The Art and Science of Teaching Vocabulary

By Timothy Rasinski, Ph.D., Professor of Literacy Education, Kent State University

Plato said, “I would teach children music, physics, and philosophy; but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the keys to learning.” I love this quote because it lauds music and the arts for their great instructional value while noting that patterns play a crucial role in learning.

In my previous article, I explored how the teaching of phonics (word decoding) and spelling (word encoding) can be taught in artful as well as science-based ways. By teaching phonics (a reading competency identified by science) using word ladders, students are artfully guided to understand, for example, how letters and letter patterns represent language sounds.

In this article, I’ll focus more on how students find meaning as they read, decoding words from their written to oral representations. Proficient reading requires the reader to understand what the words mean. That’s vocabulary, which is essential to reading, and many students who struggle with reading do not have adequate knowledge of words and their meanings.

Proficient reading requires the reader to understand what the words mean. That’s vocabulary, which is essential to reading.

Scientific research demonstrates that human beings naturally find patterns in their environments. Linguistic patterns are used in teaching reading; word families, phonograms, and rimes have been used for years to teach phonics. For example, if students know that the word family “-oat” represents a particular sound, they’re able to decode and spell many words containing that word family (boat, coat, goat, float, throat, etc.).

Some word patterns, called morphemes, not only represent language sounds but also carry or represent meaning. Prefixes, suffixes, and inflected endings are examples of morphemes: “pre” means before, “re” means again, a final “s” means more than one, etc. Some morphemes act as base units in English words. Many base morphemes are derived from Latin and Greek roots. The Latin root “terr” means earth or land and is found in English words such as terrain, territory, terrace, extraterrestrial, subterranean, Mediterranean, and more. Learning the root’s meaning helps students understand the meaning of any new word based on that root.

One of the simplest ways to use word roots to teach vocabulary is by introducing one or two roots to students at the beginning of each week and discussing the root’s meaning. Then, throughout the week, share English words containing the root(s) and discuss how these words utilize the essential meaning of the root. Encourage students to use words from their own oral and written language based on the root(s). Because of their natural ability to detect patterns, students will quickly begin to find meaningful patterns that will allow them to tap into the meanings of many otherwise challenging words.

The science of reading has shown us that expanding students’ vocabularies is essential to language and reading development.

Artful instruction allows teachers and students to be creative and inventive. A great way to engage in deeper analyses of the word roots is challenging ourselves and our students to create new words by putting together various word roots they’ve learned. Much the way scientists use Greek, Latin, or other word roots to name new discoveries or ideas, teachers and students can build new words using the roots they know. Students can challenge their classmates to come up with meaningful definitions for the words they’ve created or use the words in sentences to flesh out their meanings. Most students enjoy this kind of game-like challenge. Creating and defining words using word roots like this is a great way to expand students’ vocabularies and also to spark fascination with words.

The Science of Reading has shown us that expanding students’ vocabularies is essential to language and reading development, and that morphology instruction is a productive and efficient way to expand vocabulary. The challenge for all teachers is to find ways to teach that are authentic, creative, and aesthetic. To be scientific and artful, teachers must be “semper fortis” – always courageous!

Build Student Vocabularies With Vocabulary A-Z!


Read more of Dr. Rasinski’s Art and Science of Reading series:

The Art and Science of Reading Instruction
The Art and Science of Teaching Word Recognition (Phonics)
The Art and Science of Teaching Reading Fluency
The Art and Science of Teaching Struggling Readers
The Art and Science of Teaching Reading Comprehension

Rasinski, T. V., Padak, N., Newton, J. & Newton, E. (2011). The Latin-Greek Connection: Building vocabulary through morphological study. The Reading Teacher, 6, 133–141.
Rasinski, T. V., Padak, N., Newton, R., & Newton, E. (2020). Building Vocabulary with Greek and Latin Roots (2nd ed). Huntington Beach, CA: Shell Educational Publishing.


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