The University of Iowa

Attributes of Effective Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

Teacher in front of class during vocabulary instruction

Vocabulary instruction embodying the three characteristics of effective instruction is most effective at increasing students' word knowledge and reading comprehension.


Posted on: October 31, 2017

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part series on vocabulary instruction.

In our first installment of this blog post series, we explained the importance of making purposeful word choices for explicit vocabulary instruction. The goal of this type of instruction is to deepen knowledge of important words, such as learning the different ways a word can be used, the relationship among related words, or the appropriateness of a word for a particular context. We used Chapter 15 of Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) to model how to prioritize words for direct instruction. Let us continue this discussion by examining the qualities of explicit vocabulary instruction, providing examples of its application, and supplying a planning tool to incorporate these ideas into your practice.

Although various words chosen for explicit vocabulary instruction may require different modeling techniques or practice opportunities, researchers (e.g., Marulis & Neuman, 2013; Silverman et al., 2013) generally concur on the following set of effective instructional techniques.

Three characteristics of effective instruction

  1. Provides students with both definitional and contextual information about a word
  2. Offers multiple exposures to the word
  3. Engages students in active practice that fosters deep processing about a word’s meaning and use

When teaching a word, first create and share with students a student-friendly definition, or one that is appropriate for the literacy level and background knowledge of the learner. According to Beck et al. (2013), an understandable definition explains essential characteristics of the word, including the parameters of its use and the particular ideas conveyed. Additionally, a definition is classified as student-friendly if it illustrates the word’s meaning in language accessible to the student. However, oversimplification of language can lead to an imprecise understanding of some technical or domain-specific words. In To Kill a Mockingbird (Lee, 1960), Atticus gave a simple definition for disapprobation, saying that the teacher would “get after him.” This could lead Scout (or the students reading the novel) to confuse the word with scold rather than developing the accurate definition: moral disapproval or condemnation. Revisiting the word multiple times in different contexts will help to incrementally improve students’ knowledge and repair any misunderstanding.

In addition, student-friendly definitions should be accompanied by contextual information about the word’s meaning(s) both within the text students are reading and in other examples. Nash and Snowling (2006) found improvements in students’ vocabulary knowledge and reading comprehension when teachers modeled and contextualized words before having students practice using or applying the words. The researchers concluded that “seeing the word in a written context provided more information (semantic, syntactic, and pragmatic) to create a well-specified semantic representation” (p. 350).

Explicit Vocabulary Instruction in Practice

The example below in blue offers an illustration of how the characteristics of effective vocabulary instruction would apply to teaching Tier II words identified in the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou (1978). The lesson is intended for an eighth- or ninth-grade English language arts and reading class.

Example Word


1. Provide a Student-Friendly Definition.

Phenomenal means unbelievably great. It comes from the Greek root phainomenon meaning “appearance,” so it is almost as if you have to see it to believe it.

2. Explain the Word’s Parameters of Use and Contextualize its Meaning by Using Examples Outside of the Chosen Text.

Adjective Form of the Word


Phenomenal is often used to describe a person or thing that is very impressive.


Maya Angelou was considered a phenomenal writer because of her amazing work, such as “Phenomenal Woman” and the autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969). As a result of the quality of her writing and its role in advancing social justice, she was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize, awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom and an honorary National Book Award, and asked to recite a poem at President Bill Clinton’s inauguration.

Adverb Form of the Word


Phenomenally might be used to describe doing something in a great or impressive way or having great and impressive amounts of a characteristic.


LeBron James is a phenomenally successful basketball player. Immediately after graduating high school, he was selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA draft. Since then, his basketball career has been full of many triumphs. He won three NBA championships and two Olympic gold medals. Additionally, he was honored with four NBA Most Valuable Player Awards and the Rookie of the Year Award. Finally, he is the leading scorer both in the history of the Cavaliers and in NBA Playoffs history. Many people claim he is the best basketball player of all time.

Noun Form of the Word


Phenomenon is often used as a noun for someone that is exceptional or remarkable.

Phenomenon also is used as a noun for something that is extraordinary, so much so that it is often difficult to understand or explain fully.

The plural of phenomenon is phenomena.


The girl who excelled at playing the violin at age three was a phenomenon. Most three-year-olds are still working on basic motor skills and learning the alphabet, so her musical ability was extraordinary.

The idea of human consciousness is often described as a phenomenon because it has proved difficult to fully understand. Most people agree on its existence and that thinking relates to consciousness, but even scientists cannot yet fully comprehend or explain this phenomenon.

Following this definitional and contextual information, briefly model in a think-aloud format how to contextualize the word within the text. As you narrate, be sure to illustrate these strategies by annotating the text. You could highlight important words and phrases, jot questions or notes, or draw symbols that represent how you arrive at this word’s contextual meaning. Content below in green italics is an example of a think-aloud. The teacher is contextualizing the meaning of phenomenal in Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” (1978).

In the poem’s first stanza, Angelou uses the word phenomenal to contrast herself from society’s stereotypical definition of femininity. She begins this stanza by stating she is “not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.” This statement, combined with the poem’s title, makes me interested in reading more because I want to know exactly what makes her so impressive. 

