Reading Strategies: Vocabulary

A Critical Foundation for Reading Success


Vocabulary is an expandable, stored set of words that students know the meanings of and use. It has both print and speech forms. Beginning readers use their knowledge of the spoken form of a word to recognize the print version of that same word. If they find a match between the word on the page and a word they have learned through listening and speaking, they will keep reading. If the word they are reading is not in their spoken vocabulary, that word will interrupt their reading. That new word must be learned, in both form and meaning, before it can be added to their vocabulary.

vocabulary instruction

Decoding skills can help students recognize the print version of words already in their spoken vocabulary, but students also need strategies to learn new words. Without the strategies needed to learn new words, students will only know a fixed set of words, so reading fluency and comprehension will be more difficult to achieve. 

To find resources about decoding, teaching, and reading strategies, visit the Reading Horizons Reading Strategies Homepage. If you're interested in learning more about early reading skills, check out our free online resources.

Strategies to Develop Vocabulary

Vocabulary is important for reading to learn as well as learning to read. Below are some strategies for increasing your students’ vocabulary.

Read Aloud

Read alouds”—sessions in which the teacher reads aloud to the class and engages students with questions and conversation—are probably the best-known way to expose students to the meanings of words that are not part of their current lexicon. To implement this strategy, intentionally select words that you want to teach in connection to class read alouds. It is okay to quickly define a word that comes up in your story if students do not know it, but you can also return to new and unfamiliar words after reading them to make sure students understand their meanings.

read aloud

Associate the New with the Known

Another way to help students is to point out and explore relationships between new words and words that students already know and use. For example: what is the relationship between the word “car” and the word “vehicle”? How is the word “melancholy” the same as the word “sad”? How is it different? What is the difference in the degree of emotion when you are “mad,” “angry,” or “livid”? These explorations can be fun and will go a long way in helping students learn the meanings of words.

Introduce Most Common Words

Some English words are used more frequently than others—in fact, they are used so often that Reading Horizons has given them their own name: “Most Common Words,” or MCWs for short. Since MCWs make up 65% of all written text, it is important that students recognize them by sight rather than spend time decoding them. Automatic recognition of MCWs will also help improve reader fluency and comprehension.

most common words

Teach New Words By Using Them In Sentences

Help students master new terms by providing context sentences that emphasize word meaning. This strategy enhances a student’s understanding of the word and increases future word recognition. Here are some example sentences using the word “compulsory.” 

  • You do not have a choice; attendance at the game is compulsory. 
  • Is this homework compulsory or voluntary? 
  • In some countries, education is not compulsory, so many children stay home and work. 
  • If you want to drive a car, it is compulsory that you get a driver’s license. 

When you model new words in this way, students are more likely to use them in their everyday language.

Encourage Students to Use New Vocabulary Words

Students truly own a word when they can effortlessly use it in speaking and writing. Make it compulsory for students to use a new vocabulary word at least five times in their conversations with classmates. Keep track of how many times the new word is used in the classroom. Encourage students to use the word at home with their family members. Reward students when they correctly use the new words in their writing.

Practice vocabulary at home

Learn how vocabulary instruction can help your students succeed: