Comprehensible Input: Teaching Targeted Vocabulary

All teachers are teachers of vocabulary, they just need the tools in order to successfully do so
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About This Strategy

This strategy supports all teachers to support their students' language acquisition of their content vocabulary in order to increase student engagement and comprehension of class themes and topics. It helps teachers prioritize vocabulary terms, minimize the workload for their students in learning vocabulary, and helps them support students to interact with the vocabulary in meaningful, varied, and relevant contexts. This strategy is based on research for language acquisition and includes suggestions for teaching vocabulary through comprehensible input, formative assessment, reading, writing, and kinesthetic activities.

Implementation Steps

  1. Reference the tier of acquisition and determine in which tier your students are engaging. For help determining the tier of acquisition for the vocabulary you intend to teach, check out the Tiers of Acquisition presentation and watch the How to Teach Vocabulary Acquisition video in the resource section below. 

  2. Build context for students about vocabulary terms and key topics in order to make vocabulary accessible. Check out Building a Context in the resources section below. For support determining how to focus your lessons and how to make content accessible for students the "Using SIOP Method to Make Content Comprehensible for English Learners" resource below is a helpful guide. Some specific ways to build context are: 

    • Provide a description, explanation, or example of the term.

    • Ask students to restate the description, example, or example in their own words.

    • Ask students to create a symbol or graphic representation of the term.

    • Engage students in activities that use the term.

    • Have students discuss terms with one another.

    • Involve students in games that require them to use the term.

  3. Consider the idea “less is more”. 

    • Choose to focus on common words that the students must know to be successful in your content area. 

    • Choose to include words that students would not encounter independently. 

    • For more tips and tricks, use the Khan Academy: Theories of the Early Stages of Language Acquisition website in the resources section. 

  4. Modify what you've got! For comprehensible input, kinesthetic, listening, and reading vocabulary activity ideas checkout the Modifying What You've Got guide below.

EL Modification Block

Teachers often consider content vocabulary to be the most important, but we have to take into consideration that there are some students, many of whom may be EL students, that are more concerned with acquiring academic and colloquial vocabulary than content vocabulary.

Implementation steps:

  1. Consider these lenses when teaching ELs (from Valentina Gonzalez @ValentinaESL on Twitter)

    • Developmental - Age appropriate instruction and zone of proximal development.

    • Language proficiency - listening, speaking, reading and writing and proficiency in other languages.

    • Grade level curriculum - no watered down or below grade level work. Access to grade level content. 

  2. Follow the steps comprehensible input steps outlined by Martina Bex, a comprehensible input teacher. To learn more about her work, see the resource titled "Comprehensible Classroom: Martina Bex" and the "Comprehensible Input Graphic Organizer" included below.

Special Education Modification

Students with disabilities need the same vocabulary to be successful in the classroom. It is our job to make the vocabulary accessible and understandable for these students. 

Implementation steps:

  1. Reduce the amount of new vocabulary

    • Provide all of the words but highlight ones you would like the student to focus on

  2. Provide a vocabulary list with completed definitions that can be used on all assignments and assessments

  3. Pre-teach new vocabulary the student will encounter while reading or throughout an assignment. Provide context for the new vocabulary. 

  4. Chunk vocabulary

    • Chunk into more manageable groups (3-5 words)

    • Chunk similar words into categories

  5. Draw a picture from what they think the word means in a sentence instead of copying definitions.

  6. Sort words into categories instead of labeling

Comprehensible Input: Teaching Targeted Vocabulary for Distance Learning

If distance learning has taught us anything, it's that less is more. Students need to know our content vocabulary, but they do not need to know all of it. Minimizing the amount of vocabulary students are exposed to makes teachers consider how we can make the words that they do interact with relevant and meaningful.

Implementation steps:

  1. Chunk vocabulary 

    • Chunk into more manageable groups (3-5 words)

    • Chunk similar words into categories

  2. Differentiate vocabulary 

    • Highlight or bold vocabulary words that are most important or the most difficult 

    • Students then mark the vocabulary words they struggle with the most

    • Students mark the vocabulary words that are most relevant to them

  3. Allow students to use their vocabulary lists on assessments

Teacher Tips

These are the things that I consider when I am working to build student interaction with vocabulary.