Then, in lines 6-8, I can see that she is explaining why she is phenomenal despite her nontraditional appearance. She cites physical characteristics, such as “the stride of [her step], the reach of [her] arms, and the span of [her] hips.” These phrases are all related to the magnitude of her size.

Therefore, in the first stanza, the poem’s speaker is unbelievably great because of her powerful stature, rather than a fashion model’s traditionally small size. 

After completing the think-aloud, provide students with active and meaningful practice, during which they process the word’s meaning and use. These opportunities would incorporate the word in print and speech so that students are seeing, hearing, and saying the vocabulary they are learning.

The following in blue are examples of active practice with the word phenomenal within a close reading of Maya Angelou’s “Phenomenal Woman” (1978). Students can express their ideas through written expression or peer discussion. They are examining these texts to address the unit’s essential questions: “What is a phenomenon? What qualities make someone or something phenomenal?” (Adapted from District of Columbia Public Schools’ Learning Together to Expand Our Practice (LEAP) materials and Lemov et al., 2016)

Example Practice Activities

Investigation of Examples and Non-Examples of a Word’s Application

From Angelou’s point of view, would it be appropriate to describe the “pretty women” in the first stanza as phenomenal? Why or why not? Support your answer with sufficient textual evidence.

Differentiation Between Synonyms and Their Effect on a Text’s Meaning

Imagine that Angelou used the word abnormal instead of phenomenal. How would this change the poem’s meaning? Be sure to support your answer with specific textual details.

Practice With Various Forms of the Word

The noun form of phenomenal is phenomenon. Use this noun to describe both men’s and women’s reactions to the speaker of “Phenomenal Woman.”

Complete the following statements:

  • Since Angelou is a phenomenon, men…

  • Although the speaker tells other women why she is a phenomenon

Explanation and Analysis of the Text

Complete the following statements:

  • In “Phenomenal Woman,” the speaker is phenomenal because…

  • In “Phenomenal Woman,” the speaker is phenomenal, but...

  • In “Phenomenal Woman,” the speaker is phenomenal, so…

Combination of the Target Word and Another Important Word or Phrase 

In our previous unit, we studied the word irony. Specifically, we learned about situational irony, in which a reader has reasonable expectations about a situation but the opposite occurs. 

Why is Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman” considered to be ironic?  Be sure to use the word phenomenal and cite specific textual evidence in your response.

Following students’ active practice within the text, it is important to plan additional exposures to the word in a variety of contexts. These opportunities for active practice can be incorporated into a close reading of different unit texts. As students encounter the target word in diverse forms and situations, their knowledge of that word will continue to deepen.

The following are examples of additional active practice with phenomenal. Students would engage in these activities after completing an analysis of “Phenomenal Woman” and during the study of two other unit texts, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Angelou, 1969) and “Mother to Son” (Hughes, 1994).

Active Practice Activities in New Contexts

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which word would you use to describe Maya’s decision to attend a school that had only three black students – phenomenal or unusual? Why?

Is the speaker of “Mother to Son” a phenomenal woman? Why or why not? Be sure to use sufficient textual evidence to support your answer.

Although vocabulary instruction is as complex as the words that make up our language, research tells us that explicit vocabulary instruction is a key lever in increasing students’ word knowledge and reading comprehension. In order to make the best use of the precious instructional time allotted for direct instruction, you must carefully select words, provide both contextual and student-friendly definitional information, and strategically plan multiple opportunities for active practice. Providing explicit vocabulary instruction with these attributes will help your students deepen their understanding of essential words and improve their literacy abilities.

Teacher’s Resource

Use the PDF iconExplicit Vocabulary Instruction Template to guide your thinking, organize your decisions, and create active practice activities. This resource is divided into the five major aspects of explicit vocabulary instruction and includes guiding questions to ground your planning in evidence-based practices.


Angelou, M. (1969). I know why the caged bird sings. New York, NY: Random House.

Angelou, M. (1978). “Phenomenal Woman.” Retrieved from

Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford.

Hughes, L. (1994). “Mother to Son.” Retrieved from

Lee, H. (1960). To kill a mockingbird. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott.

Lemov, D., Driggs, C., & Woolway, E. (2016). Reading reconsidered: a practical guide to rigorous literacy instruction. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, a Wiley Brand.

Marulis, L. M., & Neuman, S. B. (2013). How vocabulary interventions affect young children at risk: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Research on Educational Effectiveness, 6, 223-262. doi:10.1080/19345747.2012.755591 

Nash, H., & Snowling, M. (2006). Teaching new words to children with poor existing vocabulary knowledge: a controlled evaluation of the definition and context methods. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 41(3), 335-354. doi:10.1080/13682820600602295

Silverman, R. D., Proctor, C. P., Harring, J. R., Doyle, B., Mitchell, M. A., & Meyer, A. G. (2013). Teachers’ instruction and students’ vocabulary and comprehension: An exploratory study with English monolingual and Spanish-English bilingual students in grades 3–5. Reading Research Quarterly, 49, 31–60. doi:10.1002/rrq.63