My Comprehensive Approach to Teaching Vocabulary in the Classroom

When I'm working with a child for only a portion of the day, it's tough to hit all the required curriculum and really target vocabulary. It takes planning and genuine thought to keep it fun for the Littles!

Intentionality and some solid strategies are what it takes to pull it all together! First, let's expand your perspective of teaching vocabulary. Instead of teaching a word on a list, you need to teach it so that the child doesn't only know the definition but really understands it. This is the 'schema' of the word.


Schema is the expanded, deep, real meaning of a word and it's connected with real world experience. The word needs to not only have a definition but also be connected to real-world knowledge and a "network of concepts."

To get a better handle of what a schema is, let's look at the word "troll."

With "trolls" your kiddo needs to identify it in different pictures, understand that there are different kinds of trolls and that they do different things. Like 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 another example of schema, let's go with "dog." (I've been really wanting a dog.... cavapoo is at the top of my list!)

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 differently.

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.

Thanks for sticking with me through the schema soapbox!'s my comprehensive approach to really teaching vocabulary!

Steps to Comprehensively Teaching Vocabulary

  1. Design Your Lesson Plan Around a Theme
    1. Select the Theme
    2. Pick Fiction and Nonfiction Stories
    3. Incorporate Questions to Encourage Problem-Solving
    4. Connect the Word with Concepts
    5. Incorporate Vocabulary into Informal Interactions

Select the Theme

By working around a theme, you're giving your child a lot of opportunities to really understand and get the word.

Use Nonfiction and Fiction Stories

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 the story on a sticky note and put it on the corresponding page.

Using two types of books will help to develop the schema of your vocabulary words. You're giving your child opportunities to interact with the word in different settings and from different perspectives.

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.

Connect Words & Concepts

While you're reading the stories, compare and contrast to develop the word's schema.

Encourage problem solving by making inferences.

Prompt your child to explain concepts by asking "Why?" and "How?" questions.

  • Compare
  • Contrast
  • Why?
  • How?

Don't forget to encourage your child to use the new vocabulary words when she's talking about the stories.

Informally Incorporating Vocabulary

Informal teaching is the preferred way to teaching the Littles. It's how they naturally learn at home and with their friends and family. Here are a handful of quick strategies:

  • Auditory Bombardment
  • New/Familiar/New
  • Simple Songs

Auditory bombardment is when you say a specific word over and over again in conversation. The goal is to say the target word tons of times so that the meaning of the word really clicks for your child.

New/Familiar/New is a way to compare a new word to an already learned synonym. You'll use synonyms to teach specific words with this strategy. You start by introducing the new word, comparing it to a familiar word, and then restating the new word.

Incorporating vocabulary into simple, repetitive songs and pairing them with pictures is an effective strategy to teaching vocabulary.

(This was actually my friend's thesis project and I got to implement the intervention. It really does work and its's fun for the students!)

I do this all the time on the fly. Just keep a few simple tunes in your head and it's easy to put together simple rhymes with the vocabulary words.

Wrapping It Up

Vocabulary instruction can be fun, easy, and taught in a lot of different ways. The more strategies you use, the more real-world connections your child with make, and the better your child's schema (or mental map) of the word will be!

Keep reading about vocabulary development here.


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

Smith, Lauren. (2015). Music: A tool for expressive and receptive vocabulary for children who are deaf or hard of hearing. All Graduate Plan B and other Reports. 503.

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

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