  1. Building context for students makes the vocabulary relevant. If the vocabulary isn't meaningful for students, they are less motivated to interact with it. Students don't "get it" by seeing or hearing the vocabulary just once. The vocabulary needs to be accessible to them as they interact with all aspects of your content area every day in multiple ways. You can't just make input comprehensible, you have to sustain comprehensibility. 

  2. Don't get overwhelmed or make work for yourself. You have relevant and worthwhile lesson plans that can easily be modified to make vocabulary acquisition more achievable for your students. You can check out how to modify some of your lessons in the use cases below or by skimming the Games and Vocabulary Resources presentation in the resource section.

Formative Assessment for Checking Vocabulary Comprehension

In these games and activities, students engage with vocabulary through quick, fast paced interactions. Teachers can easily check student comprehension and provide extension and reteach opportunities in real time. 

Games and Activities:

1. Grudge Wall

  • Create a set of slides with questions and answers (ex: Slide 1 question, Slide 2 answer). Vary the questions in terms of complexity, incorporating plenty of new vocabulary. 
  • Place class into 4-5 small groups or teams.

  • Each group needs their own little whiteboard and marker. 

  • Project the 1st question on the screen.

  • The teams hold up their responses as soon as they have them (be careful of peeking!). The teacher checks them. 

  •  Scoring

    • List the team names on the board with 5 X’s vertically underneath.

    • If the team gets the answer correct, they can erase one X from another team. 

    • The goal is to be the last team with X’s on the board.

    • If all your X’s get eliminated. You still play. To get back in the game answer 3 questions (not in a row) correctly. On the 3rd correct answer your team earns back 3 X’s and you are back in play. You may not eliminate the X’s of any team while you are eliminated, even if you get the answer correct.

2. Zonk 

  • Create a set of slides with questions and answers (ex: Slide 1 question, Slide 2 answer). Vary the questions in terms of complexity, incorporating plenty of new vocabulary. 

  • Place class into 2-3 groups or teams.

    • Every person in the group needs their own piece of scratch paper. 

  • Project the 1st question on the screen

    • Set a timer, each person on the team must write their own answer on the paper BUT the goal is that the team collaborates, so they should all decide on one answer and then everyone writes that one answer on their own paper. 

  • When the time is up, the teacher chooses to check the answers of 1 random person from each group (Hence, the they all write the same answer. They will mess up, they will try not to do it, but they should all write the same answer). Scoring

  • Taped to the board there should be a vast array of cut out construction paper shapes and sizes. Each shape has a point value on the back. Some shapes have ZONK on the back.

  • If their team answered correctly, three students can choose 3 shapes from the board to try to earn points, or they can pass. Add the amount of points drawn from that round to the total point value for the team. If they draw ZONK they lose all of the points from that round only.

  • After drawing players continue with the next round. 

  • After drawing players continue with the next round. 

3. Ask 1 Question

  • Instead of asking “Do you understand?” “¿Comprenden?,” or something along those lines, ask students to come up with one question they have regarding the vocabulary/content.

  • Have students share their questions with a partner or small group.

    • Use this time to walk around and listen to the questions they are coming up with.

  • Allow a few students to share their question with the class.

    • Choose students you know had a commonly asked question

  • Adaptation: Have students explain or “re-teach” the definition or explanation to their group.

4. Group teach

  • Divide class into groups of 3 or 4 people.

  • Assign or have students choose a role within their group. In a group of 3, combine roles A and D.

    • Presenter

    • Artist

    • Instruction/Content

    • Examples/Real World Connection

  • Have students create an instructional tool (PowerPoint, Poster, etc.) to share with the class.

    • Can cover new topics or review topics previously taught

  • Have students present their work to the class.

  • Modification: Have students work together in groups and then jigsaw the groups for presentations.


