Using Extended Vocabulary Instruction

David Alviar | Published  February 22, 2019

­­­ We all know the importance of language acquisition, but did you know that how you teach students new science vocabulary has an impact on their engagement, depth of understanding, and retention? A critical part of learning science is becoming fluent with the language of science. To do that, students must have experiences that help them make meaning of new terms themselves—not just memorize definitions.  

Given this aspect of learning new words, what pedagogical method is most effective for teaching new vocabulary? There are several techniques, and their names are sometimes used interchangeably. Of these three—embedded, extended, and incidental vocabulary instruction—our preferred method is extended vocabulary instruction.

Extended vocabulary instruction is characterized by explicit teaching that includes both contextual and definitional information, multiple exposures to target words in varied contexts, and experiences that promote deep processing of word meanings (Coyne, McCoach, & Kapp, 2007).

Consider an abstract scientific term such as “photosynthesis.” While we can teach this purely conceptually using the dictionary definition, students tend to retain the term longer, understand it more deeply, and apply it more effectively when they learn it through extended vocabulary instruction. To teach using this approach, the teacher may use some of the following strategies

  1. A hands-on experience where students observe the impact of placing plants in darkness. This experience can support the notion of light as a crucial element of the definition of photosynthesis.
  2. A think aloud where the teacher models the thinking he/she is using to develop an understanding of a term; sometimes concept or semantic maps are helpful.
  3. Read alouds or shared readings, where the class discusses the subject and visuals are provided.
  4. Acting it out or using Total Physical Response (TPR), both of which provide a kinesthetic relationship to the term. For example, students might mime a plant leaf perking up while another student circles them with a flashlight, playing the Sun.
  5. Creating visualizations where students draw the new terminology—perhaps a plant basking in bright light.

plant and hand SEP

With each additional method of exposure, the term becomes better understood by the student. Additional strategies include asking students to describe concepts (versus defining words) and having students provide both linguistic and nonlinguistic representations of a vocabulary term (Almarode, Fisher, Frey & Hattie, 2018).

Consider some of the terms your students will struggle to understand. What additional experiences can you provide to help them make meaning of these new terms?


Coyne, M. D., McCoach, D. B., and Kapp, Sharon. (2007). Vocabulary Intervention for Kindergarten Students: Comparing Extended Instruction to Embedded. Retrieved from

Haag, K. (2017, March 9). Reading lessons: Embedded Vocabulary Instruction. Retrieved from 

Almarode, J., Fisher, Douglas, Frey, Nancy and Hattie, John (2018). Visible Learning for Science.



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