Five reasons to teach your high school students vocabulary

English teachers are busy.

In a given day, we want to discuss the reading, do a reader’s theater exercise, have our students practice writing argumentative essays, teach grammar and details about the author’s biography and so much more. And, of course, it would be nice to teach vocabulary (especially given that it’s part of the Common Core).

But it’s sometimes hard to prioritize it, especially if you’ve never found a great way to teach it.

But here’s why we feel strongly about vocabulary:

  1. Vocabulary knowledge is highly correlated with reading comprehension
    Yeah, yeah, we know you know. But it’s so important, it’s worth repeating - if there were any doubt, some researchers looked at all the studies from 1924 to 1984 and concluded that that vocabulary knowledge does really, really affect reading comprehension.

  2. Vocabulary knowledge helps students remember what they read
    There is only a limited amount of information that the short-term memory of the brain can process at one time (around seven “pieces” of information, according to well-established psychology research dating back to the 1950’s). 

    This means that if students are “using” all of their working memory in decoding, trying to figure out the meaning of individual words, they won’t be able to take in the more complex meanings, connections and themes of the sentences they read. They will be using each of those seven “slots” to decode the meaning of the words, and won’t have space left for more complex memory work.

  3. Students need to know 90-95% of the words to even learn new ones in context
    Vocabulary experts agree that adequate reading comprehension depends on a person knowing 90 to 95 percent of the words they read

    This allows the reader to get the main idea from the reading and use context clues to guess correctly what the other words mean. If they don’t understand at least 90% of the words, not only will they not understand the reading - they won’t be able to pick up new words!

  4. Vocabulary acquisition is essential to help “level the playing field”
    The average student learns about 2,000 to 3,000 words a year, but students at the lower end of this range may learn only 1,000. This means that the gap in vocabulary knowledge widens with age - it is worse in high school than it was in elementary school. While one teacher’s efforts with vocabulary instruction alone cannot close the gap, it can make a real difference - if a student learns 50 words a week for 35 weeks (perhaps using the Zinc Vocab game) that can mean 1750 words over the course of the year. 1750 words! That’s huge!

  5. Vocabulary knowledge is correlated with occupational success
    It’s not just about school - it’s about life. Johnson O’Connor, a researcher who was one of the pioneers of early aptitude tests, became obsessed with vocabulary because he found that, a person’s vocabulary level was the single best predictor for occupational success.

    One study, of managers in large manufacturing companies, found a strong positive correlation between vocabulary and hierarchy level, even when factors such as scholarship level and age were controlled for. 

    Moreover, studies show that 88.3% of Fortune 1000 executives scored well above the vocabulary average of the control group (most of whom had a college degree or higher). Within that same group, 71% of managers scored above the average, meaning that they had better vocabularies than the general population, but not as good as the executives


Put briefly, vocabulary is like a teaching/learning superfood (incredibly good for your students). Some students might think it’s not delicious, but that’s because they don’t realize that you can prepare it in delicious ways. In other words: vocabulary is super good for them, and it doesn’t have to be a chore.

We believe this so strongly that we created Zinc's Zinc's Vocab, an innovative vocabulary tool that is completely free to students. Or want your students to learn vocabulary from context? Check out Zinc Articles (also free for students, as a matter of fact).

And want more info? E-mail us at