Frontloading Vocabulary in Core Content Classes: Instructional Strategies

Mary Murray Stowe, M.Ed.

Scenario: Your students begin their cultural study of ancient Sumerians. You have provided a reader's guide for individual completion by the end of the class period in preparation for a whole-group discussion the following day. You anticipate a lively discussion as you construct questions requiring critical thinking skills and application of knowledge. Thus far, your students have given no indication that confusion exists.

The following day you ask the first question. Only a few students raise their hands in response. By the end of the second question, rather than more raised hands, you view a sea of wide-eyed, closed-mouthed faces. Quickly rethinking, you ask a scaffolded question to stimulate the discussion. The only sound heard is a nervous cough.

What do you do? Did they read the chapter? Did they complete the guided reading worksheet? When you ask the students if they read the text and understood every word, heads swung from side to side - no. How could you have avoided this uncomfortable situation?

Solution: Frontloading or preteaching vocabulary is a powerful before-reading instructional strategy to facilitate comprehension of a passage. Building this strategy into lesson plans will reap benefits for students' comprehension and expand their learning for critical thinking activities. By giving students explicit instruction in vocabulary, teachers help them learn the meaning of new words and strengthen their independent skills for constructing meaning from text (Kamil, Borman, Diole, Kral, Salinger, & Torgesen, 2008).

Identifying Problematic Vocabulary

The first step in teaching vocabulary involves prescanning the reading assignment to identify problematic vocabulary (Coffman, 2009). Matching your students' Standards of Learning (SOL) testing results to their corresponding Lexile levels prove invaluable to this task. For additional information on Lexile levels, use this link, (The correlation of SOL score to Lexile level is located on the VDOE website in Superintendent's Memo #267; The Lexile Analyzer ( determines readability of scanned text, thus providing a selection guide.

Instructional Strategies to Frontload Vocabulary

The more students understand the terms used within a passage, the easier it is for them to understand information they read or hear about the topic (Marzano & Pickering, 2005). It has been found that students must have a working knowledge of 95% of the vocabulary in a passage in order to comprehend it (Lyon, 2009). Several evidence-based instructional strategies are available to frontload targeted vocabulary to promote greater comprehension, as outlined below.

The Frayer Model

The Virginia Department of Education lists the Frayer Model (see Figure 1) as an instructional strategy for teaching math vocabulary. As illustrated, the targeted vocabulary word is placed in the center of the graphic with the definition, characteristics, and examples surrounding it. Identifying non-examples is helpful in developing a fuller understanding of that word.

Figure 1: The Frayer Model Strategy


This graphic organizer is available in a foldable or three-dimensional format (link for directions:


A choiceboard with inviting activities (see Figure 2) may be used to engage students in learning vocabulary. An example is found on the Russell County School District website:

Figure 2: Choiceboard Example



Wormeli (2006) has suggested a "RAFT" (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) format to differentiate activities for diverse learners (see Figure 3).

Figure 3: RAFT Example


In addition to the elements shown in Figure 3, two or three scenarios are constructed on the "RAFT" to provide choices for students (Wormeli, 2006). Additional suggestions for RAFTS and RAFT rubrics may be found at
(Retrieved September 1, 2009, from Dare to Differentiate Wikispaces).

Note: RAFTs may be constructed with the headings on the left margin and the assignments given according to difficulty of task completion.

Vocabulary Cards

Coffman (2009) suggests vocabulary cards, used at the Shelton School, as an effective way to preteach vocabulary. See Figure 4.

Figure 4: Vocabulary Card Example

vocabulary card

Vocabulary Instruction

Marzano and Pickering (2005) recommend a six-step method for teaching vocabulary, as follows:

1. Teacher provides a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
2. Students restate the description in their own words.
3. Students construct a graphic representing the term.
4. Students engage in activities that add to their knowledge of the term in their notebooks.
5. Students discuss the terms with one another.
6. Teachers engage students in games that allow play with the terms.

Use of the above activities for frontloading vocabulary can facilitate deeper comprehension of critical content.


Coffman, N. (2009, July). Multisensory teaching: Rescuing struggling readers at all grade levels. Session presented at the 2009 Summer Conference for the Alabama Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, Hoover, Alabama.

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., & Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices: (NCEE #2008-4027). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved August 31, 2009 from

Lyon, R. (2009, February). Reading difficulties: Prevention, early intervention, and remediation. Session presented at the 2009 Spring Conference for the Dallas Branch of the International Dyslexia Association, Dallas, Texas.

Marzano, R., & Pickering, D. (2005). Building academic vocabulary: Teacher's manual. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Wormeli, R. (2006). Fair isn't always equal: Assessing and grading in the differentiated classroom. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers and Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.

Choiceboard Example - August 31, 2009)

Frayer Model Examples - (Retrieved on August 31, 2009)

RAFT Examples - (Retrieved on August 31, 2009)