Guest Blog: Is vocabulary instruction deliberate, incidental or non-existent?

Author: Pat Hipwell- Logon Literacy Consultant   Date Posted:14 November 2022 

Vocabulary is not extra to a subject, any subject – it is the subject. Yet, in the average classroom how much is...

Vocabulary is not extra to a subject, any subject – it is the subject. Yet, in the average classroom, how much is done to develop student’s vocabulary particularly those academic words? Many of these words are confined to classrooms and academic contexts. They include technical words integral to understanding the content such as mitosis, reciprocal, tenor, generic structure, persuasive devices, leavening agent, binary. You’d expect to find these words in the glossary of the textbook chapter. In addition, there are the cognitive verbs such as evaluate, infer, discuss, calculate. Students cannot demonstrate their understanding of content without a good grasp of what they are supposed to do with it cognitively.

There is a strong correlation between vocabulary knowledge and subsequent progress when learning to read. No surprises there! The thing that slow readers need to do to improve their reading, is the very thing they choose not to do because their limited vocabulary makes reading a chore and an unpleasant and frustrating experience. There are profound differences in vocabulary knowledge among students from different socio-economic backgrounds. No surprises there, either! By the age of four, children from professional families will have experienced more than 30 million words more than children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

What is surprising though is school does little to diminish these differences as scant attention is brought to word. Also staggering is that we have known this for decades.

  • First-grade children from higher-SES groups knew about twice as many words as lower SES children (Graves, Brunetti, & Slater, 1982; Graves & Slater, 1987)
  •  High school seniors near the top of their class knew about four times as many words as their lower –performing classmates (Smith, 1941)
  •  High-knowledge third graders near the top of their class had vocabularies about equal to lowest performing 12th graders (Smith, 1941).

(Beck, McKeown and Kucan, 2008)

It is useful to think of these academic words not just as words but as tags for things that may include concrete, tangible items as well as abstract, conceptually loaded thoughts and ideas. Words may be difficult to say and difficult to spell but the idea behind them is easy to grasp. A good example is the word archipelago – difficult to say, tricky to spell but it tags a simple idea – a group of islands. If I want to teach you what an archipelago is, I would make sure you can say the word (pronunciation is important), show you some examples and non-examples until such time as the word and its meaning have moved from your short to long term memory. Words (difficult or easy) that tag simple ideas or things are best learnt through repetition and activities that foster this. Words (difficult or easy) that tag complex ideas or concepts require different strategies to foster deep understanding.

Knowing or not knowing a word is not as straightforward as may first appear. The extent to which we ‘know’ words varies. Sometimes we may have no knowledge of a word. At other times, we understand a word deeply. In between these two extremes word knowledge can be superficial. If we want to move students from ‘no knowledge of a word’ to ‘know the word well and can use it in several contexts’, we have to use strategies that encourage this. This is represented by the following diagram:


Know it well, can explain it, use it in several contexts







Know something about it, can relate it to a situation








Know what the term/s mean/s but can’t really explain to others






Have seen or heard the word



Do not know the word 

Word usage (either directly or indirectly) shows that students have a deep understanding of the term/concept.

Students can use the word in a sentence in an authentic way.

Students write their own definition using the Frayer Model.

Students complete, ‘I will remember this word by …’

Students list words they might use with the target word

Student can generate their own vocabulary map.

Students can list the essential characteristics and non-essential characteristics of the concept behind the word.

Synonyms and antonyms

Teacher generates vocabulary map.

Teacher gives examples/visual images of the word.

Teacher pre-teaches the word in the context of a text.

Students write sentences using the word and the definition. (Activity 4)

Mix and match definitions (paper or online eg quizlet and rewordify) using teacher definition

Teacher defines the word using ‘someone who’ or ‘something that’ (glossary)

Word families

Etymology (Greek/Latin roots) – base word, prefixes and suffixes, compound words, etc

Part of speech
Spelling and syllables
Glossary with definitions from the textbook/dictionary
Word lists (glossary, assessment tasks, word walls, etc) – no definition provided.

Deep understanding of the word, especially if that word is conceptually loaded










Increased familiarity and a deeper understanding











Superficial understanding of word by engaging with a definition created by someone else





Increase familiarity with word and words related to the word

  1. In the left column are descriptors of the extent to which we know a word. Read from bottom (where there is no knowledge of the word) to top (where there is deep knowledge of a word and the ability to use it in several contexts).
  2. In the middle column are the many strategies that can be used to foster vocabulary development and increase students’ knowledge of words. Strategies that develop a deep understanding of a word are different from those that develop a superficial understanding of a word.
  3. The final column shows what these strategies will achieve.


Patricia Hipwell Med, BSc Econ (Hons), Grad Dip. Literacy Ed, PGCE is an independent literacy consultant for her own company, logonliteracy . She has been providing professional development to teachers in Australia since 2005, and works predominantly in Queensland schools. Patricia specialises is assisting all educators to be literacy teachers, especially high school subject specialists, who often struggle with how to combine content area and literacy teaching. She has written a number of resources to assist student’s literacy development. She is able to provide professional development to educators to support the use of the resources that she recommends.







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