Building Vocabulary

Vocabulary development is critical to success in reading

To develop students' vocabulary, teachers must encourage a curiosity about the meaning and use of unfamiliar words and promote the use of strategies that will help students find the meaning of unfamiliar words. This resource provides practical strategies for helping students build listening, speaking, reading, and writing vocabulary.

Need a reinforcement activity for vocabulary building? Try a game of Vocabulary Bingo!

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Structural Analysis

Structural analysis involves looking at word structure or word parts that students know-a base word, prefix, suffix, or word root-to determine the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Once students understand how multisyllabic words are constructed, and once they master the meanings of common prefixes and suffixes, they can deconstruct the meaning of an unfamiliar word.

  • Base words are words that are complete by themselves. Words that can be divided are made up of two or more prefixes, suffixes, and word roots.

  • A prefix is a letter or series of letters that are added to the beginning of a word that has meaning only when attached to a word root. It changes the meaning of a word root. The most common prefixes are un- (not), re- (back, again), dis- (away, off, opposing), and in- (not).

  • A suffix is a letter or series of letters that are added to the end of a word that changes the word's part of speech or tense. Many suffixes do have meanings, but they are more difficult to learn than are prefixes, which should be emphasized.

  • Root words, mainly Greek and Latin, are the words that carry the main meaning of the word but usually cannot stand alone. When introducing structural analysis, write a relatively easy and well-known word such as redo or rewrite on the chalkboard. Ask students how they might determine the meaning of the words if they could not use a dictionary or read them in context. Ask students to come up with several other words that they know that begin with the prefix re-, and have them infer the meaning of the prefix. Guide students to understand that the prefix re- means "back" or "again," and they know what the base words do and write mean. Therefore, they can figure out that rewrite means "write again," and redo means "to do again." Review common prefixes with students, and put five grade-appropriate vocabulary words that contain those prefixes on the board, and then ask students to find the meanings of the words.

To model finding an unknown word, draw a word web, and place the Latin root bene- in the middle of the circle. Ask students to come up with three words that have -ben- or -bene- in them. For example, students might say beneficial, benefit, or benign. Now, ask students to use their knowledge of what these words mean to figure out what beneficent, a more difficult word, means. Guide students to understand that bene- means "good" by having them explain how the three words that they know relate to something that is good. Now, have them predict that beneficent means "doing or producing good." Explain that if they were taking a test and came across this word, they could at least use their knowledge of the meaning of bene- and the words that they know that contain bene- to figure out a working definition for beneficent. Have students practice the same process with the word roots -uni- (one) and ver- (turn) using grade-appropriate words that contain those roots.

To help younger students decode unknown words, have them deconstruct compound words. For example, you might start by writing the word birdhouse on the board. Ask students to tell you what bird and house mean, and then guide them to figure out the meaning of the compound word by combining the meanings of the two base words. Group younger students into pairs, and have them find the meanings of several grade-appropriate compound words.

Specific Word Instruction

Providing students with contexts in which they can learn new words incidentally is the most effective way to build vocabulary. Nevertheless, explicit vocabulary instruction can also help, especially if it is focused on helping students develop strategies to learn new words representing new concepts, or to clarify and enrich the meanings of known words.

How Can You Stretch Students' Thinking?

One way to enrich explicit vocabulary study is through the use of analogies. An analogy shows a relationship between words and can be used to help students learn new words. Analogies are also frequently used in standardized tests, so it is important that students learn a step-by-step strategy to decode analogies. To solve word analogies, students must first understand the relationship between the words. Many different types of analogies can be used to help students understand words:

Category: tea:drink :: deer:animal

Synonym: rare:scarce :: dry:arid

Antonym: hot:cold :: day:night

Part to Whole: collar:shirt :: buckle:belt

Object to Use: pen:write :: brush:paint

Product to Producer: fire:match :: pearl:oyster

When teaching vocabulary using analogies, model the process using a simple analogy, such as cat:pet :: tulip:flower. Help students talk through the analogy by saying, "A cat is to a pet as a tulip is to a flower." Ask students to determine what type of relationship they see in this analogy (category – a cat is a type of pet and a tulip is a type of flower). Select a few other types of analogies, such as antonym and synonym, and work with students to help them understand the relationships. Give students sets of analogies that are grade- and subject-appropriate, with each set containing one word that students might not know. Group students, and ask them to figure out the meaning of the unknown word by first identifying the relationship expressed in the analogy and then by using their knowledge of the three words they know. For example, happy:enthralled :: intelligent:smart is a synonym analogy. Once students identify this relationship, they can figure out that enthralled means "happy."

When Can You Use It?


Have students make a list over several days of all of the words from their reading that they don't know. Ask them to try to figure out the meanings and then look up the words in the dictionary to find the exact meanings. Group students in pairs, and have them teach five of the previously unknown words to their partners by using one of the vocabulary building strategies they learned in class.


Give students several common Greek or Latin roots, and have them write every word that they know that contains the word roots. Give students a fun topic, such as sports or popular music, and have them construct five sets of analogies that express five different relationships. Ask them to write a sentence that explains each analogy and the relationship expressed in it.


Group students into pairs, and have them write down the Latin or Greek words that represent numbers in mathematics. For example, tri means "three," quad means "four," and so on. Have them apply those words to something they are studying. For example, students in algebra can better understand binomials and trinomials by knowing the root words. In geometry, students can use root words to remember the number of sides in a pentagon and hexagon.

Social Studies

Have students read an excerpt from an earlier era that contains words that are not in common use today. Have them use context clues or one of the other vocabulary-building strategies to determine what some of the words mean. Ask students to create sets of analogies that relate these words to words that they already know.


Have students write classification or characteristic analogies for the topic they are currently studying. Students can brainstorm the number of words they know that contain the word gram and then think of the different metric system units that contain that word.

Lesson Plans

Building Vocabulary Using Word Roots and Prefix Meanings

This is a lesson plan for a middle- or high-school students that uses word roots and prefixes to help students determine word meanings.

Building Vocabulary Using Analogies

This is a lesson plan for middle- or high school-students that uses analogies to help students determine word meanings.

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