Teaching Vocabulary within the Classroom Curriculum

When you’re working with a child for only a portion of the day, it’s tough to hit all the required curriculum and really target vocabulary. Luckily, we’ve got your back and some strategies to introduce and effectively teach vocabulary while simultaneously teaching the classroom curriculum.

Wanna teach vocabulary in daily routines & with music? check out this post.

When you’re teaching a new word, you need to teach it so that the child doesn’t only know the definition but really understands it. This is perfect for also targeting the classroom curriculum!


How well does the child need to understand the word? The word needs to not only have a definition but also be connected to world knowledge and a “network of concepts.” You need to develop the child’s schema of the word. Schema is this “network of concepts.”

Let’s break down the schema of the word “troll.” You need to know what a troll is, identify it in different pictures, understand that there are different kinds of trolls and that they do different things. For example, in Harry Potter there’s Mountain Troll and in Frozen there are trolls, and then there’s the movie Trolls. All the creatures are trolls but they are very different. One wants to eat you, another sings and uses magic to help you… but they are all trolls.

Here’s take another example of schema. We’ll go with the concept of “dog.” Dogs are dogs whether they are a cartoon, photograph, or the one barking right at you. Golden Retrievers and French Bulldogs are both dogs even though they look and act different.

See what we did there? You had all these mental associations about the words from TV, books, and personal experiences. All of the facets of understanding developed your schema, or the complete ‘mental map,’ of a word.

Developing a word’s full concept and connection to other concepts is what we gotta do to teach those vocabulary targets. Now lets’ get to the good stuff, embedding vocabulary instruction.

  1. Select the Theme
    1. Determine which curriculum objectives you need to target and then select the theme that’ll work with it. (Tip from my grad school supervisors, don’t pick a cutesy activity and then try to make something academic go with it. You need to know what you are going to be working on before you browse through Pinterest.)
    2. As you pick out the theme, choose a handful of vocabulary words that will support understanding of the curriculum content.
  2. Use Nonfiction and Fiction Stories
    1. Pick two books that teach the curriculum concepts and go along with the theme. If your vocabulary targets isn’t specifically in the books, it’s okay just write your version of he story on a sticky note and put it on the corresponding page.
    2. Using two types of books will help to develop the schema of your vocabulary words. The nonfiction books can target the facts and concepts that need to be taught. The fiction story can target plot, setting, characters, sequencing, cause/effect, inferencing, etc.
  3. Connect Words & Concepts
    1. While you’re reading the stories, compare and contrast to develop the word’s schema. Encourage problem solving by making inferences. Prompt children to explain concepts by asking “Why?” and “How?” questions.
    2. Encourage children to use the vocabulary words when they are discussing the story.
    3. Use auditory bombardment to expose students to the target words.

While you are using these strategies to teach vocabulary, you’re teaching the objectives of the curriculum. So many of the core curriculum standards require use of language and reasoning and you’re practicing these skills within the context of the classroom curriculum.

There you go, effective strategies that work within the curriculum of the classroom. What do you do to be efficient and effective when teaching vocabulary?

P.S. sorry the list of citations is so long, but I wanted to be thorough when it came to researching evidence based strategies


Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Omanson, R.C. (1987). The effects and uses of diverse vocabulary instructional techniques. In M.G. McKeown & M.E. Curtis (Eds.), The nature of vocabulary acquisition (pp. 147–163). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dickinson, D.K. (2001). Book reading in preschool classrooms: Is recommended practice common? In D.K. Dickinson & P.O. Tabors (Eds.), Beginning literacy with language: Young children learning at home and school (pp. 175–203). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes.

Duke, N.K. (2000). 3.6 minutes per day: The scarcity of informational texts in first grade. Reading Research Quarterly, 35(2), 202–224. doi:10.1598/RRQ.35.2.1

Duke, N.K. (2004). The case for informational text. Educational Leadership, 61(6), 40–44

Goldstein, H., Kelley, E., Greenwood, C., McCune, L., Carta, J., Atwater, J., & … Spencer, T. (2016). Embedded instruction improves vocabulary learning during automated storybook aeading Among high-risk preschoolers. Journal Of Speech, Language & Hearing Research59(3), 484-500. doi:10.1044/2015_JSLHR-L-15-0227

Nagy, W.E. (1988). Teaching vocabulary to improve reading comprehension. Newark, DE: International Reading Association

Pollard-Durodola, S. D., Pollard-Durodola, S. D., Gonzalez, J. E., Gonzalez, J. E., Simmons, D. C., Simmons, D. C., & … Walichowski, M. N. (2011). Using knowledge networks to develop preschoolers’ content vocabulary. Reading Teacher65(4), 265-274. doi:10.1002/TRTR.01035

Stahl, S.A., & Nagy, W.E. (2006). Teaching word meanings. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

van Kleeck, A. (2008). Providing preschool foundations for later reading comprehension: The importance of and ideas for targeting inferencing in storybook-sharing interventions. Psychology in the Schools, 45(7), 627–643. doi:10.1002/pits.20314

Image Courtesy of GGV / Pixabay

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