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Part Three of our Four-Part Series: Helping Students Improve Their Reading at Any Age 


Building vocabulary is one of the most commonly understood and utilized strategies in teaching, so we won’t spend an excessive amount of time one it. Everyone knows it’s important and many teachers have strategies in place across grade levels and disciplines. It’s also fairly easy to access resources on vocabulary instruction. 

There are a few tips and tricks we’ve picked up here and there that we have to share, though, in case you’re in the market for some helpful things. 

Practice Vocabulary in Context

    Students are far more likely to retain and be able to access vocabulary information they’ve learned if you provide ways for them to use the correct terms in context. 

    Listing vocabulary words and definitions is not a bad idea. Making a personal dictionary with important terms for each class or subject is a good idea (more on that below). 

    Immediately applying and using that new knowledge is the best way to store it in a student’s most useful memory banks where it is easily accessed and recalled. 

    Group Words

      Comparing and contrasting is one of the most useful strategies that can be used in learning new information, especially when comparing and contrasting to things already known. Using former knowledge as a “hook” to hang the new information on actually helps build dendrites that connect and create pathways between neurons in the brain. 

      When you teach new vocabulary, group new words with similar vocabulary words students already know. Look for common elements within the vocabulary - root words, prefixes, and suffixes that are the same. 

      Create Personal Journals

        Creating personal vocabulary journals for students to use as a subject-oriented dictionary of their own is a useful way to add to a student’s vocabulary. Not only can they use the time they enter the word and information as a sort of mental “mile marker’ for remembering the word itself, they’ll have it recorded in a physical place with other vocabulary words they’ll need to access throughout the year.

        We recommend formatting these as a class with students in fourth grade and up, if possible. Our writers create these for our youngest students, but we’ve used these from every level (pre-k through college), and they are very handy. In fact, one of our writers keeps their own personal set of vocabulary notebooks on hobbies and other subjects of interest at home. Once you start, it’s difficult to stop! 

        There are lots of templates for vocabulary journal pages. If you have budget money to spend, there are even some you can order pre-made from various educational supply companies. 

        Most of the teachers we know who use this method just wait until school supplies go on sale during the summer and buy a class set or two. You can also wait for school supplies to be brought at the beginning of the school year.  

        Here’s the routine followed by our writer who taught Kindergarten and First Grade. You can adjust for older students (and our writer who taught college uses the same information, but has a “notebook prep” party with her students to get their notebooks ready). 

        Number the pages. 

        The first page will be a page on your right. When you turn the page, the back

        (page 2) is on the left. We count pages on our right as odd numbers, and pages on our left as even numbers.

         Composition notebooks work best for these. We choose notebooks that have 200 pages, counting both sides (you may need to adjust accordingly, if yours are different. Sometimes the least expensive “bargain store” notebooks say they are 200 pgs., but end up being 196 or so).

        Title the first page “Index”. Leave the second page blank.

          Label pages with beginning letters, just like a dictionary. We got super nerdy about this years ago, looked up which letters occur most frequently as beginning

          letters in print… it was a whole thing. The great news is, you don’t have to do that! We’ve got it all laid out for you. Here are how many pages you should allocate to each letter.

          (Remember, Aa will start on page 3. Pages 1 and 2 are the Index pages.)

          Aa= 12 pages Nn = 12 pages

          Bb = 4 pages Oo = 12 pages

          Cc = 10 pages Pp = 8 pages

          Dd = 8 pages Qq = 4 pages

          Ee = 12 pages Rr = 12 pages

          Ff = 4 pages Ss = 10 pages

          Gg = 4 pages Tt = 12 pages

          Hh = 8 pages Uu = 10 pages

          Ii = 12 pages Vv = 4 pages

          Jj = 4 pages Ww = 4 pages

          Kk = 4 pages Xx = 2 pages

          Ll = 10 pages Yy = 4 pages

          Mm = 8 pages Zz = 4 pages

          We like to add Post-it Page Markers to each page to mark where each letter is in the journal. These specific little Post-its are almost the same size as clear tape you use in a dispenser on your teacher desk (or to wrap presents). 

            We place the Post-it on the page after we’ve labeled it with the letter, then we use one piece of tape to cover one side of the Post-it, then flip the page over to cover the backside. It gives the labels a little more texture and makes them durable. 

            Be sure to mark the page numbers on the index page. 

              Here are a few other things we like to include in our definitions:

              • Drawing or illustration of the defined word
              • Pronunciation guide
              • Root, prefixes, and suffixes
              • A sentence using the word in context
              • Part of speech
              • Synonyms, antonyms

                One final tip: We use color to organize whenever we can because brains really respond to color. For example, you could have your students use green for all nouns, red for verbs, blue for adjectives, etc… 

                You could also organize by origin of the root word - pink for Latin, Purple for greek, etc…

                If you’re a science teacher, you could organize by subcategory - elements in one color, weather patterns in another, information about soil in a third, etc... 

