• Katelyn Robey

Vocabulary Instruction – Marzano’s Six Steps

Updated: Jun 9

Comprehension is, obviously, the end game when it comes to reading instruction. Students need to be able to learn from and understand the things they read. Vocabulary plays a HUGE role in comprehension. Before students can fully understand an entire text, they have to understand the meaning of individual words.

While we can’t possibly teach students the meaning of all words they could see and hear, we can do our best to grow their vocabularies and also teach them skills to find word meaning on their own! From my experience, the best place to find vocabulary is within language rich books. I have taught myself over the past couple years to tune in to the excellent examples of vocabulary that children’s books provide. The best vocab words are the ones that are interesting and span many topics. The next question is how to best teach those interesting words to students.

Luckily, the hard work of research and science has been done for us, and this is what it suggests:

Vocabulary should be taught explicitly in a systematic format, and the dictionary shouldn’t be involved. Yes, dictionaries give definitions of words and students should know how to use one, but students need more than that to really internalize the meaning of words and to grow their vocabularies. Understanding vocabulary from a dictionary takes a LOT of serious comprehension skill, which many students just don’t have yet.

Robert Marzano is a front-runner in vocabulary instruction. He turned research findings into six strategies for success with vocabulary instruction. THANK YOU, ROBERT, FOR MAKING LIFE EASY FOR TEACHERS!

An excellent 2-page summary of those strategies can be found in his article, A Six-Step Process for Teaching Vocabulary. An even more concise summary of his six-step strategy is below, followed by an example lesson.


The teacher’s role here is to directly teach the vocabulary word. Define it in a way that is easy for students to understand, and give examples!


Ask the students to define the word in their own words, based on the excellent direct instruction you just did in your explanation!


Give a visual example of the vocabulary word. Take it a step further and act the word out or assign it a motion! Ask students to show the word in their own way, or ask them to explain how the representation you have shown relates to the word’s meaning.


Get the students talking about and using the word! This is where students learn how to best fit the word into a sentence so that it makes sense. Through discussion, they are also building a solid understanding of the word’s meaning.

Refine and Reflect-

Go back to steps 1 and 2, and ask students to explain the word’s meaning yet again. The word cannot be stated and explained too much!


This step encourages ongoing use of the vocabulary beyond one lesson. Play games, use the word when you speak to students (conversationally and instructionally), remind students of the word when they’re writing, create excitement around finding them in reading! Basically, make sure students have opportunity to use the word. Practice, practice, practice!

Vocabulary Lesson Example:

The Junkyard Wonders by Patricia Polacco is an AMAZING book about acceptance. The story depicts Patricia Polacco’s actual life, making it an even better story! This book is FULL of interesting words that would be excellent for a vocabulary lesson. For this example lesson plan I chose the word sponsored. Before going through this vocabulary lesson, I would have read this book aloud to students without much more than a 10-second pause to ask a question or quickly give a definition. The point during this initial read is to let the students enjoy the book!


Open to the page where the vocabulary word sponsored shows up (toward the end, picture on the page: students all raising hands, Patricia sitting backward and sitting).

Quickly recap what’s happening in this part of the story. “Patricia’s tribe fixed up a model airplane from the junkyard, and the class is hoping to raise enough money to buy a motor that will help the plane fly!”

Draw attention to the word. “Today we are going to talk about a very interesting word from this part of the book. The word is sponsored. What’s the word?” Students say, “sponsored”. “Listen for the word in the sentence and think about what it could mean.”

Read the sentence from the book aloud. Show the picture. “Give me a thumbs up if you HAVE heard this word before. Does anyone think they might already know what sponsored means?” Take 1 or 2 volunteers with guesses at a definition.

Define the word and give an example. “A sponsor is someone who donates money to buy something that will help people. In this story, the kids’ dads sponsored a car wash. That means they spent money on the materials that the kids would need in order to have a car wash. They probably bought soap, sponges, and buckets. They wanted to support, or help, so they sponsored the car wash. A sponsor gives money to help others.”


“What vocabulary word are we talking about today?” Students say altogether, “sponsor”.

Turn and talk to your partner. Tell them what sponsor means.”

Restate some of the accurate(ish) definitions you overheard. “I heard some of you say that a sponsor spends money, someone else said that a sponsor helps kids. Those are all great answers!”


Hold up a word card with the word sponsor. Take a minute to discuss the syllables in the word sponsor, notice the -or and the sp-. Have students write the word on a white board.

Sneak in another quick definition or example. “The word sponsor means to support a group of people by paying for something they need. Someone who sponsors a classroom might buy books for all of the students.”

Show with a picture or action. “Let’s add some motions to the word to help us remember its definition. Hold your hands out as if you’re holding money. Now, push that money forward as if you’re giving it away. Say, ‘sponsor’ while you make the motion.”

“Now, say ‘A sponsor gives money to help others’ while you make the motion. Let’s repeat that with the motion 3 times!”

A picture of the motion I chose for the word sponsor. Hold your hand as if you were showing off some cash. Move hand forward as if giving it away. Say, “A sponsor gives money to help others” while making the motion.

Have students show the word their way. “Quickly, on your white board, draw a 10-second sketch to illustrate the word sponsor. Go!”

“What did you draw?” (Take 2-3 volunteers, encourage them to use the word sponsor in their descriptions of their drawings if possible)


Turn and talk to your partner again. Use the word sponsor in a sentence. Your sentence could sounds like this, ‘{A person’s name} will sponsor ___________.’ or McDonald’s will sponsor the dinner by bringing hamburgers.”

Listen to and positively correct student sentences. Remind them to use the vocabulary word in their sentence and encourage students to use it correctly. Model correct use of their sentences for students to repeat, if necessary.

Call on 2-3 students (that used the word correctly in their discussions) to share their sentences.


Define the vocabulary again. “Altogether, with our motion, let’s define sponsor: “A sponsor gives money to help others”. Again!”


Do a quick interactive ‘game’ or activity. Describe the game: “I’m going to ask questions about things a sponsor may spend money on. You tell me if that is something a sponsor WOULD pay for by doing our motion and definition together. If it’s not something a sponsor would spend money on, just say no.”

Would a sponsor hand you cash and tell you to buy yourself food?

Does a sponsor pay you to do a job?

Could a sponsor buy jerseys for a baseball team?

Could a sponsor donate money toward a play or production?

Could a sponsor buy dinner for a school family night?

Could a sponsor buy shoes for someone running a race?

Conclude the Lesson

Repeat the vocabulary. Repeat the definition. “What word did we discuss today?” Students say, “Sponsor!” “What is a sponsor?” Students say, “A person who gives money to help others!”

The first run through of this type of lesson will be longer, but with practice it will or it should get down to 15 minutes (or less!).

When the lesson is finished, students will have heard or said the vocabulary word AT LEAST 50 times! Let me say that again, STUDENTS HAVE HEARD OR SAID THE VOCABULARY WORD AT LEAST 50 TIMES IN ONE LESSON!

And they’ll just continue to hear and use it more and more if the word is posted in the room, used in sentences when possible, noticed in text, encouraged when appropriate in writing, and outside of the classroom!

#comprehension #readaloud #systematicinstruction #multisensory #vocabulary #tier2vocabulary #multisensoryinstruction #multisensorylearning #explicitinstruction #vocabularyinstruction


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