Did you know there are 20+ critical vocabulary words that primary students should know before moving on to 3rd grade? There was a time that I didn't. If you teach primary students, teaching critical vocabulary is important for us to teach starting now. If you teach upper elementary, you'll know why it's important to grow vocabulary all throughout elementary school, starting in kindergarten.

Even though I'm currently teaching 1st grade, I know teaching upper grades has loads of content vocabulary, and it's my job to make sure the burden of learning is lightened by teaching the critical Tier 2 academic vocabulary. I taught middle school for 11 years before making my way down to first grade. As a middle school teacher, teaching vocabulary can be an overwhelming task.

Students who score higher on vocabulary questions also tend to score the highest on reading comprehension questions, according to the NAEP Nation's Report Card (2011). Exposure beginning in the early grades only helps to solidify vocabulary growth, as Francie Alexander from Scholastic believes, also a former member of NAEP. Also, students living in low-income homes tend to have smaller vocabulary development than those from middle-income families.

Vocabulary is the bridge within our classrooms, where "closing the gap" finds the answer to equity .

So where can we begin to bring the rigor of vocabulary learning to our students?  Here are five ways to know you are doing just that!

1) Look to the experts as to which words are considered critical for your grade-level. Robert J. Marzano and Marilee Sprenger have written extensive lists on not only the vocabulary but also how to teach the vocabulary. Different authors may not agree to all the words for each grade level, but that is where #2 comes into play.


2) Plan out the vocabulary that is meaningful to your grade-level and share your list with the grades levels above and below your grade. You will know many of the words already that you teach throughout your year.

For me, I tend to use these words often in teaching first grade students: compare, contrast, explain, details, etc. I've also seen compare and contrast on the kindergarten list, and so I keep that in mind while reteaching these words in first grade.

READ  Sticky Vocabulary: Teach, Remember, and Use Words Daily

3) Teach vocabulary explicitly. Purposely choose words and add them weekly into your lesson plans. I find that when I do this I actually teach the words more consistently and effectively. One way to do this is first in whole groups and reinforce the use of the vocabulary in small groups. I teach the critical vocabulary 3 times a week over as few as 10 minutes each time. I want it to be systematic with an introduction with developmentally appropriate readers, review with an engaging activity and then a school-home connection that involves the student sharing with parents at home.

You can find more details about these in my store here http://bit.ly/critvocmega

4) Teach the vocabulary with meaning for all students. One process (Marzano, 2004) is to show the word and say the word with its definition (on grade-level), have students repeat the word, give real-world examples with picture prompts and then have students turn and talk about a question you pose relating to the word using it in your question. The question piece is important so that students start using the word right after learning its meaning.

5) Review the words often throughout the rest of the school year. Use those words and challenge students to use them as well. I find that displaying the words somewhere in the classroom not only helps students to continually be aware of them, but it also reminds me to encourage my students to use the words in speaking and writing.


Marzano, R. J. (2004). Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools (Professional Development) Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Sprenger, Marilee. Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core: 55 Words That Make or Break Student Understanding. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *