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Deepening knowledge through vocabulary learning

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Deepening knowledge through vocabulary learning

Effective vocabulary instruction: The underlying reasoning and research

By Isabel L Beck and Margaret G McKeown

With the publisher’s permission, sections of this article have been taken from Beck and McKeown (Beck et al., 2007).

Vocabulary, particularly vocabulary teaching and learning, has been a topic that we have studied for over 25 years. In this article, we provide some of the research and theory that eventually coalesced into our books, Bringing Words to Life (Beck et al., 2013).

In the early 1980s, our understanding of several aspects of word knowledge commingled to stimulate our academic interest in vocabulary, eventually becoming integral to our principles of vocabulary learning. One aspect emerged from Curtis’s(Curtis et al., 1987) findings from investigations of college students’ vocabulary knowledge. Her research indicated that high-vocabulary students not only knew more words than those with lower vocabularies, but they also knew more about those words. Lower-vocabulary students tended to define words in terms of a specific context. For example, in the case of surveillance, lower-vocabulary people said something along the lines of ‘that’s what the police do’, whereas high-vocabulary individuals were more likely to talk about surveillance in terms of ‘watching’. As such, high-vocabulary people seemed better able to define words in a generalised and decontextualised way.

Alongside this, we were reminded that, as long ago as 1942, Cronbach presented descriptions of the knowledge and abilities involved in knowing a word, with generalisation beingthe ability to define a word; application the ability to select or recognise situations appropriate to a word; breadth theknowledge of multiple meanings; precision the ability to apply a term correctly to all situations and to recognise inappropriate use; and availability the actual use of a word in thinking and discourse.

Our understanding of the important role of decoding-automaticity (sometimes referred to as efficiency) in comprehension prompted us to reason that word meaning efficiency was similarly important for comprehension.

The need for fast access to one’s representation of words in memory arises because comprehension is a complex process, in which several components vie for attention ((Beck and Carpenter, 1986); (Perfetti, 1985)). Reducing attention on some components – in the case at hand, lexical search (the definition of a word) – may free attention to deal with other components, in particular the meaning of the ideas represented by words. With lexical access in mind, we included in our instructional design frequent encounters and thoughtful activities with target words, so that students had opportunities to develop fast access to strong representations of word meanings.

Our approach

The approach to vocabulary instruction we initially developed was designed for use in classroom research that we undertook. It was aimed at developing flexible and multi-faceted representations of target words. Initially, we called such vocabulary instruction ‘rich’, but along the way, we changed the label to ‘robust’ instruction, as it seemed that this label captured our intention better. Below, we present the full range of components of robust instruction.

Introduce words through explanations in everyday connected language, rather than dictionary definitions

As we developed the instruction for our first study, we were quite dissatisfied with dictionary definitions for introducing word meanings to intermediate-grade students. We began to develop our own informal ways to explain the meanings, which we thought would be clearer and more helpful. This was the seed of our notion of student-friendly explanations. We became familiar with research showing that definitions are not effective for students ((Miller and Gildea, 1985) and have carried out research developing our notions of explanatory definitions more systematically (McKeown, 1993).

Provide several contexts in which the word can be used

Several sources of evidence demonstrated to us the need to design into the instruction multiple and varied contexts for each word. One source was Curtis’s (Curtis et al., 1987) finding described above. Another was Werner and Kaplan’s classic study (Werner and Kaplan, 1952), showing that learners often imported features of the context into their developing understanding of an unfamiliar word. We found that, as former teachers, these sets of findings struck a chord of memory about students tending to stick to the context in which a word had been initially introduced. Thus, in the instruction we developed, multiple contexts were an important keystone.

Get students to interact with word meanings right away

A good explanation of word meaning and several contexts can provide a strong idea of a word’s meaning, but it is still static information. Towards developing deep understanding, a student needs to interact with word information in some way. This perspective connects with currents theories of learning, which stress the active nature of successful learning, as well as with conceptions about levels of word knowledge. We implemented the notion of interaction with word meaning by providing quick activities with the words as soon as their meanings were introduced. For example, after encountering an explanation for commotion, students might be asked, ‘Would there more likely be a commotion on the playground or in the library?’ and then asked to explain ‘why’.

