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The Way You Talk Can Grow Students’ Vocabulary

by Joan Sedita | 1 | 1 Comment

I just read a blog post written by Louisa Moats.  In the piece, she discusses how to expand students’ vocabulary based on a new line of research confirming that the way teachers talk and use language with students makes a big difference.

Moats, who is an expert on phonological awareness, points out that if we have only heard a word but don’t know its meaning, we still have an advantage when we first encounter the word in print because we have a “pronunciation in memory” to which we can attach the letters. Moats explains that “this aspect of word memory is called the phonological lexicon, and it is enriched every time we listen to people speaking who use words that are new to us.”

In my Key Vocabulary Routine professional development program, we emphasize how important it is for teachers to be aware that students learn a word gradually, over numerous exposures to that word used in context. That context can be both spoken and written. When we learn a new word, we move along a continuum of never having heard the word and knowing nothing about it, to “owning” the word and using it in our speech and writing.

Receptive vocabulary (i.e., our ability to recognize something about a word’s meaning that is spoken to us or that we read) is always larger than expressive vocabulary (i.e., the words we use to communicate).  I sometimes use this anecdote related to one of my sons to make this point:

Before taking the SAT’s, he was using a test prep book that included a list of what the book identified as the 500 most important words to know to be successful on the SAT’s. They were presented 50 words on a page that could be cut up into word cards. The book suggested that students sort the word cards into two piles: known words and unknown words. It then suggested that students learn the definitions of the unknown words. I’m not sure how the book authors came up with this list, and I’m pretty certain that they were not aware of research-based best practices for learning new words, but that’s another story.

My son approached me after sorting the first 100 words to say that he thought he would probably “fail the SAT’s” because he didn’t know most of the words on the list. I was pretty sure that he had at least receptive knowledge of many of the words in his “unknown” pile, so I asked him why he put them there. His response: “I can’t tell you what they mean and I don’t think I could use them correctly.” I suggested he start a third pile labeled “words I know a little about”. He resorted the cards – guess which pile had the most words?

One of the previewing activities in The Key Vocabulary Routine asks students to complete a task similar to the three categories I had my son use to determine his word knowledge. In a  “student word knowledge” checklist, the teacher lists words along the left column of a grid. Across the top, the student has choices to describe his/her knowledge of each word. The grid can have three categories: can define, have seen/heard, don’t know (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2006), or four categories – know it well, know something about it, have seen or heard the word, do not know the word (Beck & McKeown, 2002). Sample checklists can be downloaded from the Keys to Literacy website.

Let’s get back to Moats’ article that summarizes the work of Nonie Lesaux and her research team at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Along with the challenging vocabulary that students encounter when they read or are read to, the spoken vocabulary that teachers use in the classroom plays an important role in growing students’ vocabulary knowledge. However, Lesaux found through observational studies that teachers, unless coached, are not likely to spend the kind of time modeling vocabulary use and teaching academic words explicitly that students need to fully learn new words. Moats emphasizes the point that “students who hear teachers using sophisticated terms during classroom instruction are much more likely to learn and use them…. It is impossible for students to adopt language patterns and use words if they never hear them spoken at home or at school.”

So, what can teachers do to increase their modeling of rich language? Here are a few suggestions from Keys to Literacy programs for providing oral and written exposure to new vocabulary:

  • Be conscious of your own language and be careful not to “dumb down” the way you speak by purposely choosing easy vocabulary and simple sentences.
  • Speak with precision and correctness.
  • Set high expectations for language use — encourage students to use precise and extended language when they speak.
  • Provide language models by thinking aloud.
  • Expand and recast students’ utterances.
  • Ask students to paraphrase and restate what they hear and read.
  • Ask students to visualize what they are reading (or during read aloud) and then provide detailed descriptions of those visualizations.
  • Point out and talk about vocabulary use by good authors.
  • Create a word-rich environment, including word play games such as word riddles and word challenges.


Beck, I. L. & McKeown, M.G. (2002). Bringing words to life. New York: Guilford Press.

Blachowicz, C.L.Z., & Fisher, P.J. (2006). Teaching vocabulary in all classrooms (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Joan Sedita

Joan Sedita is the founder of Keys to Literacy and author of the Keys to Literacy professional development programs. She is an experienced educator, nationally recognized speaker and teacher trainer. She has worked for over 35 years in the literacy education field and has presented to thousands of teachers and related professionals at schools, colleges, clinics, and professional conferences.

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