Tips on Teaching Individual Words
By Michael F. Graves
After working for nearly 50 years as an educator, I am all too frequently chagrined by how
much we do not know, by how many questions about teaching remain unanswered. But
there is one thing we absolutely do know: We know how to effectively teach individual
Effective Instruction on Individual Words
To understand what we know about teaching individual words, it is helpful to think in terms
of a continuum of increasingly effective levels of instruction:
• Instruction that involves both a definition and context is markedly stronger
than instruction that involves only one of these. The combination of these
two elements is so much more powerful than either of them alone that even
the thinnest instruction should contain both.
• Instruction that also involves activating prior knowledge and comparing and
contrasting meanings is stronger still.
• Still more powerful instruction goes even further and also involves students
in actively manipulating meanings, making inferences, searching for
applications, and frequent encounters with the words.
Obviously, but unfortunately, the most powerful instruction requires much more time than
less powerful instruction.
Why We Can't Always Use the Most Powerful Instruction
The English language contains something like 200,000 words, the average high school
graduate has learned something like 40,000 words, and the average 6th grader has learned
something like 20,000 words. Clearly, there are a lot of words for students to learn and for
teachers to teach. Equally clearly, we cannot teach all of those words. More to the point
here, we cannot teach as many words as we need to teach using the most powerful
instruction. Some of the time, we need to use instruction that is less powerful but also less
Several Types of Instruction
Because we do not have time to provide the most powerful instruction on all the words we
teach, we need use a variety of teaching methods. Here, I provide an example of
Introductory Instruction, which does not take a lot of time but does serve to get students
started on the long road to learning rich and full word meanings, and an example of Rich
and Powerful Instruction, which does take a significant amount of time but which provides
students with fuller and deeper meanings. I also provide an example of a Review Activity.
Whatever sort of initial instruction we provide, Review Activities are necessary if student are
to remember and use newly learned words over time. Other examples of Introductory
Activities, Rich and Powerful Instruction, and Review Activities can be found in texts such as
Blachowicz and Fisher (2006), Graves (2006, 2009), and Stahl and Nagy (2006).
An Example of Introductory Instruction: A definition, some rich context, and a picture
constitute instruction that takes relatively little time but can be quite effective (Graves,
2006, 2009). While not all words can be pictured, many can; and pictures can markedly
increase the effectiveness of instruction for all students and be particularly valuable for
English language learners.
An avalanche occurs when a large mass of snow and rock slide veryrapidly down a mountain. They can
be very destructive. The owners of ski resorts do everything possible to avoid the dangers of avalanches.
An Example of Rich and Powerful Instruction: Semantic Mapping—in which a teacher
and students work together to create a graphic organizer depicting a central concept and its
related concepts (Heimlich & Pittleman, 1986)—is a good illustration of richer and more
• Put a word representing a central concept on the board, overhead, or lcd.
• Ask students to work in groups listing as many words related to the
central concept as they can.
• Display students’ words grouped in broad categories.
• Have students name the categories and perhaps suggest additional ones.
• Discuss with students the central concept, the related words, the
categories, and their interrelationships.
An Example of a Review Activity: Connect Two—an approach suggested by
Richek (2005)—is a good illustration of a review activity. Note that with review
activities, there is no teaching involved. Students just need the opportunity to think
about words and meanings that they've already learned.
• Give students two columns of 5-10 words each.
• Ask them to pick pairs of words.
• Ask them to explain the relationship between the words.
With these words, students might, for example, select bayonet and musket and explain that
a bayonet can be attached to the end of a musket. Or they might suggest that a courier
would be insignificant if she carried nothing of importance. It doesn't matter if the
relationships are silly or far fetched—silly or far fetched relationships are just fine—what
matters is that students need to think about the meanings of the words in order to come up
with the relationships.
The Tips in a Nutshell
We know how to most effectively teach words. But the most effective methods are time
consuming. With the number of words we need to teach, we cannot always use the most
effective/most time consuming methods. It is helpful to think of three sorts of instruction:
(1) Introductory Instruction such as a definition, some rich context, and a picture, (2) Rich
and Powerful Instruction such as semantic mapping, and (3) Review Activities such as
Blachowicz, C. L. Z., Fisher, P. J. (2006). Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms. Upper Saddle NJ: Pearson Education
Graves. (2006). The vocabulary book: Learning and instruction. New York: Teachers College Press, IRA, and NCTE.
Graves. (2009). Teaching individual words: One size does not fit all. New York: Teachers College Press and IRA.
Heimlich, J. E., & Pittelman, S. D. (1986). Semantic mapping: Classroom applications. Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Richek, M. A, 2005. Words are wonderful: Interactive, time-efficient strategies to teach meaning vocabulary. The Reading Teacher, 58, 414–423
Stahl & Nagy. (2006). Teaching word meanings. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Reprinted with permission of the author.
Michael Graves is the author of The Vocabulary Book (Teachers College Press, IRA, & NCTE, 2006), Teaching Individual Words (Teachers College Press & IRA, 2009), and Essential Readings on Vocabulary (IRA, 2009).