How Many Vocabulary Words Should I Teach?: Less Really is More

How Many Vocabulary Words Should I Teach?: Less Really is More

by Julie Russ Harris, Ed.M.
Elementary Curriculum Specialist, Lexia Learning


At the staff meeting, Principal Karla Gómez discussed the school’s goal of building students’ vocabulary knowledge and stressed just how much instructional ground there is to cover in a short time. The obvious take-away: teach more words. But Rebecca Hoye, a second grade teacher, has a different perspective. She raised the idea that teaching small sets of high-utility academic words and studying them over time could help students learn vocabulary deeply. Principal Gómez and the other educators are interested in the idea, but how exactly would it work? If students need to learn more—and in a hurry—shouldn’t they cover more words and content

Given the large task of developing students’ vocabulary knowledge, it is not surprising that the “more is more approach” is such a common response. But gaining familiarity with a word and building deep vocabulary knowledge are not one and the same. What we’re learning is that the degree to which readers have deep vocabulary knowledge predicts their reading comprehension, often above and beyond their vocabulary size.

What does this mean for instruction? It’s time to build up students’ knowledge by systematically digging into small sets of useful and complex words (e.g., teaching five to 10 academic vocabulary words in the context of a two- to three-week content-based unit of study).

And here’s the clincher: Starting with a smaller set of words does not mean that students learn less. Instead, students who are taught words deeply are necessarily studying a number of terms around the target words, all of which are conceptually related. So, what does it look like to teach word relationships, thereby teaching more words but focusing on less? Here are three strategies and sample activities that can support a “less is more” approach:


Teach semantic categories

When students find relationships between words they are studying and other words in their world, they broaden their vocabulary and learn to make generalizations. With this in mind, try building category word webs. Provide students with one of the target vocabulary words (e.g., technology). Then, discuss the idea of subcategories and generate examples together (e.g., technology used for communication, living comfortably, or entertainment). Finally, have students suggest examples of words that might fall within each subcategory (e.g., phones, air conditioners, televisions).

Teach synonyms and antonyms                

Teaching synonyms and antonyms is a useful strategy for building students’ understanding of word relationships. As students learn about synonyms and antonyms, they broaden their vocabulary and build their descriptive language skills. Trying engaging students in revision activities in which they replace target words with synonyms, or visa versa. Display and read sentences to students (e.g., He could not make a decision, so he discussed the options with his friends). Underline the vocabulary words and have students generate thoughtful, specific synonyms or antonyms. Next, work with students to rewrite the sentences using the new words (e.g., He could not make a choice, so he discussed the alternatives with his friends).


Teach shades of meaning

When students are supported in working with shades of meaning that involve degree, they begin to understand that words can be similar in their literal meanings but also have differences in their implied meanings. Start by reviewing the concept of an antonym, then have students generate an antonym pair for relevant target vocabulary words (e.g., in a unit of study focused on climate and weather words, students might generate the antonym “sizzling” for the target word “frigid”). Next, have them think of a word with a meaning that fits between a word and its antonym (e.g., sizzling/warm/frigid). Talk about the differences in meanings and have students use each word in a sentence.


Karla Gómez, Rebecca Hoye, and the other educators working to cultivate students' vocabulary knowledge are grappling with the same dilemma as many other schools: how to teach the many words and concepts students encounter in texts within a finite amount of time. When instruction goes for depth and teaches word relationships, less really is more.

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