Four Effective Evidence-Based Vocabulary Instruction Strategies

Sometimes I find working on tiered vocabulary with older students to be tedious. I do NOT want to just drill definitions, but I also only have a 30-minute session once a week and other goals besides vocabulary. Often, I find myself having the students generate examples, or relate target words to their life or to other words. My goal is to provide direct, rich vocabulary instruction using those tier two words discussed in my previous post. BUT how do I know if it is effective? I looked towards the research to answer my question and I found four strategies that are proven to be the most effective!

A research review completed by S. Jay Kuder (2017) looked at studies regarding vocabulary instruction for secondary-age students with learning disabilities. Four instructional methods were identified as the most beneficial and effective: mnemonic instruction, learning strategies that utilized morphemic analysis, direct instruction, and multimedia instruction.

Mnemonic Instruction

A mnemonic strategy is a systematic way to aid in memory. For vocabulary instruction, one mnemonic strategy is called the “keyword” method. This method involves associating a “keyword” or “clue word” with a new vocabulary word. The “clue words” typically are a familiar word that sounds the same as the target word to aid in recall. Images can be created that relate the “clue word” to the target word.

For example, think about the word investigate. The keyword here could be vest. The student should already know what a vest is and it is acoustically similar to investigate. The image to relate the two words could be a detective wearing a vest. For recall, practice associating the word investigate with vest and then think of the image of a detective in a vest and remembering that a detective investigates.

Basic mnemonic strategies can also be used which may involve flash cards, vocabulary drills, vocabulary games and repetition.

Morphemic Analysis

This instructional method involves breaking a word down into its meaningful parts. It can be beneficial for students to be taught common prefixes and suffixes that help us derive word meaning. For example, if a student knows what the word “break” means, they can be provided instruction for the word “breakable” by learning the suffix “able”. Then, learning the suffix “un” allows them to understand the word “unbreakable.” Choose suffixes and prefixes that are common and simple can open the door for lots of new words!

Prefixes: dis, im, in, mis, pre, re, un

Suffixes: able, en, er, ful, ion, less, ly, ness

Direct Instruction

Direct instruction is exactly as it sounds, teaching vocabulary words directly by talking about the words and their meanings. Direct instruction can involve many different strategies. A few evidence-based strategies that fall under direct instruction are: making connections with other materials, pre-instruction of vocabulary for reading, and repetition and multiple exposures.

Making Connections With Other Materials: Connect the vocabulary word to other contexts, whether that is other written text or oral examples. Compare and contrast the target word to known vocabulary words. Generate other situations that the word can apply to, or other examples of contexts that the student may encounter the word.
Pre-Instruction of Vocabulary for Reading: Prior to engaging in written text, identify target vocabulary words. Provide definitions of these words to prepare the student to encounter these words in text.
Repetition and Multiple Exposures: The more the better! The more often a word can be repeated and the more exposures a student has to the word, the better. Create multiple opportunities for the word to be used, heard and read.

Research does show that vocabulary should be taught BOTH directly and indirectly.

Multimedia Instruction

Multimedia instruction involves using a variety of different methods to interact with the target words. This can be through technology such as videos or songs. It can also be through sensory experiences such as touching or smelling items that relate to the target word. Think outside the box on this one, like physically acting out the word or drawing pictures to describe word meaning. Active learning is effective learning.


“Chapter 4 Part I: Vocabulary Instruction.” Teaching Children To Read An Evidence-Based Assessment of the Scientific Research Literature on Reading and Its Implications for Reading Instruction. Reports of the Subgroups, Distributed by ERIC Clearinghouse, 2000.

Kuder, S. Jay. “Vocabulary Instruction for Secondary Students With Reading Disabilities: An Updated Research Review.” Learning Disability Quarterly, vol. 40, no. 3, 2017, pp. 155–164., doi:10.1177/0731948717690113.

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