An Introduction to Building Vocabulary

These students are excited to learn new vocabulary words that propel their success in life.

Why is it important to have both a great vocabulary and a complete understanding of the definitions of words? "An extensive knowledge of the exact meanings of English words accompanies outstanding success in this country more often than any other single characteristic we have been able to isolate and measure." (1 ) Knowing and understanding vocabulary words helps in every job and in all parts of the world no matter what language you speak. Some professional vocabulary words are known as jargon. “Every profession has its jargon, a specialized language that allows for quick, efficient communication between members of the same profession while minimizing the potential for misunderstandings. Jargon is not unique to professions. Have you ever tried to understand two teenagers talking to each other? Adolescent slang serves some of the same purposes as a professional jargon including identifying “insiders” and excluding “outsiders.”” (3 ) Building a vocabulary and understanding it is very important for adults and children.
Direct vocabulary instruction is fundamental to effective teaching. Our Knowledge about and understanding of any topic is rooted in our mastery of the terms relevant to that topic… There is a direct link between an understanding of academic vocabulary and an understanding of academic content. What is also clear is that there is a vast difference in the vocabularies of low-versus high-achieving students. Researchers have estimated a difference of between 4,500 and 5,400 words for low-versus high-achieving students.(4)
A picture of Marzano, who developed a new approach to teaching vocabulary.

Marzano has developed a six-step approach to teaching new vocabulary to students:
(The first three steps introduce and develop initial understanding, while the last three steps shape and sharpen understanding.)

  1. Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  2. Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
  3. Ask students to construct a picture, symbol, or graphic representing the term.
  4. Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of terms in their notebooks.
  5. Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
  6. Involve students periodically in games that allow them to play with terms. (Marazano & Pickering 2005, pp. 14-15)

Watch this short video on how Robert J. Marzano believes improving students' vocabulary helps improve their test scores.

Products & Overviews

Teachers need several different methods and strategies for students to learn vocabulary effectively. Marzano offers 6 different products on his website. These products are: Vocabulary Games for the Classroom, Building Academic Vocabulary: Teacher’s Manual, Building Academic Vocabulary Student Notebook Revised Edition, Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, Six-Step Process for Teaching Vocabulary DVD, and lastly, Teaching Basic and Advanced Vocabulary: A Framework for Direct Instruction. (2 )

Continue reading for an overview of each product offered by Marzano.

Vocabulary Games for the Classroom

An image of the book written by Lindsay Carleton & Robert J. Marzano.
An image of the book written by Lindsay Carleton & Robert J. Marzano.
The purpose of Vocabulary Games for the Classroom is to provide all K-12 teachers with a wide variety of games to build both academic and general vocabulary in their classrooms. While games have sometimes been misused or underestimated by classroom teachers, roughly sixty studies done by Marzano Research Laboratory showed that, on average, the use of academic games in the classroom is associated with a 20 percent point gain. (Haystead & Marzano, 2009) (4)

The focus of this book is the sixth step of the six step program designed by Marzano for teaching new terms - playing with new terms through games. Vocabulary games should not be played just for fun. Rather covabulary games should be seen as one part of a systematic approach to direct vocabulary instruction.(4) Each game in the book is described briefly but in enough depth to provide adequate guidance for classroom use.
This book contains thirteen games that can be played in the classroom:
  1. Word Harvest
  2. Name It!
  3. Puzzle Stories
  4. Two of a Kind
  5. Opposites Attract
  6. Magic Letter, Magic Word
  7. Definition Shmefinition
  8. Which One Doesn't Belong?
  9. Who am I?
  10. Where am I?
  11. Create a Category
  12. What is the Question?
  13. Classroom Feud

Building Academic Vocabulary: Teacher’s Manual

An image of the book written by Robert J. Marzano & Debra J. Pickering.
An image of the book written by Robert J. Marzano & Debra J. Pickering.
This manual will enable you to design and implement a comprehensive approach to teaching academic vocabulary as a district, a school, or an individual classroom teacher. The rationale for and research behind this approach are described in depth in Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools (Marzano, 2004). (6)

This manual describes the specifics of such an approach and contains a list of 7,923 terms across 11 subject areas. Following the suggestions in this manual, an individual teacher, a school, or an entire district can design and implement a comprehensive program to teach and reinforce academic terms and, consequently, greatly enhance students' chances of learning the academic content presented in subject matter classes.

