How to Improve Comprehension and Vocabulary Skills for Elementary Students

Aug 07, 2023

As an educator, I understand the importance of vocabulary and comprehension instruction for improving reading skills. Evidence shows there is a direct connection between the two to help improve overall reading skills. It is especially important to teach these skills to students who have reading deficits. Students who are not proficient readers by 3rd grade are likely to have more challenges in their school careers. There are various evidence-based strategies for vocabulary instruction and comprehension instruction that can be integrated across content areas. These strategies should be engaging and interactive to promote retention and learning growth.

I’d like to share four active ways to teach vocabulary and reading comprehension that have worked well for me.

Read alouds are a great way to introduce and incorporate vocabulary, Reading through the book and identifying vocabulary words to be targeted for instruction, preteach the vocabulary words to the students, and during the read-aloud discussing their meaning by providing brief, student-friendly definitions helps students to have a basic understanding of the word. Review the context of the words within the story. Students should repeat the vocabulary words for correct pronunciation and then visualize the word's meaning and connect it with a memory.

Follow up the read-aloud with vocabulary activities and word play: Ask students to  provide a sentence using the targeted vocabulary words.  Maybe have some students act out the meaning of a word. Use pictures to help students grasp the meaning of the targeted words. Students might give the correct word/meaning for the picture or choose the correct picture for the word/meaning given.  This activity targets students’ receptive and expressive language skills.

2. Use a Multi Sensory Approach
When students are learning new vocabulary it is important to ensure they have a clear understanding of the word. Allowing students to use their senses to become familiar with vocabulary and a great way to promote retention. 

Ask students to describe what the word would look like, sound like, how it feels, how it would smell, and what it would taste like. Allow students time to think about each category and give them time to share their responses.

To expand on this activity invite students to draw a picture that represents the word’s meaning. Encourage students to be as detailed as possible to help them with a more concrete meaning of the word. 
Help students learn how to make a mental picture of words through visualization. Choose a text that is very descriptive. After reading a short portion model your thinking by “drawing” a mental image, incorporating all the senses (I see..., I hear..., I smell..., etc.). Have the students share their imagery with your guidance. 

3. Word Review Games

Multiple opportunities to practice using new words is an important part of vocabulary instruction.
Incorporate time throughout the week to play word games such as vocabulary bingo or vocabulary Pictionary. to practice the new words. Include words you’ve taught in the past for additional reinforcement. Review activities help students practice and retain the meanings of important words. Preparation and participation for these types of games is quick and simple.

Vocabulary Charades: students are separated into teams and given flashcards with vocabulary words. Each player on the team takes a turn, turning over a  flashcard, read it, and acts it out using motions and/or words. The player cannot say the word. His or her team guesses what the word is. When the team guesses correctly, the player runs to the back of the line and the next player steps up. The first team to get through all of their vocabulary flashcards wins.

Partner Review Routine: Partners work together to quickly review words learned the previous day.

Examples and Nonexamples: The teacher tells students scenarios or shows pictures and students respond chorally to each scenario, indicating whether it is an example or nonexample.

What Word Fits? The teacher asks a question and student partners hold up an index card with the word that fits or answers the question.

A simple way to teach vocabulary is using simple graphic organizers, which are useful for both fiction and nonfiction information and for teaching across content areas. Graphic organizers help students to organize their ideas when responding to texts or completing writing tasks. Graphic organizers give students a reference to help them recall and transfer information. Different organizers are good for different types of texts. Here are some examples.

T-chart: T-charts can be used for comparison of examples and nonexamples of the vocabulary word through words, pictures, or sentences.

Story map: A story map helps students to understand the elements of a story, such as characters, setting, problem, and solution, or sequential points of the story, such as the beginning, middle, and end.

Semantic Mapping
Semantic maps viisually display the meaning-based connections between a word or phrase and a set of related words or concepts. Semantic maps help students, especially struggling students and those with disabilities, to identify, understand, and recall the meaning of words they read in the text, and understand how multiple words or concepts “fit together.” Using semantic maps, combined with explicit instruction and practice opportunities, is an effective way of expanding students’ vocabulary and supporting their content knowledge.

Frayer model: With a Frayer model, teachers help students learn vocabulary words by incorporating a student-friendly definition, characteristics, examples or synonyms, and nonexamples or antonyms. This graphic organizer builds vocabulary and conceptual knowledge across content areas. Frayer models can be completed in collaborative groups while the instructor facilitates. This model can be used before reading to activate background knowledge, during reading to teach new vocabulary, or after reading to assess understanding of vocabulary. 

With modification, these strategies can be used with middle or high school students or bilingual students. For example, older students will be able to provide elaborate written responses rather than just drawings. For emergent bilingual students, the use of gestures, real photos, objects, or drawings may help with the understanding of vocabulary words. In addition, incorporate vocabulary words in their native language to relate to the word in English.