What’s the best way to learn vocabulary?

Parents often ask me questions about how they can best support their child with what they’re learning. Many feel they aren’t doing enough, or aren’t doing the right thing, to help their child succeed. I see a lot of these questions more than once, so I’ve decided to collect them and post them here for other parents to read, in case that advice is helpful.

All my advice is based on my own experience from almost 10 years of working with students with learning differences, and on my M.Ed. training at Villanova University.


[…] Also, I’m concerned about [my daughter’s] vocabulary. She gets very frustrated when she doesn’t understand words that are important for the passage and she gives up trying to read it. Her reading level is appropriate for her age, but the reading on the test really challenges her.

Can you try to spend some time on vocabulary in your meetings for the next few weeks? Just the important words so you can still focus on math? We are doing flashcards at home so I will have her bring those to practice with you.



Hi Jessie,

[…] On the topic of vocabulary: yeah, this is a tough one. It’s usually the biggest barrier to understanding the reading, especially for passages written before 1900. It’s easy to get frustrated and feel like you can’t answer any of the questions. Vocabulary is an important part of reading comprehension, and it’s the hardest to practice.

I am hesitant to spend additional time on flashcards for vocabulary learning at our upcoming sessions. Research shows that the most effective methods for learning vocabulary are explicit instruction on relevant words followed by spaced repetition of practice using those words in different contexts.

Flashcards can help with spaced repetition, but they’re pretty limited in how they require students to use the words they’re learning. We can ask students to use words in sentences when they come up on the flashcard, or we can ask them to define the word, or give synonyms and antonyms, and that’s a good start, but it’s not as effective as other strategies that require students to use words across the four domains of language acquisition (speaking, reading, writing, listening).

Most importantly, that would be a pretty big chunk of our instruction time, and since vocabulary practice is something [your daughter] can do on her own, I’m not sure it’s the most efficient use of our time together. I don’t want you to be in a position where you aren’t getting the best value for your money or [your daughter’s] time, so let me make a counter-proposal: why don’t I spend some time at our next session teaching [your daughter] the strategy I use for my undergraduate students to learn vocabulary for the GRE? She can learn that strategy, go home and practice on her own, and I’ll just check in with her for a few minutes each session instead of dedicating a big chunk of time to it for the next few weeks. That will free us up to spend additional time on the trigonometry, which still needs some work.

The vocabulary strategy I use for my undergrads, by the way, involves reading a pretty difficult book (Moby Dick, usually, though for [your daughter] I’ll pick something else). We’ll learn to pre-teach ourselves a number of vocabulary words, then read the book and check them off as we see them in context, then generate sentences using each word after we’ve read all the assigned chapters. In session, I’ll review the words with her verbally, so we’ve hit all our language domains.

Unfortunately, learning vocabulary is a long process. In order to really learn words, research shows that we need to use them across many different contexts, subjects, and lengths of time. That means learning even one word a day isn’t realistic, since it takes more than one day to learn and internalize a word. However, we can learn ten words in a week, if we practice them correctly and take the time to really cement them in the brain.

Vocabulary is one of those things that we don’t realize we are lacking until it’s too late to fix it with cramming. A little bit of practice each week will make a huge different in three months, and an even larger one in three years. I commend [your daughter] for working on her vocabulary diligently now! It will make the SAT next year and the GRE in a few years much easier.


Vocabulary practice is one of the things that I get the most questions about, since it’s all over the ACT and SAT and it’s hard to practice for. In school, students may be taught vocabulary for the book they’re reading, but those specific words are unlikely to show up on the test. It’ unrealistic to just learn every possible word, too, since there are thousands that might appear.

For students with the proper background and who need to make quick gains on their vocab for the test, I’ll sometimes use a “morphemic analysis routine”, which involves using a set of prefixes, suffixes, and root words that we memorize to interpret new words in context. This is a pain and is much worse than practicing vocabulary in the way I describe above each week, but it does give some short-term gains.