James and the Giant Peach book with printable vocabulary pages on either side of it.

Five Tips for Teaching Vocabulary in Children’s Literature

When I worked in the schools, the way vocabulary was taught was a major pet peeve of mine.  The typical method was to use a set of worksheets or workbooks that taught ten words a week that were not related to anything else in the curriculum.  Sometimes, they weren’t even really related to each other!

It made much more sense to me to teach words related to what children were already learning.  Now, I am sure this was being done with what are referred to as Tier III words.  Tier III words are specific to a particular subject area such as chemistry or World War history.  But, I am talking about Tier II words or the academic words that are often used across a variety of subject areas.  These are your POWER words!  The more Tier II words you know, the better your reading comprehension will be.  The more words you will have to choose from when writing.  The better you will verbalize what you have learned and be able to teach someone else about it.

Check out our Tips for Teaching Tier III Vocabulary

It made much more sense to teach these Tier II words in a context that children found fun and could relate the words to situations and visual images.  Literature makes the perfect setting for this.  If you would like a child to learn the word ‘desolate’, you could teach her the definition.  Then have her memorize the definition with flashcards and test her at the end of the week to see if she remembers it.  That is what I observed in the schools.  OR, you could teach ‘desolate’ while reading a book where there is a desolate garden with just one tree in it.  Then, something magical happens with this tree and a whole adventure begins that will be the absolute opposite of ‘desolate’.

Cover for 5 Tips for Teaching Vocabulary in Children's Literature

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Which of these two methods do you think will help the child remember the meaning of the word ‘desolate’?  Hopefully, you said the second way!  However, it can require more thought and time to teach vocabulary this way rather than just grabbing a worksheet each week.  Here are five tips for you to teach vocabulary based upon a children’s book.  At the end of the post, download the Word Detective Template to help build your children’s vocabulary incorporating these tips!

1. Choose Your Target Vocabulary Words

According to experts (see resources at the bottom of this page),  to create a strong vocabulary for children you want to teach them 12 words a week.  I personally like to aim for direct instruction of 8-10 words, assuming they will pick up a few others elsewhere during the week!

Here are the kind of words you want to choose:

  1. Occur frequently across various pieces of literature and/or relate to other subject matter.
  2. Children should be able to explain these target words using words they already know.
  3. Lend themselves to good discussions including relating these words to other vocabulary words in the unit or other subjects taught in your homeschool.
  4. Words that are at least partially defined from the context of the story.

Peaches with vocabulary words for word wall


2. Teach the Use of Context Clues

Teaching your children to ask questions about the word is key to helping them start to use the context of the story to form a definition in their mind.  In the beginning, you will need to ask them the questions to steer them in the right direction.  Here are some examples based upon the part of speech of the target word:

Noun: Who is using this thing?  What are they using it for?  Where is this thing?  What does it look like?

Verb: Who is doing this action?  Who are they doing it to? Where are they doing this action?  What is the result of this action?

Adjective: What is being described?  How else is thing described?  Do you think it is a positive or negative description?

Adverb: What action is being described? What else do we know about this action?

Worksheets with questions to cue children to use context to define vocabulary words

3. Teach Word Analysis

Once you pick out your words, you want to teach your children how to study the words so that they can start to form the definition of the word.

Parts of words: Help children circle the roots, prefixes and suffixes of target words. Discuss what each part means to help children determine the definition of the word.

Worksheets showing vocabulary words broken down into prefixes, roots, and suffixes

Click here to download our FREE printable of the 20 most used prefixes and suffixes.  They will help you define 97% of all prefixed words and 99% of all suffixed words!

Parts of speech: Help children determine if the target words are nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs.  This will then allow you to ask yourselves the questions below to help determine the definition of the word from context.

4. Show How to Check Vocabulary Resources

Once children have done some detective work on the target word on their own, it is important that they know how to confirm whether their thoughts about the word are correct.  So, teach them how to use a dictionary, whether it is online or a physical dictionary.  Not only will they need to know how to look up a word, but how to read the definition once they get there.  For words that have multiple definitions, they may need help matching the correct definition to how the word is used in the story they are reading.  This dictionary is a good one:

Once a student learns the written definition, they may still have trouble picturing what the word means.  A Google image search can help them develop a visualization of the word.

5. Use Vocabulary in Activities and Games

Even though we are teaching words in a literature-based context, your children will benefit from using the words in a variety of games and activities.  Here are some ideas to get you started.

1. Draw a picture of the word.

2. Act out the word.

3. Write a sentence using the word.

4. Write several vocabulary words on index cards and sort them into categories such as parts of speech, positive vs. negative words, or words that describe a certain character.

5. Create a word wall by writing the words on a cut-out that will remind children of the story and hanging them up.  For The Indian in the Cupboard, we printed our words on feathers. Vocabulary Word Wall for Indian in the Cupboard made to look like a headdress

6. Create crossword puzzles.  These can be done online with the target vocabulary you have picked.  One option is Discovery Education Puzzlemaker.

7. Match words within the story that may be synonyms or antonyms.  Or write synonyms and antonyms of the target vocabulary on index cards. Then, have your children match them to the target vocabulary.

8. Play bingo.  You can also make your own bingo cards online. Then you can read off the definitions and have your children find the matching word.  One option is My Free Bingo Cards.

9. Quizlet:  If you are not familiar with this tool, you make your flashcards online.  Then you can play a variety of simple games to practice them.

10. Have a contest to see who can use the target words the most during book discussions and/or every day conversations.  At the end of the week, have a prize for the person who used the most vocabulary words.

Download the FREE Word Detective Template

To Learn More:


Other Vocabulary Resources for Your Classroom:

Cover for the James and the Giant Peach Vocabulary PacketProduct cover for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Vocabulary Unit






Cover for blog post Children's Books to Build Vocabulary. Shows picture of four children's books and a title.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Publisher

    Wow. I am definitely going share this with a few of my friends. Very cool information.

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