Teaching Vocabulary: How Do We Learn New Words?

12 Apr

Students learn vocabulary most effectively when given opportunities to construct meaning rather than simply memorizing definitions, synonyms and antonyms.  To this end, there is no time and place to teach vocabulary, but it is a part of everything we do as teachers, parents and therapists.


When children learn to talk, they learn to say their first words by repeatedly hearing the words for concrete items in their environment.  Words like, “ball,” “cup,” “more,” “big,” “juice” are words kids learn first because they occur frequently in their environment.  Little kids learn and acquire new words through repeated exposure to them.  So do school aged children.

For school aged children, giving a definition for a new word usually isn’t good enough.  A child isn’t really experiencing a word or filing it away in their personal word bank for future use, by reading or hearing a definition.  Research suggests that It takes a minimum of 15 encounters with a new word for a student to understand and use the word independently.  In addition, words are nuanced.  There are subtle distinctions and variations between words that mean the same thing (synonyms) and unless children have the chance to interact with each of these words, experience them and engage with them it’s probably not going to stick.

Asking the right kinds of questions and helping students to make connections among words that they already know can be very effective.  Asking questions like, “Where have you heard this word before,” “Can you think of another meaning for this word,” or just talking about word meanings and being silly with definitions (substitute other words that don’t make sense or sound funny) help kids to expand the way they think about words.  If we build confidence and competence in dissecting and connecting words that students already know, this skill will start to translate and help kids “problem solve” when they encounter unfamiliar words.


One technique that most Speech Pathologists use with the little ones for stimulating language is focused stimulation. This is a pretty simple technique, but needs to be intentional and planned out.  The clinician decides on the target word for the mini-lesson and uses it over and over again while interacting with the child.  The idea is not necessarily to require a response or repetition from the child, but to expose them to a new word repeatedly, in a natural setting.  This can take place while playing a game or reading a book and is very different from simply making a child repeat new words.

If you’re interested in learning more about using Focused Stimulation, click here for some examples and a great summary of this simple technique.


It’s also good to keep in mind that vocabulary doesn’t just refer to the words we speak.  Sometimes we read or hear words that we would never use, but we still know what they mean.  So are these words a part of our vocabulary (words that we would never use, but know what they mean)?  Yes.  We have a receptive vocabulary and an expressive vocabulary.

Judy Montgomery, Ph.D., CCC-SLP, Professor, Chapman University has identified four kinds of vocabularies.  That is, our listening, speaking, reading, and writing vocabulary. Research shows that when you teach or target one of those categories, it has a large impact on the others.  So learning a new word is most effective when we can hear it, see it, read it, and write it.


Here are just a few of the games/ materials I use with kids to help build exposure and experience with new words:

Here are some links to internet games/ activities for building vocabulary (these links can also be found on the homepage under the link Category: Building Vocabulary Internet Games):


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