Accelerate Learning by Tackling the Word Gap with Effective Vocabulary Instruction

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How many unknown vocabulary words in a text can a student skip over before comprehension is affected? 

Read this altered text and try to construct its meaning: 

The fribble has a large head with two eyes that can see very well. They are able to see fish and objects that others might miss. Shucky arms called havers grow from its body. On the bottom of each haver are rows of round tootles called nugaments. Each haver has about 240 nugaments. These nugaments look and act like rubber brimborion cups. They make it easy for the fribble to catch and hold on to food. The fribble can also cling to large rocks when it wants to rest… and not have to worry about falling off. Once a fribble buncombes itself to something, these nugaments hold on very, very tight. Sometimes the only way to break the grip is to cut off the haver. But don’t worry… the fribble will soon grow a new arm. 

Did you understand the text? What’s the trouble? While the sentence structure is simple, and all the words are decodable, the use of nonsense words keeps you from comprehending the meaning of the passage. Not knowing just 5% of the words in a text makes it nearly impossible to understand. Research supports that students need to know approximately 95% of the words they hear and read to truly comprehend a given text (Frey and Fisher, 2009).

Read it again, but this time with the original text: 

The octopus has a large head with two eyes that can see very well. They are able to see fish and objects that others might miss. Eight arms called tentacles grow from its body. On the bottom of each tentacle are rows of round muscles called suckers. Each tentacle has about 240 suckers. These suckers look and act like rubber suction cups. They make it easy for the octopus to catch and hold onto food. The octopus can also cling to large rocks when it wants to rest… and not have to worry about falling off. Once an octopus fastens itself to something, these suckers hold on very, very tight. Sometimes the only way to break the grip is to cut off the tentacle. But don’t worry… the octopus will soon grow a new arm. (Credit: I Can Read About the Octopus, by Ellen Schultz)

Why Does Vocabulary Matter?

Improving instruction and teaching vocabulary is critical for early learners. Vocabulary matters because readers cannot understand what they read without understanding what most words mean. Vocabulary is the foundational block upon which comprehension is built and is of critical importance to every content area and grade level throughout a student’s academic career. In fact, one can hardly think of any academic activity that does not require word knowledge! 

Recognizing the critical importance of vocabulary to learning, academic standards for students put a strong emphasis on vocabulary development. In general terms, this statement from today’s standards defines what students should be able to do in nearly every state: 

  • “be able to determine or clarify the meaning of grade-appropriate words encountered through listening, reading, and media use; 
  • come to appreciate words that have non-literal meanings, shades of meaning, and relationships to other words; 
  • and expand their vocabulary in the course of studying content.” 

The Word Knowledge Gap

Even though researchers have closely tied vocabulary to reading comprehension for nearly a century (Whipple, 1925), there remains an alarming word-knowledge gap between students from economically advantaged backgrounds and those who live in poverty (Hart & Risley, 1995). 

The differences in children’s word knowledge begin before they even enter school and are primarily based on the educational and socioeconomic level of their parents and caretakers. 

More recently, Oslund et al. (2018) examined the relationship between vocabulary and comprehension, focusing primarily on adolescent students of color and students who received free or reduced lunch (the study sample comprised 22 percent Black, 43 percent Hispanic, 33 percent White; 67 percent of all students were eligible for free or reduced lunch). The study found vocabulary knowledge played a primary role in explaining individual differences in adolescent reading comprehension, with a correlation to lower achievement to race and lower SES. 

How Poverty May Affect Student Vocabulary

But what contributes to this disparity? 

  • Research supports that the words heard by children from low-income families tend to be directives rather than vocabulary that supports academic success. In addition, Ellwood-Lowe, et al. (2021) recently studied possible factors for this word gap among families living in a lower SES. They found that structural factors (defined as external pressures that affect caregivers) may also be responsible for diminished language input. 
  • For example, financial scarcity may create additional stress toward the end of a month when less income is available due to large expenses, such as rent or car loans. This suggests that financial scarcity—a constraint related to structural inequality—impacts parenting beyond caregivers’ individual-level characteristics (such as word knowledge and education levels). 
  • These findings corroborate the current understanding that students who start school with significant deficits in their word knowledge may need more to close their gaps than simply parents and caregivers who have been trained how to approach vocabulary building at home. 

