Research-Supported, Explicit Vocabulary Instructional Strategies

Words are a gift from God. Words allow us to communicate with God and with one another. They are a means of growing in grace and in knowledge. Understanding and using words are essential to being a literate person. Therefore, the instruction and development of vocabulary is an essential part of teaching at any age level and content area regardless whether a student is a native language speaker or learning a new language.

Furthermore, the link between word knowledge and reading comprehension is established in educational research[1]. Research clearly indicates the necessity of both implicit and explicit instruction to build vocabulary knowledge[2]. Yet, effective explicit vocabulary instruction is not prioritized in curriculum or instructional time[3]. Beck, McKeown and Kucan discuss that robust vocabulary instruction has an end goal of learning words to expand vocabulary of a student, allowing them to use new words in multiple and meaningful ways. This goal necessitates intentionality in planning and instruction–including targeting useful and complex words (Tier Two words) found in a rich context, taught with child-friendly definitions with visual support (if possible) and multiple interactions to allow students to build deep understanding of the words[4]. Research shows explicit, robust vocabulary instruction is effective and important for native English speakers and English learners alike[5].

With this in mind, how can classroom teachers approach explicit vocabulary instruction? Let’s look at two specific research-based teaching strategies that I utilized during action research in an elementary classroom with a high number of English learning students[6]. The teaching strategies of example/non-example and sentence frames give students opportunity to build concept knowledge, clarify misconceptions, and to practice oral and written use of the targeted words[7].

Example/non-example:

This strategy supports students as they clarify the definition and apply it in context[8]. Create several statements or sentences that provide an correct and incorrect usage or application of the targeted word. These examples are then discussed and sorted into example/non-example categories. The discussion of the placement is critical to the concept development and deepening the understanding of the targeted word. Creating a visual T-chart using this activity can be a reference point for later (see figure 1).

This activity could be adapted for multiple abilities through small group, pair, or individual sorting. An extension or challenge of this activity is for students to general an example and non-example for the targeted words.

Sentence frames:

This learning strategy allows students to engage in authentic practice using targeted words in a non-threatening manner[9]. It begins by providing a sentence frame containing a targeted word but allowing the students to finish the sentence to show their understanding (see table 1). Be patient and give students—especially ELLs—wait time to formulate their sentence.


There is great flexibility in this activity as it can be utilized with young children or English learners orally in a whole-group, a small-group, or a partnering setting. Sentence frames can be utilized for oral or written language. Additionally, sentence frames give students practice using targeted words with correct syntax[10].

Perhaps you are preparing to teach a new unit. Look for opportunities to target specific academic words that will enrich students vocabulary and help meet the stated unit objectives and learning goals. Take time to be intentional and plan for vocabulary instruction that utilizes one of these strategies.

Or perhaps you are in the middle of a unit where students are struggling to grasp the content due to lack of understanding of the academic language. Identify 5-10 words that would help students. Teach the words and then practice them using sentence frames. The goal of learning, even vocabulary, is for students to grow in knowledge and be able to apply that knowledge as image bears of God in the unique ways He has created them to be. Words are one of the gifts and tools that help students in this endeavor of bringing glory to God.

Amanda Ferris, M.Ed.
Second grade teacher
ICSB, Budapest, Hungary


[1] Armbruster et al. 29
[2] Ibid. 29.
[3] Beck et al; Rimbey et al, 69
[4] Armbruster et al; Beck et al
[5] August, Artzi, & Barr; Coyne et al.; Carlo et al
[6] Ferris
[7] Beck et al; Donnelly & Roe
[8] Beck et al; Ferris
[9] Donnelly & Roe; Ferris
[10] See Donnelly & Roe for more information about using sentence frames.

For more information on Tier Two words, see Beck et al.

Photo Credits: WhiteboardInstituto Politécnico de Setúbal. via wikimedia.org. 2014. CC2.o.
Works Cited:

  1. Armbruster, Bonnie B., et al.  Put Reading First: The Research Building Blocks of Reading Instruction: Kindergarten Through Grade 3. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: National Institute for Literacy, National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, U.S. Dept. of Education, 2009. Internet resource.
  2. August, Diane, et al. “Helping ELLs Meet Standards in English Language Arts and Science: An Intervention Focused on Academic Vocabulary.” Reading & Writing Quarterly, 2016: 373-396.
  3. Beck, Isabel L., et al. Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. 2nd ed., The Guilford Press, 2013.
  4. Carlo, María S., et al. “Closing the Gap: Addressing the Vocabulary Needs of English-Language Learners in Bilingual and Mainstream Classrooms.” Journal of Education, vol. 189, no. 1/2, 2008/2009, pp. 57-76.
  5. Coyne, Michael D., et al. “Direct Vocabulary Instruction in Kindergarten: Teaching for Breadth Versus Depth.” Elementary School Journal, vol. 110, no. 1, Sept. 2009, pp. 1-18.
  6. Donnelly, Whitney Bray and Christopher J. Roe. “Using Sentence Frames to Develop Academic Vocabulary for English Learners.” Reading Teacher, vol. 64, no. 2, Oct. 2010, pp. 131-136. EBSCO host, doi:10.1598/RT.64.2.5.
  7. Ferris, Amanda. “Elementary Vocabulary Instruction: A Look at Two Extended Instructional Strategies: Emphasis on English Language Learners.” Course Projects: Research and Practice in Teaching Content Fields 2017. Covenant College, Lookout Mountain, GA. 2017. Available online: http://testvps.covenant.edu/faculty/phorton/EDU738/SU17/Volume17.pdf 
  8. Rimbey, Michelle, et al. “Supporting Teachers to implement Contextualized and Interactive Practices in Vocabulary Instruction.Journal of Education. (2016): 69-83.
  9. National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, D. C.: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (U.S.), National Institutes of Health. 2000. Internet Resource.

Amanda Ferris, M.Ed., can be found teaching second graders and developing curriculum at the International Christian School of Budapest. She holds an Elementary Teaching degree and an M.Ed. in Integrated Curriculum and Instruction. Amanda loves teaching as a ministry for spreading the Gospel.  A few of her simple joys include traveling, cooking, drinking tea, running, and exploring outdoors.