Pre-teaching vocabulary with worksheets and dictionaries doesn’t cut it! The Rivet reading strategy is going to make vocabulary teaching easier for you and most importantly, it’s going to have a profound effect on your students’ learning!

The Rivet reading strategy is a pre-reading activity that presents to learners essential vocabulary from a text in the form of a “guessing” game. It encourages vocabulary acquisition and word analysis in addition to prompting students to construct, confirm, and re-frame personal predictions. This vocabulary strategy consequently enhances reading comprehension and fluency.

Patricia M. Cunningham, PhD, a professor of education at Wake Forest University, is the creator of the Rivet reading strategy. What’s wonderful about this instructional technique is that it can be used within all subject areas and grade levels!

With this strategy, students will be so “riveted” by the anticipation of guessing words and validating personal predictions about the words’ meanings that their attention will be highly-focused on the targeted learning objectives.

I’m going to share with you exactly how I use the Rivet reading strategy with upper elementary students. Hopefully, the information will help you visualize and understand the power of this pre-reading strategy!

So let’s dig into it!

Part 1: Getting Started with the Rivet Reading Strategy

  • First you must choose a text, one that has significant vocabulary that your students need to learn. As an example in this post, I’m using a kids’ text about the branches of government, and my focus is fourth/fifth grade.


  • Next, strategically select 5-8 words from the text. These are essential words that you really want students to understand within the context of the story. Even using a character’s name (e.g. the book Chrysanthemum) or important places (e.g. Capitol Hill) are good to use if they lend themselves to the story’s key ideas.


  • Now, draw lines and numbers to represent each word you chose. These lines can be drawn on chart paper, a whiteboard, or displayed from a projector.  See the example below.
  1. __ __ __ __ __ __
  2. __ __ __ __ __ __ __
  3. __ __ __ __ __ __ __
  4. __ __ __ __
  5. __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
  6. __ __ __ __
  7. __ __ __ __ __
  8. __ __ __ __ __
  • It’s time for the fun to begin! Starting with #1 and from the first letter of the word, fill in each letter. Pause for a moment after each letter to give students time to process and determine if they know the word.  If a student believes she knows what it is, she calls it out! Your kiddos will compete with each other to see who can figure out the word the fastest! 😛 You may have to write a few letters before they guess it. That’s okay. The anticipation adds to their engagement!


  • Whenever a student guesses correctly, go on ahead and complete the word.

Part 2: Discussion and Questioning

  • Once the word has been revealed, pronounce it with students. Have a brief class discussion and ask questions about the word. This component is super powerful. Your role is to keep the conversation flowing; students’ subsequent questions and responses will guide you. Whatever you do, don’t let students know exactly how the word is used in the text. They’ll figure that out for themselves once they begin reading, and I’m sure they’ll be SO excited to dig into the book to find out!
  1. _b_  _r_  _a_  _n_  _c_  _h_  
  2. __ __ __ __ __ __ __
  3. __ __ __ __ __ __ __
  4. __ __ __ __
  5. __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __ __
  6. __ __ __ __
  7. __ __ __ __ __
  8. __ __ __ __ __
  • Below are sample questions I would ask about the example branch. It’s important to ask questions or provide open-ended statements that get readers thinking more deeply about the term.
  1. Tell me everything you know about this word.
  2. Where have you seen it? Heard it?

Once you all have had a brief but significant discussion about the word, move on to the next term in the Rivet reading strategy game. Continue the process until all words have been guessed and discussed.

Part 3: Making Predictions, Reading, Revising Predictions

  • Once all the words have been revealed, students take a look at them as a whole and predict what they think the text will be about. Record their predictions on chart paper if you like or have them write personal predictions in their reader’s/writer’s notebook. A few students or pairs share their predictions. Below are the words revealed.

_b_  _r_  _a_  _n_  _c_  _h_  

_c_  _a_  _b_  _i_  _n_  _e_  _t_

_e_  _x_  _e_  _c_  _u_  _t_  _e_

_v_  _e_  _t_  _o_   

_i_  _n_  _t_  _e_  _r_  _p _r_  _e_  _t_

_b_  _i_  _l_  _l_   

_c_  _o_  _u_  _r_  _t_

_H_  _o_  _u  _s_  _e_  

  • By now, students are exploding to get their hands on the text! (ok, maybe not all of them). Once they begin reading, their attention is hyper-focused on the anticipation of discovering and analyzing the words just discussed.

The power is in how their schema is reshaped and refined by the newly-read information. Are their predictions validated? If not, are they reframing their thinking? It’s so amazing to see their aha moments!

  • After reading, revisit each word.  Ask the kids:
  1. What definition(s) do you have of the word now?
  2. How was the word used in the book?

Here’s an example student response for the word “branch”: “Before I read, I knew that branch is part of a tree. But after looking at the other words from the list, I didn’t really understand how a branch from a tree could be connected to those words.  While reading, I learned that branch is used to define the three parts of the U.S government. Now I get it! Like a branch is a part of a tree, a branch is also an extension of the government. The connection with the other words now make sense, too!”

Part 4: Informal Assessment with the Rivet Reading Strategy

  • The next day, informally assess how well students grasped the vocabulary. The Tic-Tac-Toe graphic organizer is great for doing this.  This organizer encourages students to go beyond memorizing definitions in order to look for connections and patterns embedded in the concepts.
  • Students take all the vocabulary words from the pre-reading activity (branch, cabinet, execute, veto, interpret, bill, court, house) and place them anywhere on their personal Tic-Tac-Toe graphic organizer. In this case, there are only eight words yet there are 9 spaces on the organizer. Have students write any other new word they learned from the text in the leftover space (I added president) or give them a bank of choices from which to choose.

tic tac toe graphic organizer rivet extension activity

  • Now, students write five meaningful sentences using the words. The sentences will include three words straight across in any row, straight down from any column, or from any diagonal.  As a set of three words is used, the student will cross it out. Students cannot repeat the same set of three words, but a word may be repeated if it’s part of another set. The Tic-Tac-Toe vocabulary assessment is a fantastic evaluation tool! You can get a copy of it here!

Here’s a student example:

tic tac toe graphic organizer example

If you’re looking for other helpful materials for teaching vocabulary within context, I suggest this leveled vocabulary series (Amazon link). I’ve used these books for years, mostly with ESL learners. There’s a book in the series for every grade and vocabulary level!

Variations I Do with the Rivet Reading Strategy

To focus on spelling skills a bit more (especially when teaching ESL or struggling learners), I sometimes alter the steps in Part 1. I only do this with words that have tricky spellings.

Students guess each letter, but they don’t “shout out” the word even if they know it. The focus is on spelling.

For example, let’s take the word “station”.   Most students can guess it quickly.  But even if they guess it, can they spell it? The -tion ending is tricky, so making an effort to focus on this spelling pattern is beneficial.

Students have a tendency to spell -tion with “sh”, so it’s a teachable moment to guide them through the correct spelling of “station”.


The Rivet reading strategy is a powerful instructional technique for pre-teaching vocabulary and increasing reading comprehension. I hope this post helped to prepare you in implementing this strategy in your own classroom.

Happy Vocabulary Learning!



rivet reading strategy


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