Marzano’s 6-Step Vocabulary Process {12 Days: Tool 5}

12 Days: Tool 5Marzano’s 6-Step Vocabulary Process

Vocabulary and its strong relationship to comprehension has been verified over and over again. Vocabulary plays an important part in learning to read as well as reading to learn. We also know that increasing vocabulary knowledge has a direct impact on comprehension and plays a role in overall school success.

Effective vocabulary instruction is a key foundation to helping students acquire a wide and diverse vocabulary. Students need both direct and indirect instruction in vocabulary and word meanings as well as multiple exposures to words. It is through multiple exposures and repetition that students begin to understand the nuances of words and how to use them when speaking and writing. Additionally, active engagement helps students take part in the learning process and begin to “own” the words and understand word meaning in multiple contexts. Independent reading, intentional read alouds, and wide reading all encourage students long-term vocabulary development and growth.

Teachers need a variety of instructional strategies for teaching vocabulary. Unfortunately, there remains a gap between what we know are effective strategies and what often takes place in the classroom. In Building Background Knowledge, Bob Marzano, an educational researcher, laid out a six-step process for building academic vocabulary. It includes direct instruction, linguistic and nonlinguistic definitions, recording word learning in a notebook or journal, talking about words, and playing with words. Multiple exposures are at the heart of the process.

Six-Step Vocabulary Process6 step Marzano - Copy

The six-step process includes the following steps:

  1. The teacher provides a description, explanation, or example of the term.
  2. Linguistic definition – students restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
  3. Nonlinguistic definition – students construct a picture, pictograph, symbolic representation, or act out the term.
  4. The teacher extends and refines understanding of the word by engaging students in activities that help them add to their  knowledge of the terms in vocabulary notebooks.
  5. Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
  6. Involve students in games that enable them to play with the terms and reinforce word knowledge.

For several years, I’ve been teaching this process to teachers and helping them implement it in their classrooms. I’ve found that when teachers become intentional in regard to vocabulary instruction, they become more excited about word learning and observing growth in their students. Soon, teachers get on board with a schoolwide vocabulary improvement effort and they begin selecting words with more intention, develop a toolbox of vocabulary strategies, create word walls to support learning, and observe growth in student learning and achievement.

Lessons Learned

As a teacher, you can’t teach every word which is why students also need to be engaged in independent reading to build their vocabulary. However, for targeted words that are key to mastering content or comprehending text, you should try implementing the six-step process. Since Marzano’s six-step process has been around a number of years, he reports several “lessons learned.” Keep these in mind as you implement the six-step process:

  • The process works best when you don’t skip any steps. Don’t pick and choose which step you “like” best – do all 6 steps.
  • Students need to generate their own definition of a term – sometimes I call this a “kid friendly” definition.
  • Step 3 – the nonlinguistic definition – is a powerful and important step. When students visualize, create a pictogram, or act out a word, they learn it well and achievement soars.
  • Games – Step 6 – help students play with words and internalize word meanings in a non-threatening atmosphere.

Tool 5 of {12 Days: 12 Tools} is a 1-page summary (see image) of Marzano’s Six-Step Vocabulary Process. I find that teachers like to use this summary as they implement the six-steps process. Use the six-step process as a grade-level team or content-area team and report back to each other. Which step did you find easiest? Are there any that you’re having difficulty with implementing? Discuss with your teaching partners and work to refine implementation. Check for student learning in both informal and formal ways.

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Need more help with vocabulary in your school or district? Check out Vocabulary Instruction that Rocks! We’ve helped schools and districts just like your improve their approach to vocabulary and word learning. We can help you, too.


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Kimberly has been a teacher, administrator, and literacy consultant who worked in districts across the country to improve student literacy achievement. She currently serves as an Educational Specialist with Solution Tree and project manager for large-scale PLC implementations. Her new book, Blended Vocabulary: Harnessing the Power of Digital Tools and Effective Instruction, was recently released in February, 2017.