4 Stages of Learning Vocabulary (and why it’s important)

4 Stages of Word LearningTeaching vocabulary can be tough – but you gotta’ do it. Why? Because word learning is connected at the hip to teaching content at any level. And, we know that student achievement and learning is directly related word knowledge.

In today’s post, I’m going to share a really simple concept that is essential for you to understand when teaching vocabulary. And, students need to understand it, too.

For those new to this blog, I’ve written numerous posts about vocabulary. If you’re interested in strategies, the CCSS vocabulary or simple steps to improving your instruction, you may want to check out a few of the posts and tools listed below.


Word Walls

CCSS Vocabulary…Digital Tools and more


Stages of Word Learning

When teaching vocabulary, it’s important to determine your students’ level of familiarity and understanding of the targeted words. How do you easily do this? By keeping in mind the 4 distinct stages of word learning. Not only do you need to know the stages, but you should teach them to your students as well. Stages of Learning a Word

First, knowing a word’s meaning isn’t as simple as “know” or “don’t know.” Rather, think of understanding a word’s meaning like turning on a dimmer switch. In general, whenever a student (or person) hears a word, that word falls into 1 of 4 fairly distinct stages (see image). In the example below, I’ll use the term “polygon” to demonstrate the stages.

4 Stages of Word Learning

Example: the term “polygon”

Stage 1: No Understanding {I’ve never heard or seen the word “polygon.”

Stage 2: Heard the word…but Don’t Understand What it Means  {in other words…I remember hearing a teacher use the word “polygon” but I don’t remember what it means.}

Stage 3: General Associations with the Word {in other words…I remember learning about “polygons” in Math class.}

Stage 4: Can Use the Word {in other words…I know that a “polygon” is a flat shape with at least 3 closed lines.}

Using the 4 Stages with Students

The 4 stages of word learning can be used as a formative assessment tool.

For primary students, it can be as simple as teaching the stages. Using several examples, students can provide feedback by raising a finger or fingers (see slides below) indicating which level of understanding they are at for any given word. Then, use this simple strategy to elicit formative feedback as you teach vocabulary.

For intermediate and secondary students, a simple chart can be useful (see slides). Display the words online or on a whiteboard/Smartboard. As you pronounce each word and provide a meaning, have students write the word in the category that best describes their knowledge of each word. Then circulate around the room and see in which category/ies students have placed words on their template. Very quickly you have a pretty good idea of their familiarity with the terms. For students, it can serve as a quick-check to help them see just how much work and practice they may need to master the unit vocabulary. If you want to create a practice set of terms for students, check out Flashcard Stash. In addition, students can use the template while reading/studying and add additional words as they read and learn more about the topic.

The 5 slides below summarize the stages and includes quick application for primary and intermediate/secondary students.


Keep in Mind

There are a few key ideas to keep in mind as you integrate the 4 stages of word learning into your vocabulary instruction.
  • Words are learned through multiple exposures over time and in varied contexts. Students won’t move from stage 1 or 2 to stage 4 (able to use the word in speaking and writing) by memorizing a meaning. As the teacher, pepper your speech with content vocabulary and higher level terms that students may not be frequently exposed to.
  • The goal of vocabulary instruction is to move as many words as possible from the lower stages (receptive vocabulary) to level 4 (expressive vocabulary).
  • Teaching words in clusters or categories is important for providing context and expedites word learning. If students are at stage 3 – general associations – they will refine their understanding of the word more quickly and easily because they have a better sense where the terms “fits.”
  • Create plenty of opportunities to review words through games and activities such as “Save the Last Word for Me“.
  • Teach students both linguistic and non-linguistic (visual and kinetic representations) strategies for independent word learning.


Final Thoughts

Understanding the 4 stages of word learning is a key principle to implementing effective vocabulary instruction. Become familiar with the stages, and help your students identify and internalize them as well. They’ll not only help students become more metacognitive in their thinking about words, but also serve as a simple formative assessment tool for you.


DL the Template

Go to {Vocabulary Resources} in the Teacher Toolkit


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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.