Develop activities that require students to process the meanings of words in deep and thoughtful ways

Here, we reasonedthat engaging students in simple associative tasks, such as matching a word with a synonym or definition, required only surface-level mental activity and would bring about minimal learning results. Our thinking was related to the notion that lower levels of mental effort would produce lower levels of knowledge. Since our goal was that words be known deeply and flexibly enough to enhance higher-level verbal tasks, we needed to develop instruction that requireddeep processing. All this led us to arrange instruction that required students to think about words and their meanings, identify and explain appropriate uses, create appropriate contexts and engage in various other reflectiveand analytical activities.

Provide examples, situations and questions that are interesting

In the course of looking at commercial vocabulary-instructional materials, we noted that most examples were obvious and ordinary. A prime example was the context sentence provided for quarrel: The teacher told the boys to stop quarrelling. Note that it was an obvious protagonist (the teacher) and obvious antagonists (boys). It is of some irony that, in trying to provide students with the building blocks of language, there wasn’t much of an attempt to use engaging examples or present novel contexts. Consider an alternative such as: Dale’s sister got tired of quarrelling with him about not using her CDs, so she set up an alarm system around her CD collection.

Provide many encounters with target words

The importance of repetition in learning has a long history of research, and we adhered to that literature by providing many encounters for target words. We included this feature in our instruction, beginning in 1980. Subsequently, reviews by Stahl and Fairbanks (Stahl and Fairbanks, 1986) and Mezynski (Mezynski, 1983) identified frequency of encounters as one component that differentiated successful vocabulary instruction.

Word Wizard gimmick

We considered that if students’ learning of their new vocabulary was simply a classroom activity, their understanding and use of the words could be limited to a school context, and the words would be less likely to become a permanent part of their vocabulary repertoires. So, a goal of instruction was to move students’ learning beyond the classroom to increase the encounters with words and to enhance the decontextualisation of the words. To encourage outside learning, we developed a gimmick called Word Wizard, in which students could earn points by reporting having seen, heard or used target words outside of class.


The features described above were incorporated into three studies. Extensive research articles are available about the results. Here, we briefly note that in an initial study and a replication ((Beck et al., 1982); (McKeown et al., 1983)), we focused on the assessment of three aspects of verbal skill: a) accurate knowledge of word meanings; b) accessibility of word meanings during semantic processing; and c) reading comprehension.

In the initial and replication studies, experimental children significantly outperformed control children on word knowledge, as measured on multiple-choice tests, and accessibility of word meanings. Accessibility of word meanings was measured by children’s reaction time on a word-categorisation task; children were shown a word on a screen and asked to press a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ button to indicate whether the word was, for example, ‘a person’. Experimental children’s performance on the accessibility task was also faster for instructed words compared to uninstructed words.The results of the task suggest that the words were learned well enough to be readily available for complex processing.The results of comprehension in the replication study were that recall of a story containing taught words was superior to that of a story with uninstructed words and to that of children who had not received the instruction. From these two studies, we concluded that instruction that improved accurate word knowledge and speed of semantic access could also in­fluence reading comprehension.

A third study was designed to investigate the role of features of the instruction used in the first two studies: frequency (whether children had four or 12 encounters with each target word); type of instruction (‘robust’ or traditional, with only definitions and synonyms provided), and whether the ‘Word Wizard’ extension activity was included or not. The results of this study are covered in detail in the online version of this article, but we found that whilst even a few – in this case, four – en­counters with a word within traditional instructional activities will pro­duce some limited results, a greater number of encounters with words is generally more helpful towards a variety of vocabulary learning goals. Only robust instruction, meanwhile, and only in the high-encounter condition, was powerful enough to affect comprehension, and instructional conditions that encouraged extension beyond the classroom, by including use of the Word Wizard device, held advantage in making knowledge about the words more readily available for processing. To sum up succinctly, students need to wallow in words and their uses if they are to develop the kind of vocabulary repertoires that will serve them in school and, indeed, in life.


