A Blended Approach to Word Learning and Vocabulary

Systematic vocabulary instruction must be an integral component of a K-12 instruction. The importance of a broad vocabulary simply cannot be underestimated – in learning and in life. A broad vocabulary positively influences fluency, comprehension, and supports learning to read and reading to learn. And, vocabulary knowledge plays an important role in student achievement.

Effectively supporting students to broaden, deepen, and extend their vocabulary is (so much more) than identifying academic vocabulary, creating lists of words, worksheets (God forbid – ‘nuf said), and even direct instruction. It requires a strategic and purposeful approach to supporting student word learning.

A blended learning approach is perhaps a solution to encouraging word learning throughout the day in all K-12 classrooms. As I see it, there are three specific ways in which we can blend vocabulary instruction and support students as expand their word knowledge and deepen understanding in how to effectively use those words in speaking and writing.

In this post, I’ll highlight a blended approach to implement effective vocabulary and word learning with emphasis on (1) instruction, (2) the environment, and (3) digital tools.


Deepening teacher knowledge and practice around effective vocabulary instruction should be a top priority in every school. Effective vocabulary instruction across grade levels and content areas is key.

Teachers should routinely provide opportunities for:

  • multiple exposures to new vocabulary,
  • playing games with words to reinforce meaning,
  • independent reading to build a diverse vocabulary,
  • frontloading vocabulary to expose students to specific vocabulary before reading or listening,
  • listening to read alouds so that students hear higher level vocabulary in context, and
  • talking, listening, and collaborating with peers in order to use academic and Tier 2 vocabulary.

In addition, vocabulary strategies that effectively assist students in expanding and deepening their vocabulary include:

  • providing linguistic definitions of words,
  • having students create non-linguistic representation of words such as a pictograph, pantomime, or visual to represent words,
  • playing games for reinforcing and playing with words,
  • comparing and contrasting words, and
  • personalizing definitions to deepen understanding.

Finally, there are numerous effective vocabulary strategies about which I’ve written. A few of the most-read include:


The learning environment is a key place to support and encourage word learning. New standards – whether Common Core or individual state standards – call for an increase in the amount of nonfiction and informational text that students read. A learning environment must support speaking, listening, reading, and writing in a variety of authentic ways – through print & digital media.

A learning environment that is literacy-rich is not only important for early literacy but supports content-specific learning as well. Depending on student level and the content area, elements of a learning environment that supports interaction and exposure to words includes:

  • classroom libraries that include a variety of genres and text types,
  • content posters,
  • anchor charts – teacher-made and co-created with students,
  • word walls,
  • labels,
  • literacy workstations (K-5 classrooms),
  • writing centers,
  • computers/laptops/tablets,
  • displays of student work,
  • displays of books & information,
  • bulletin boards, and
  • plenty of opportunity to read, write, listen, and speak.

As you observe K-12 learning environments or your own classroom, ask yourself if the environment supports overall and academic word learning as defined by 21st century literacy demands and the new standards? If not, what are your next steps to create a learning environment that fosters word learning to support increased demands for reading and writing?

digital tools In today’s 21st century classrooms, digital tools must coexist alongside more traditional tools. Online tools, compared to their more traditional counterparts, provide a broader array of information about words and word meanings. In addition, some tools allow teachers to easily customize words so that students can practice, review, and play games with content or unit-specific words. Digital tools allows students to:

  • hear pronunciations;
  • read words in a variety of authentic examples;
  • view photos and images related to words;
  • reinforce word learning through interactive games;
  • play with and manipulate language;
  • discover rhyming words; and
  • collaborate with classmates to create virtual words walls.

There are numerous digital tools that show promise to support word learning by providing linguistic definitions, images (particularly helpful for EL students), games and opportunities to play with language.

Below, I’ve listed tools in 4 categories: Reference Tools, Word Clouds, Games and Review, Word Walls and Virtual Field Trips. Like other tools, they’re not all created equal. Some do a better job to deepen and extend word learning than other. Choose tools carefully to support standards and learning goals.

Digital Tools to Support Word Learning

You can also learn more about each tool and read a brief review in this post – 21 Digital Tools to Support Literacy and Vocabulary.

Final Thoughts

Vocabulary instruction doesn’t have to be complicated but it does have to be purposeful. Many students enter school lacking oral language and those who continue to have weak vocabulary skills will struggle throughout their school career.

We owe it to our students to implement a blended approach to word learning to assure that our students achieve at high levels in school and in life.


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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.