Direct versus Indirect Vocabulary Acquisition

In 2000, the National Institute for Literacy stated that students acquire most vocabulary in an indirect way, by listening to adults speaking or reading aloud, through the conversations they carry with other people, through independent reading etc. However, there are words which have to be taught directly. Direct vocabulary instruction focuses on specific words which are being taught to the students and on word learning strategies. The words in question are the words which are not normally part of students’ experiences and therefore pose a few problems to the students.

“Vocabulary is the best single indicator of intellectual ability and an accurate predictor of success at school.” (W.B Elley)

Choosing which words to teach is an issue many teachers are confronted with. To their help, in 2002, Isabel Beck divided the words into three main categories:

Tier 1: Simple and familiar words which rarely require focused instruction and which normally come from the students’ universe (example: family, chair, flower, book, etc)
Tier 2: Frequent words which occur in a variety of contexts or domains and which belong to the academic language (example: analysis, coincidence, stereotype, etc)
Tier 3: Specific words which are rarely used and which usually belong to specific fields of study (example: neutron, Reconstruction, isotope, pestle, etc)
The author of this classification encourages teachers to teach words from Tier 2.

Word Learning Strategies

When it comes to learning new words, students have to deal with the following:

Unknown words, words they have never seen or heard before;
Familiar words, words they have seen or heard before but whose exact meaning they do not know or are not sure of;
Established words, words they are already very familiar with, whose meaning they understand and which they can use accurately in context.

Teaching vocabulary is not easy. It involves different strategies and it works differently with every student. However, there are some learning strategies which have proven their efficiency over time:

  • Dictionary skills – using a dictionary (paperback or electronic) to look words up and to get acquainted with their multiple meanings/ parts of speech.
  • Using word parts – using the roots, the prefixes or the suffixes of words, in an accurate way, and understanding how they give the meaning to a word;
  • Context clues – this strategy is not 100% reliable but it can be a good idea to use it as a second option in order to check comprehension.

Another way for the teacher to make sure the students remember the new vocabulary is to expose them to the words as much as possible. The repeated exposure to the new vocabulary, across a variety of contexts (formal, nonformal, informal) helps the young learner make connections and remember the word more easily.

The use of digital storyboard tools, such as Book Creator, Doodly or StoryJumper, interactive digital games, such as FreeRice or Bamboozle, charts (Padlet or Jamboard) and mindmaps, such as or Coggle, will bring life to vocabulary terms. By using Doodly for example, the students can create one-pagers, design word art that depicts meaning, or write stories to use the term (and others) in order to help reinforce context.

Other ways to practice and reinforce vocabulary is to use digital vocabulary organizers and clipart, symbols, thought or speech bubbles, in different tasks to show the meaning and the context of a term/ word/ structure.

In order to build students a strong vocabulary, Michael Graves (2000) identified four main components of good vocabulary teaching:

1. Independent reading: – students are required to read in order to build their vocabulary.
E-books can be a great way of developing their vocabulary in virtual learning lessons or a great go-to activity for the teacher when he/ she is busy with helping other students;
2. Instruction in specific words: – students are helped to gasp the meaning of a particular text;
3. Word forming strategies: – students are asked to recognize and to use prefixes, suffixes and root words to enrich their vocabulary. (;, etc.)
4. Word consciousness:- involves using synonyms, antonyms, figurative speech, metaphors, etc. and is reflected in the students’ ability to deliberate and to use words correctly by being aware of how word parts and word order can influence meaning. (Kahoot, Wordwall, Mentimeter, Liveworksheets, etc.)

To sum it up, there are four main elements which make up a good vocabulary program:

  • Independent reading;
  • Word learning strategies;
  • Specific word instruction;
  • Word consciousness.

1. Beck, Isabel L. McKeown, M., & Kucan, L. (2002). Choosing Words to Teach. In Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (15-30). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
2. Graves, M. F. (2016). The vocabulary book: Learning & instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.


prof. Andra-Rodica Oneci

Școala Gimnazială Radu cel Mare, Găești (Dâmboviţa) , România
Profil iTeach:

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