In the book there are 7,923 vocabulary terms listed for 11 subject areas:
  1. Mathematics
  2. Science
  3. English language arts
  4. History
  5. Geography
  6. Civics
  7. Economics
  8. Health
  9. Physical education
  10. The Arts
  11. Technology

Building Academic Vocabulary Student Notebook Revised Edition

An image of the book written by Robert J. Marzano & Debra J. Pickering.
An image of the book written by Robert J. Marzano & Debra J. Pickering.
Teachers can give each student this colorful notebook that follows the six-step method for teaching academic vocabulary. There is space for more terms, and students can add new information as their understanding of the terms deepens and matures throughout the year. Plus, teachers have more flexibility to assign each of the five color-coded sections of the notebook to a different subject area. (7)

This is the student notebook that is used for learning vocabulary in Marzano's steps to introduce and develop initial understanding. This fits into step two of the learning process. Students are taught to write into the notebook , in their own terms, the meanings of the vocabulary words and for step three they are to put the definition in non-linguistic terms. (8)

Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement

An image of the book written by Robert J. Marzano.
An image of the book written by Robert J. Marzano.
Here at last is a book that spells out how to overcome the deficiencies that hamper the achievement of so many students.(10)
The most straightforward way to enhance students' academic background knowledge is to provide academically enriching experiences, particularly for students whose home environments do not do so naturally. I refer to such efforts as “direct approaches” to enhancing academic background knowledge.(9)

By definition, a direct approach to enhancing academic background knowledge is one that increases the variety and depth of out-of-class experiences. Such experiences include field trips to museums, art galleries, and the like, as well as school-sponsored travel and exchange programs. Admittedly, these experiences are powerful, but schools are limited in how many they can provide.(9)
But in this time of cutbacks in school resources, the direct approach is unlikely to prevail. So what options do schools have?
This book provides the rationale for and research behind a systematic, indirect approach to enhancing students' academic background knowledge. I firmly believe that if schools were to implement the suggestions offered in this book, they would make great strides toward ensuring that all students, regardless of background, would develop the background knowledge essential for academic success. I strongly fear that if schools do not implement indirect approaches like those outlined in this book, they will continue to be a breeding ground for failure for those students who grow up in or near poverty. (9)

Six-Step Process for Teaching Vocabulary DVD

An image of the DVD authored by Robert J. Marzano.
An image of the DVD authored by Robert J. Marzano.
This DVD is a great tool to show that effective vocabulary instruction is much more than just giving students a list of words. You can use the DVD with teacher groups and workshops to explain why it's easier for students to understand academic content when they have been taught the academic terms in your content standards. Demonstrations from elementary and secondary classrooms show examples of a research-based, six-step vocabulary teaching process. Watch actual classroom teachers walk through the vocabulary teaching process and use the student and teacher materials to build students' academic vocabulary. These classroom examples plus teacher tips ensure that teachers grasp the instructional process right away and find it easier to implement.(11)

Teaching Basic and Advanced Vocabulary: A Framework for Direct Instruction

An image of the book written by Robert J. Marzano.
An image of the book written by Robert J. Marzano.
Using a framework for direct instruction and a list of over 8,000 basic and advanced terms, Dr. Marzano explains how to maximize students' understanding of new vocabulary by:
  • Grouping words into semantic clusters to provide meaning through context
  • Conducting a snapshot assessment to evaluate students' prior knowledge of vocabulary
  • Using comparison, classification, analogy, and metaphor activities
  • Providing multiple exposures to words by using inventive games and other activities (12)

This page was created and authored by Nathaniel Burman from Group 1; thanks for reading.