Making vocabulary stick

By Jude Hunton

Education depends upon reading, and all reading depends upon vocabulary. With the help of Shireland Research School, I have designed an intervention to improve secondary-school-age children’s vocabulary knowledge. I have taken as a lodestone for this endeavour ED Hirsch’s well-known comment: ‘Broad, shallow knowledge is the route to independence…’ ((Hirsch, 1988), p.10). I have also been informed by the excellent Learning as a Generative Activity, which states that ‘more generative practice tests… may lead to the best long term learning’ ((Fiorella and Mayer, 2015), p. 111). Robert Bjork (Bjork, 2012) further explains that self-testing has a more powerful effect without cues or being primed.

The most influential text, however, is Bringing Words to Life (Beck et al., 2002). It provides robust and clear instructional methods for making vocabulary stick. One of the most powerful takeaways for me is: ‘[You need to acquire] 400 words a year to make a significant contribution to verbal functioning’, which gives me a rough goal against which to measure.

There are also references to the ineffectiveness of dictionary work, which spoke to me as, when I was first head of English a long while ago, colleagues asked if we could ‘finally’ buy dictionary boxes. I agreed with pleasure. Years later, the dictionaries sit in boxes around the department, underused and of limited impact. Bringing Words to Life explains a better way to capture meaning for students than looking in a dictionary!

However, what gets educators particularly interested is the famous reference to ‘tier 2 language’, illustrated in Figure 1.

Tier 2 words are essentially ‘more mature and precise’ words for ideas that students already have. This is where Hirsch’s ‘shallow… to deep knowledge’ idea is most helpful. The more tier 2 words a student has, the better equipped they are to read a range of texts.

Accordingly, I created a list of tier 2 words. I downloaded about 1,600 words from a US website named Flocabulary ( I then simply chopped out words I thought were too simplistic, created an Excel document and enabled it to randomly present different words in a form of spaced retrieval. If you so wish, you can download the list from my blog (

Through discussion and ‘cold call’, students will acquire working definitions of about ten words each lesson. I will next use a generative learning, which should take about 15 minutes of one lesson a week. Here are some examples: one activity is to challenge students to generate situations, contexts and examples, therefore integrating their new vocabulary. For example, How might a (1) cook (2) musician (3) basketball player (4) teacher show they are (1) versatile (2) expert (3) industrious (4) innovative?Or perhaps an even more demanding example of generative elaboration: Do people with privilege prosper? What might a meticulous person be vulnerable to?

Bringing Words to Life has a panoply of activities to help secure students’ understanding and, therefore, boost vocabulary in the long term, the goal being that young people become increasingly confident readers and successful learners across the curriculum. I am particularly curious as to whether the tasks that are more demanding generatively have greater impact or stickiness. Through the project, which will launch in September 2018, I hope to explore the best ways to ensure vocabulary sticks.

Building vocabulary across a 3D curriculum

By Clare Sealy

In building our curriculum, we sought to structure our curriculum so that key concepts and vocabulary were revisited and reinforced, making them unforgettable. As a result, we constructed a 3D curriculum where explicit links were made within subjects, across subjects and across years, with repetition of vocabulary at its heart.

Beck’s work (Bjork, 2012) gave us strategies to reinforce vocabulary within a unit of work and, by dividing words into three tiers, helped us decide which words would have most impact. However, when thinking about teaching for long-term learning, we decided that the most important vocabulary sometimes straddled tiers 2 and 3. We’ve dubbed these ‘2.5’ words. These are words that may begin as technical ‘tier 3’ words, but become appropriated and used in a looser way. For example, children may first encounter the word ‘meander’ as a tier 3 word in geography, when studying rivers, but then encounter it in English when it is used to describe someone’s thoughts or journey. Reminding children of the ‘tier 3’ usage not only consolidates recollection of the technical use, but also aids comprehension of the looser tier 2 meaning.