Comprehensible Input for Exposing Students to Vocabulary

These comprehensible input activities allow teachers to provide exposure to vocabulary in a variety of contexts, including through the use of pictures, short sentences or written passages, listening and speaking.

Games and Activities


  • Provide students a word cloud or vocabulary list. Have students write any number of words from the cloud/list in different sections on a strip of paper.

  • If you want the game to take longer, make the required number of words higher

  • Read a passage, dialogue, story, etc. out loud. Students rip off the words they hear BUT they can only eliminate words that are on the end.

  • When the student hears their last word said, they rip it in half and yell “BINGO!”

  • Eliminate super high frequency words or phrases to extend the game

2. Movie Talk 

  • Show students a short video/song/clip with the sound MUTED.

  • While the movie is playing silently, the teacher pauses it regularly to describe what is happening (should be connected to content/vocab).

  • Once the movie has played through once, play it through again without stopping. Continue to add brief descriptions or highlights of what is going on.

3. Cloze Song

  • Print the lyrics to a song with some of the words blocked out.

  • Play the song through once or twice with students listening and filling in the blanks.

  • Have students compare answers in partners/small groups.

  • Show them the completed lyrics.

  • Extension: Have students write their own song/rap using vocab words or content.

Comprehensible Input Speaking Activities

These activities re-create authentic speaking activities for students in which they are asked to interact with the vocabulary as much as possible in a short amount of time.

Games and Activities: 

  1. Speed-dating

    • Students prepare questions (and in some cases answers) relating to the vocabulary or topic ahead of time.

    •  Place desks or chairs in a line, with two chairs or desks facing each other (This can also be done in 2 circles with the students paired up. The inside circle faces out, the outside circle faces in, so they are facing each other).

    • Set a timer or listen to the groups discuss and answer the questions with each other. They should be talking the whole time.

    • Rotate. One person stays, the other person moves. 

    • Repeat exercise

  2. Pyramid

    • Put students into groups of 2-4. Provide groups with some sort of presentation/display of vocab words.

    • Have one student turn their back to the computer screen where the words are displayed.

    • Without looking at the vocabulary word, the student will try to guess the vocabulary word based on the clues/descriptions/details provided to them by their group.

    • See how many words each person can get within a specific time frame (ex: 1 minute) and then switch to the next student guessing.

    • Increase the level of competitiveness by allowing students to have a Pyramid tournament or by seeing which group can guess the most words.

  3. 1 minute challenge

    • Have students prepare as much as they can about the topic using their new vocabulary. The challenge is to have enough information to talk for the entire 1 minute (or 30 seconds, or whatever you choose). 

    • Have the students mingle about, you can play music if you’d like. 

    • When the music stops they need to pair up and share as much as they can using detailed language and vocabulary about the topic. When the time is up, they switch, and the other partner talks. 

    • Continue switching to new partners for the remainder of the activity.

Engage in Comprehensible Input through Writing

These activities prompt students to communicate their knowledge of new vocabulary through writing.


  1. Scripts

    • Provide students a picture or prompt. 

    • Students should write a conversation between the people using as many vocabulary words as possible.

      • Tell them how many people are involved in the conversation (if it is not obvious from the picture).

    • Extension: Give different pictures to each group member and see if they can put together a comic strip/story based on the individual conversations they wrote.

  2. Picture this

    • Provide pictures connected to the general theme/idea of the vocabulary unit.

    • Have students work to write as many descriptions of the picture using vocabulary words as they can.

      • Students can work independently or in small groups.

      • The teacher can project the pictures to the class as a whole or have students move through pictures at their own pace.

    • Extension: Have students pass around their lists and see if other students/groups can add to their list.

  3. KWL

    • Provide students with a template or have them create their own on a blank piece of paper.

      • 3 columns

    • In the first column (K), students will write what they know about a word.

      • Part of Speech

      • Definition

      • Example

    • In the second column (W), students will write what they want to know about a word.

    • In the third column (L), students will write what they learned.

