabulary is such a vast undertaking and often it is difficult to know where to start. Beck, McKeown and Kucan (2013) argue that vocabulary can be categorised into 3 tiers. Focused explicit teaching on Tier Two words and when required, Tier Three words, produces the best outcomes for students (Beck, McKeown and Kucan, 2013).

  • Tier one words contain frequent everyday words encountered in general conversation (e.g. dog, go, happy, drink, phone, play, sad). Children hear these high frequency words through oral language exposure and therefore rarely require specific instruction on their meaning.
  • Tier two words are found in written texts across multiple topic and subject areas but appear infrequently in oral language conversations (e.g. misfortune, faltered, description, accumulate, formulate, resolve). Students, therefore, are less likely to learn these words without assistance. As these words are useful for multiple purposes, teachers should focus on tier two words most often to ensure they can develop their students’ understanding and expression of complex ideas.
  • Tier three words contain the content words of subject domains. Vocabulary specific to a subject is called technical vocabulary. For example: A Year 1 science unit on living things may require words that are not yet part of students’ vocabulary – habitat, prey, offspring. Subject specific vocabulary is necessary when students are undertaking a course of study which requires their meaningful knowledge.

Teacher play an important role in supporting the vocabulary development of their students. Teachers need to consider new vocabulary encountered within the curriculum and about the curriculum and ensure that supports are put in place to help scaffold students’ understandings.

For more information, see: Reading and viewing - Vocabulary

Activities to build vocabulary

  • Constructing clines. A cline is a continuum of words that requires students to reflect on differences in meaning and emphasis between words, for example, dark, dim, dull, well-lit, bright, luminous
  • Using glossaries
  • Creating word walls
  • Completing cloze activities
  • Creating categories. For example:  Zoo animals: birds, mammals, reptiles, aquatic creatures. Take each category and expand upon it. For example: Birds: pelicans, emus, lorikeets.

Links to the Victorian Curriculum - English

  • Understand the use of vocabulary in familiar contexts related to everyday experiences, personal interests and topics taught at school (VCELA167)
  • 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 (VCELA237)
  • Learn extended and technical vocabulary and ways of expressing opinion including modal verbs and adverbs (VCELA273)

Links to the Victorian Curriculum - English as an Additional Language (EAL)

Pathway A

Speaking and listening

Level A1 

  • Recognise and use words from lexical sets related to immediate communicative need, interest or experience (VCEALL026)
  • Borrow key words from previous speaker (VCEALL025)
  • Understand a simple spoken text (VCEALC005)
  • Communicate using short, learnt phrases (VCEALL018)

Level A2

  • Use words learnt from a range of classroom and social contexts (VCEALL108)
  • Identify key words and ideas from short, familiar spoken texts supported by context (VCEALL107) 
  • Understand key information in a short spoken or multimodal text (VCEALC087)
  • Combine known formulas, structures and other vocabulary to communicate (VCEALL100)

Pathway B

Speaking and listening

Level BL  

  • Use words from sets related to immediate communicative need, interest or experience (VCEALL180)

Level B1  

Level B2

  • Use, in speech, vocabulary and structures learnt from spoken and written texts (VCEALL341)
  • Use simple forms of modality (VCEALL338)

Level B3

  • Employ a range of vocabulary to convey shades of meaning (VCEALL421)
  • Understand how modal verbs express probability and possibility (VCEALL418)


Alexander, R. (2006). Towards dialogic teaching: Rethinking classroom talk (3rd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Dialogos.

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2nd Ed.). New York: Guilford Publications

Cummins, J. (2001). Negotiating identities: Education for empowerment in a diverse society (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: California Association for Bilingual Education.

de Courcy, M., Dooley, K; Jackson, R., Miller, J & Rushton, K. (2012). Teaching EAL/D learners in Australian classrooms. PETAA PAPER 183, Primary English Teaching Association Australia.

Dickinson, D., Golinkoff, R.M., & Hirsh-Pasek, K. (2010). Speaking out for language: Why language is central for reading development. Educational Researcher, 39(4), 305–310.

Gibbons, P. (2009). English learners, academic literacy and thinking: Learning in the challenge zone. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Hindman, A.H., Skibbe, L.E., Miller, A., & Zimmerman, M. (2010). Ecological contexts and early learning: Contributions of child, family, and classroom factors during Head Start to literacy and mathematics growth through first grade. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 25(2), 235–250.

Stahl, S., & Nagy, W. (2006). Teaching word meanings. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.