                For math terms, you could organize the same way. Algebraic terms could be in one color, geometric terms in a second, and so on. 

                Social Studies is one of the best for this - biographical information about an individual or group in one color, information about a place in another, and facts about wars or events in a third. 

                When you build the vocabulary of your students, you build their other reading skills, and you increase their chances of understanding the concepts in your subject area. It’s definitely worth the time and investment to devote yourself to increasing vocabulary instruction.


                Fluency refers to the rate, speed, and fluidity with which a student reads. The most common way to calculate a student’s fluency is by listening to them read out loud. The reason you have to have them read out loud is simple: you aren’t a mindreader.

                And if they can’t read out loud, chances are pretty good that they aren’t reading well silently, either. Studies prove that. It’s not an isolated process that only occurs in a person’s mind. 

                There are, of course, many issues with listening to individual students reading out loud.

                It’s not always easy for kids or young people to read in front of other students, especially if they have any sort of reading difficulty. On the other hand, it’s also difficult for students to listen to and comprehend the content being read out loud by someone who struggles with reading.

                It’s time-consuming to listen to a whole classroom of students reading, and in order to make it meaningful, you really need to do it fairly often to track progress.

                Finally, you may not know what you are listening for.

                Here are a few tips for handling those situations.

                First, especially if your students are older, try to incorporate using technology to monitor oral fluency. Have every student read the same passage, or if you are a teacher in a core subject like math or science, have them read the vocabulary words and use them in sentences that help connect the students to the context. 

                Make a rubric. Score your students on their skills (see below for specifics).

                Even if you don’t teach reading, you need to hear your students using the vocabulary and content to know if they are able to read it correctly. You need to be able to offer feedback.

                Using technology to have them record themselves speaking at home or in a more private setting makes it a bit easier to grade. If you have the opportunity to hear them face-to-face by pulling one or two off to the side while everyone else is doing independent work, that works best because your feedback can be immediate, but offering general feedback (ie: you realize many students are mispronouncing a word, demonstrate the correct pronunciation, and practice together as a group) can work too (just make sure you’re reteaching everyone who needs the practice). 

                There are a lot of apps out there for recording and playback for educational purposes.

                For earlier grades, you’ve got this in the bag. If you’re doing small groups, running records, testing with DRA II or some other method, you’re already working on it. Just be sure that when you aren’t testing, you’re still reminding students of their fluency goals.

                Secondly, here are the things to score for in verbal fluency beyond second grade: 

                • Pronunciation
                  • Pitch -  Have you ever heard an older child reading like a very young child (or even a “baby”)? They are working on pitch. Some children speak with a very high pitch when they are nervous. The goal in pitch is to “sound natural” or for the student to use his or her “real” voice. 
                  • Rhythm - In speaking and reading, we neither say each word in complete isolation, nor speak every word verbally “running into” the next. There is a rhythm to reading. Just like rhythm in music, some have it and some just don’t. Unlike rhythm in music, it’s fairly easy to teach someone else the rhythm in reading. 
                  • Volume - You’d think this would come naturally, but have you ever been with a young child in a solemn religious service or a crowded movie theater? They don’t know what “whisper” means. They have to be taught.
                    And some young children never learn in their early years. You’ve met these students. You’ve met these adults - the ones who don’t understand volume. It’s important when reading that the student is neither yelling nor whispering so that you cannot hear them (the latter keeps you from checking their accuracy). 
                  • Tone - You don’t want students reading like a robot with no variation in their voices. They’ll bore themselves and others listening to them. Also, if they aren’t reading fluently enough to attend to their tone, they are likely not reading well enough to comprehend accurately. 
                • Speed - Readers need to read quickly enough to get the gist of the content, but not so fast that they can’t comprehend (or enunciate well). Speed should be “average” and words should be understandable. 
                • Accuracy - Students might miss up to 10% of the words without compromising their understanding of the context depending on which words they are missing. Sometimes students replace words with something similar (like saying “pond” for “lake”). Sometimes, they guess words that begin with similar letters but make no sense (minivan for multiplication). Accuracy is incredibly important if it is in any way affecting comprehension. 
                • Pauses - Finally, breathing is important! When speaking, people often group words and phrases together, which adds emphasis to what is being said. It’s important to use pauses accurately when reading, too.

                Please note that these elements are not nearly as important in pre-k through first or second grade. Early readers are very busy just decoding and attending to the print/sound relationship. As they become more fluent in beginning phonics and phonemic awareness, then you will be able to increase 

                NOTE: We planned on covering comprehension this time, but we don’t want to leave anything out, and vocabulary and fluency took a bit more space than we’d imagined it would initially. It will be the leading information in the next blog! See you then! 

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