We thought about where these opportunities may occur across the curriculum. There’s no point in a teacher simply saying, ‘remember when you studied rivers in geography?’ and assuming that children will make the right links. Instead, they need to be explicit and go over the technical meaning, even if the original exposure to the word did not take place in their year group or subject. This has meant highlighting which vocabulary we want staff to reinforce. For example, consider the words ‘tyrant’, ‘tyranny’ and ‘tyrannical’. Children first encounter ‘tyrant’ in the Early Years, learning about dinosaurs and Tyrannosaurus Rex. So when teaching about King John and the Magna Carta, teachers exploit this prior knowledge when describing an oppressive ruler as tyrannical. Later history lessons, studying Hitler, provide opportunities to revisit the idea of tyranny and remind ourselves of when we have encountered it previously. Each time we revisit a tier 3 word in a different setting, our understanding of it becomes denser – more solid and more nuanced.

It’s not just about being clear about tier 3 vocabulary in other subjects, or tier 2 vocabulary in English, it’s also about looking for ways in which we can take some of this vocabulary ‘for a walk’ across our 3D curriculum.

Breathing life into how we teach vocabulary in the primary classroom

By Sonia Thompson

When the lexical challenge of the 2016 Key Stage 2 Statutory Reading test landed on primary schools’ laps, we were confronted with the harsh reality that the teaching of vocabulary needed consistency. At St Matthew’s Primary, a Church of England School in Nechells, Birmingham, we had always taught vocabulary reasonably well in English lessons and had actually done well in reading tests. Yet, within reading and other curriculum sessions, vocabulary teaching was, at best, ad hoc and sporadic.

On reflection, I recognised that I needed to develop our teachers’ understanding of why we needed to teach vocabulary well. They also needed to understand the pedagogy and use the meta-language associated with robust vocabulary instruction. EDHirsch Jnr ((Hirsch Jr, 2003), p.16), in an article about comprehension, confirmed this reflection when he explained that overcoming the vocabulary deficit is a huge challenge, but the only way to do it is by ‘providing an environment that accelerates the incidental of vocabulary’.

Further reading led me to Doug Lemov and colleagues’ inspiring book, Reading Reconsidered(2016). His chapter advocating breadth and depth in vocabulary instruction made a number of references to Bringing Words to Life (Beck et al., 2013). I quickly recognised that this was the book that I had been looking for – something that would afford our students clear and evidence-based vocabulary practices, as well as providing our teachers with ‘a fuller understanding of the importance and joyfulness of interest in words’. ((Beck et al., 2013), p.xi).

In fact, it has contributed so much more. The impact is such that it has served as a conduit for helping us to define what is really meant by ‘learning meanings of new words’ ((Beck et al., 2008), p.1). Teachers had felt that they were doing this, but the book exposed that we were not, and then helped us to adopt:

  • a shared language when discussing how to robustly and explicitly teach word meaning, from Reception to Year 6
  • direct teaching activities, which were transferable across the curriculum.


Previously, we had addressed vocabulary as it came up. Now, teachers prepare the vocabulary to be taught in advance. All teachers now understand the ‘tiers’ of vocabulary and are clear about which tier needs to be taught when, why and how. Teachers are also more confident about developing student-friendly definitions and establishing follow-up activities, in order to embed the vocabulary learning.

Most importantly, all teachers understand that their efforts in delivering robust vocabulary instruction can advance students’ access to the curriculum. In our Reception class, this has resulted in timetabled explicit vocabulary sessions, using linked stories and non-fiction texts. This has also served to increase our youngest students’ background knowledge.

In doing this, the opportunities for our students to understand word meanings and to then go on to use them, as Beck et al. ((Beck et al., 2008), p.2) state, ‘in service of reading comprehension and writing’, has had noticeable results, and we are now well on our way to achieving the goal of breathing life into the way that we teach vocabulary.


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Miller G and Gildea P (1985) How to misread a dictionary. AILA Bulletin. Pisa: International Association for Applied Linguistics.
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