Vocabulary instruction: what works?

Ahh, vocabulary. It seems like we are always seeing questions on social media about how best to do vocabulary intervention. Well, get ready to link a citation in the comments, because Hadley et al. not only examined strategies for supporting vocabulary growth with preschoolers, but also went ahead and practically gift-wrapped a program you can implement with a little planning!

First, we need to talk about vocabulary depth, which is how well a person knows words, not just how many words the person knows (that’s vocab breadth). A deep vocabulary requires making a bunch of connections between words and concepts and tying them all together in meaningful ways in a given context. We gain vocabulary depth by fitting new words into our existing semantic networks and re-mapping as we go. In theory, it will be easier for a child to learn a new word if that word will fit into a system or category the child has already learned well.

So what supports depth of vocabulary knowledge? 

  • Multiple exposures to words in varied contexts/activities
  • Explicit information about the meanings of words
  • Using perceptual features or function to form categories
  • Relating words thematically (e.g., for dinner: meal, family, food, evening, cook, eat, tasty, etc.) or in a taxonomy (strawberries are a type of berry, which is a fruit, which is a type of food…)

The authors used a book reading and guided play intervention with small groups of preschoolers (not on IEPs, FYI) to teach both thematically and taxonomically related vocabulary words by giving kid-friendly definitions, showing pictures, and using dialogic reading strategies while reading informational books about plants and vegetables. After book reading, the children engaged in guided play using props related to the book (farm set, toy vegetables and plants, seeds, cooking stuff, etc.). Children were encouraged to act out concepts from the selected books, and then they were given opportunities to construct their own play themes using the same props.

Results revealed that students were able to talk about the vocabulary words in more detail after intervention, and seemed to learn taxonomically related words more deeply than words related thematically. The authors suggest that “vocabulary instruction can be considered not only as a one-by-one proposition in which a single word is taught and learned but also as a systems-level approach in which broader networks of related concepts are introduced together to maximize learning.”


Hadley, E. B., Dickinson, D. K., Hirsch-Pasek, K., & Golinkoff, R. M. (2018). Building semantic networks: The impact of a vocabulary intervention on preschoolers’ depth of word knowledge. Reading Research Quarterly. Advance online publication. doi:  10.1002/rrq.225