  4. Little Whiteboards

    • Place students into small groups of about 4 students. 

    • Each student has their own little whiteboard and a dry erase marker. 

    • Options for questions:

      • Call out vocabulary words and have students write the definition

      • Read the definition and have students write the vocabulary word

      • Have students write a sentence using the vocabulary word in context

    • Every student in the group must have the correct answer and raise their whiteboard (beware of peekers). They can use their notes if you would like. 

    • The first team to have all whiteboards raised and all of the answers are correct receives the most points. ALL teams receive points. Example: 5 teams - 1st place=5 pts, 2nd place=4 pts, 3rd place= 3 pts, etc.

    • The team with the most points at the end receives a prize (homework pass, candy, sticker, whatever you like).

Using Kinesthetic Activities to Promote Comprehensible Input

Students love to be active and these activities combine movement with language interaction that keeps them engaged and motivated.


  1. Trashketball
  • Create a set of slides with questions and answers (ex: Slide 1 question, Slide 2 answer). Vary the questions in terms of complexity, incorporating plenty of new vocabulary. 
  • Place class into 2-3 groups or teams. 
    • Every person in the group needs their own piece of scratch paper.
  • Project the 1st question on the screen
    • Set a timer, each person on the team must write their own answer on the paper BUT the goal is that the team collaborates, so they should all decide on one answer and then everyone writes that one answer on their own paper.
  • When the time is up, the teacher chooses to check the answers of 1 random person from each group (Hence, the they all write the same answer. They will mess up, they will try not to do it, but they should all write the same answer).
  • If their team answered correctly, they send up 3 representatives (rotate through) from their team to shoot a small ball into the trash can (take the liner out) for points.
  • Scoring: 1 point line       2 point line          3 point line
  • After shooting players return to their team for the next round. 

2. Task Cards

  • Create a set of task cards to be placed around the room. Some can be on the walls, the table, the door, wherever. 

  • The task cards should vary in difficulty and can cover one topic or a wide range of topics. 

  • Make sure that your tasks create a context in which your new vocabulary must be used to complete the tasks. 

  • Make as many task cards as you can, then require the students to complete a certain number. For example, you create 30-40 cards and the students need to complete 20-25. 

  • You can have certain students focus on certain cards, especially if you know they may be struggling with a vocabulary concept. 

  • Color code the cards by topic for additional extension or to focus students on areas of growth.

3. Tableau

  • Divide students into groups of 4-5.

  • Give a specific time period (30 seconds-1 minute) to brainstorm a “statue” representation of a vocabulary word using their bodies.

    • Each student should share one idea for their statue. The group collectively chooses one to work with.

  • Give students a specific time period to create their tableau. All students must be a part of the tableau.

  • Students cannot use props, sound effects, or words. Their bodies are the only thing that can communicate the vocabulary word.

  • Extensions:

  • Students can explain their Tableau to other groups

  • Students can vote on which Tableau they think best represented the word

  • The teacher can challenge students to create their tableau silently

4. Build It

  • Students use playdough (or any material!) to build a physical representation of the vocabulary word.

  • Students can work individually or in small groups.

  • Adaptation: Have students partner up and build a physical creation of a vocabulary word while their partner tries to guess what they are building.

Tech Tools Block

  1. FlipGrid allows the teacher to record a question or discussion prompt. The question can be presented verbally or the prompt can be typed out (both recommended). The prompt should relate to your vocabulary, so promote a response context that requires students to use the new vocabulary. Students record an answer to the prompt. Ask students to end with a question or two of their own. Students can respond to 2-3 other students to keep the conversation going. 

  2. Blooket is similar to Kahoot. The teacher can input vocabulary lists or practice questions. When the game begins, students respond to the questions correctly to earn points. They can use these points to become victorious in their mastery of vocabulary. 

  3. Quizlet Live. This game is great for exposing students to brand new vocabulary through repetition. Once a teacher has created a vocabulary list on Quizlet, you can play Quizlet Live. This game can be played in teams or individually. Students must work together to correctly match each vocabulary word to the definition.