Vocabulary in Context: How to Teach it and Why it Works

Understanding why and how to teach vocabulary in context has been a skill I’m still learning to master. One of the main challenges of teaching reading is knowing whether your students are comprehending the text. Often times, we sit as students read effortlessly and fluently a reading passage. We smile as they decode multisyllabic words with little hesitation. Then we look up from our clipboards and ask, “Ok, now tell me what that was about.”


Comprehension and fluency need to be looked at with completely different lenses. In fact, a student’s reading level may significantly drop when linked directly with comprehension. So what is the problem when students are decoding with ease but not comprehending?

In my opinion, vocabulary.

Vocabulary instruction needs to be explicitly taught at all grade levels. We want to teach the decoding and we want students to read effortlessly. But if they aren’t understanding the words they are reading, what is the true point of our instruction?

Being an ESL teacher, I have made it a point to be sure I am incorporating vocabulary instruction into my daily lessons. What I have found over the years is these five things work to help build vocabulary no matter what grade level, or level of instruction.

1). Using visuals in Vocabulary in Context Passages

Students are far more likely to engage with content that includes visuals. The same is true for vocabulary. When students connect a picture to a word, it helps them visualize the word and the definition in a more accurate way. In my vocabulary in context resources, I not only include a visual, but that visual is a real photograph. Real photographs also help students make text to self and text to world connections.

student reading nonfiction vocabulary in context passage

2). Providing vocabulary definitions relevant to context

There are often several meanings of one word. It is part of the reason English is one of the most difficult languages to learn. Providing definitions that are relevant to the context you are reading, will help with fluency and comprehension of the text. However, I always follow up with discussing other meanings of the word, so that students are aware that there are more than one.

Student using vocabulary in context definitions to fill in blanks.

3). Using application activities to be sure students understand meaning.

Application activities are extremely important to teaching vocabulary. A definition can be memorized, but until the student is able to apply it in a sentence, I don’t believe it has been truly learned. Eventually, the real test is to see if students can correctly use the vocabulary in their own day to day conversations. I often reward students throughout the week that have used one of our new vocabulary words correctly.

Student using vocabulary in context definitions to fill in correct vocabulary words.

4). Providing writing prompts that utilize vocabulary.

Another application activity is to provide writing prompts that utilize the new vocabulary word. I try to have students use real life experiences in their writing so they are able to connect with the word, and remember it’s meaning. This strategy can be used at any grade level and with any level of vocabulary.

Student using a word from vocabulary in context passage in their writing.

5). Practice, practice, practice 

Like learning a new language, full immersion is essential. Practicing vocabulary in context by using repeated readings of a passage where the vocabulary is embedded, is extremely important. I have my students partner read, practice vocabulary in conversations, etc. I ALWAYS go back and review words we have already learned after we have learned new words so vocabulary has not been forgotten. Practice does not always make perfect, but it does make progress!

Students peer reading vocabulary in context passages together.

Click here for a FREE sample of a Grade 1-3 Vocabulary in Context resource!

Click here for a FREE sample of a Grade 4-6 Vocabulary in Context resource!

Looking for other vocabulary tips? Check out my post on how to integrate vocabulary into your busy day!

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