Multiple interactions with oral vocabulary that engages learners.

Primary students learning academic vocabulary show greater benefits than starting later, when they are able to sound out and recognize the word. 


Primary students learning academic vocabulary show greater benefits than starting later, when they are able to sound out and recognize the word.

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It gives the impression that there is an urgent importance to learning words orally in order to read and understand them later. In order for us to teach big words properly, it’s vital that we engage students in learning and then using the words in developmentally appropriate ways to build schema. 

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5 Ways to Engage Students Learning Academic Vocabulary by making it memorable 1) systematically introduce the word 2) Read aloud picture books 3) emergent text 4) interactive activities 5) school to home connection.

After much research and lot’s of time, I’ve developed a well-balanced system that easily builds my primary students oral vocabulary...critical academic vocabulary. Of course, anything taught to primary students must be engaging on their level, and I’ve fulfilled this daunting task as well. I’m excited to finally share all of this with you in this post, so that you can find what works best for you and your teaching style.

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Introducing the word. I like to use Marzano’s system in introducing vocabulary words. It's the most comprehensive format that I've used. I've been using this system since 2012 and it's been proven to me that students grow their vocabulary.

When I teach academic vocabulary, I include the following in this order:

  1. anchor chart with visuals and student friendly definitions;
  2. a relatable gesture that I or the students make-up that make sense to kinesthetic learners;
  3. questions for students to answer using the word in context;
  4. readings and activities to discuss and play with the word;
  5. a bracelet for students to wear home to share their learning with parents for a home-to-school connection.



academic vocabulary | Tier 2 vocabulary | Common Core critical vocabulary |




Read alouds with picture books. I like using an easy to read and understand story that is well known. It could be fiction or nonfiction. My favorite story to use is Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I start off the year reading versions of the story. The characters and plot are very easy to follow, and the rule of 3 is a bonus! Such a great story for primary and ELL students to follow and remember with ease


One of my favorite wordless picture books for guided reading! Out of print, but copies are for purchase as of this blog posting.


Goldilocks and the Three Bears is perfect for academic vocabulary. I’ve shown anchor charts, with the word and images from the story, that explain the word with an included sentence. It reinforces other comprehension skill words, such as character, plot, and setting. We then do various activities that not only link to the story, but gives us a chance to continue using the word within the discussion during the activity.







Emergent readers. I want students to read the words in context with books that support where they are developmentally. Of course, when I first searched, these were nowhere to be found. I’ve taken a lot of time (trust me...a lot of time and money) to develop emergent readers with easy to read text and images for support. The text is meant to be easy, but the discussion that happens during close readings are rich with the same academic vocabulary in each emergent reader. This format helps to build student schema for words that aren’t normally in their everyday language, however lends itself to talk that is within their current schema bank.


academic vocabulary | Tier 2 vocabulary | Common Core critical vocabulary |

For example, I would ask my students the following questions for the word “distinguish”:

  • What’s one way to distinguish your left hand from your right hand?  I show them to make an L-shape with their pointer fingers and thumbs. Left hand always makes an L, while the right hand makes a backwards L.
  • How can we distinguish whether someone is happy? Sad?  (facial expressions are key for the image)
  • What distinguishes Mama Bear’s chair from Papa Bear’s chair?  (one is soft and one is hard)
  • How do you distinguish between you and your friend?  (personalities, physical characteristics, etc.)

Interactive activities, like interactive notebooks. I was hesitant to do interactive notebooks and lapbooks with first graders, but I have found that if I start the year with easy to cut, fold and paste flaps and give them plenty of time and support with my own examples, then they catch on quickly to the concept! I do have some students that struggle at times, but I have plenty of helpers to want to give their friends a hand and make my job easier.

School to Home.

One of my favorite activities, and the easiest to prep, is sending students home wearing a paper bracelet of the word to share with those at home. On the bracelet I made sure to have the word, a kid-friendly definition, and images from our activities that week to help prompt students to give an example to anyone who asks about it! The students are motivated by the novelty of wearing the bracelet, so it’s more likely for parents to see what their child is learning in class. This is so much more effective than just sending communication of learning in a newsletter. Parents are excited to hear their child talking about school, using those big vocabulary words in an exciting way!

synonyms | shades of meaning | degrees of meaning | First Grade Frame of Mind

I hope you found this helpful and gets you thinking about how to include academic vocabulary into your every day teaching. To help, I'd like to give you a free download: the teaching vocabulary list from above in the form of a cheat sheet and a "Distinguish" mini-book (1-page emergent reader)! You can find them below!


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