What is Word Poverty?

Once the gap exists, it will continue to widen as students progress through school. Students coming into school with limited vocabulary or “word poverty” struggle with reading and listening. Thus, they do not engage in wide reading or instruction that could help them learn more words. Students with broad vocabulary knowledge learn to read and listen easily, read widely, know what to do when they hear or read a word they don’t know, and therefore expand their vocabulary. This has been called the Matthew Effect, as the “rich get richer, the poor get poorer,” but with vocabulary in this case (Stanovich, 1986 and Stanovich and Cunningham, 2001). 

Combatting “Word Poverty” with Effective Vocabulary Instruction

No research supports teaching words in isolation or having students look up their meanings in a dictionary, then memorize their meaning and spelling. However, research shows the harm of these practices to students’ desire to learn. 

Instead, focus vocabulary instruction on strategies that impact vocabulary development the most. One of the most effective — teaching vocabulary in context. 

In context, strategies are incorporated into instruction during the lesson to give students multiple opportunities to deepen their understanding of the most critical terms and concepts. Teaching words in context means that we select critical terms and concepts from the content that, when understood, makes it possible for students to comprehend what they hear and read during instruction. 

The goal is to teach words that are central to the topic of study by choosing key vocabulary terms that are critical for understanding during reading and listening experiences, and that help link to prior knowledge, or that help students examine similarities and differences among word meanings (Beck and McKeown, 1991; Baumnann, Kame’enui, and Ash, 2003). One of our favorite ways to teach vocabulary in context is with Concept Maps. 

Teaching Vocabulary with Concept Maps

Concept maps assist students in learning connections between concepts and their meanings and in organizing ideas. 

What are concept maps? 

how to teach vocabulary with a concept map

Concept maps (webs or mind maps) are graphic organizers designed to help students link prior knowledge with new concepts by recalling or learning concept meanings, essential attributes, and characteristics. This strategy is especially effective before reading passages of new information. After finishing the map, students will be able to read more efficiently, build new knowledge, and form a process for the recall of the information. 


  1. Use an overhead, board, or handout to show an example of a concept map.
  2. Demonstrate how to use the concept map by introducing a word or concept familiar to students.
  3. Discuss with students how to define the concept. Lead students to understand the need to know what the concept is, how to categorize it, what it is like, to know essential characteristics, and to know examples and non-examples of the concept. Allow students to be creative. They may use pictures, phrases, shapes, colors, or other things on their maps to define the concept.
  4. Instruct students to brainstorm “what is the concept?”  Write/draw their answers in the definition area of the web.
  5. Instruct students to brainstorm essential characteristics of the concept. Place their answers in the characteristics area of the map.
  6. Follow the brainstorming procedure to complete the maps.
  7. Discuss with the class how to use the completed maps for studying, organizing ideas before writing, or categorizing information for speeches, interviews, or other presentations.
  8. Have students work in groups or pairs to complete a map for a concept in the current unit of study.
  9. Encourage students to use their knowledge to complete the maps, but allow them to use other resources.
  10. Once the maps are completed, have students write a definition of the concept using the information from their maps.
  11. Teach students how to keep the maps and refine them during units of study as their knowledge of the concept increases.

Similar Strategies: Word Graffiti, Vocabulary Chains, Brainstorms and Sorts, and Word Associations

Digital Adaptation: Create an editable (or fillable) PDF for the concept map. Or, try Google Jamboards or Milanote to virtually create and manipulate concept maps and other word clusters. 

Lindsey Hampton

During her 20+ years in education, Lindsey has been an elementary and secondary classroom teacher, an instructional coach, and a specialist in teacher induction. She has collaborated with teachers and administrators nationwide to develop learning partnerships that focus on evaluating and implementing High Yield Instructional Strategies. Her instructional coach and specialist background have led her to the philosophy that improvement must be viewed as a continuum, a means to refine and adapt the improvement of instructional practices continually. She has presented this theme and many others on teaching and learning at numerous conferences in FL, KY, TN, NC, and PA. Her contributions to Learning-Focused include developing new resources and workshops, providing leadership and instructional training and coaching.

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