Teaching vocabulary can be a real challenge. Looking for some extra help? Here are vocabulary teaching strategies that with help you and your students in your word study.
Why is vocabulary important?
We know that vocabulary instruction is important.
When our students can understand, decode, and determine the meaning of new words, their reading comprehension improves.
We want our students to engage with new words, learn them, and use them!
Where do the words come from?
First, you need to select the words you want your students to learn.
You may be required to teach specific words from a list or use vocabulary book.
In addition to that, you may want students to study words that they encounter in your content area or in their independent reading.
Remember that students aren’t just learning new vocabulary in your class. They will be learning content vocabulary in science, social studies, math class, and others. So, work with your team as you develop a grade-level vocabulary list and strategies for teaching (and using) those new words.
Rather than using a random list, if you have the flexibility to choose your own words, draw from the texts your students are reading and analyzing. You can ask your students to add interesting words from their own reading.
How many words should I teach?
The temptation is to “get through the vocabulary book” or “get through the list provided.” And, if that is required, then you will probably need to create a schedule.
If you have some leeway, create your own vocabulary list that makes sense for what you are teaching and what you want your students to learn.
By keeping a smaller list, you can easily go back to review words.
How do I teach the words?
Use this “gradual release” process when teaching vocabulary:
- Show students the word, explain it, pronounce it. You may want them to turn and talk – just to repeat the word to a classmate if the pronunciation is tricky. This can sometimes be more effective than having students repeat the word as a class after you (middle school students don’t often appreciate that!).
- Look at the word construction. Is there a root or affix that students can use to help unpack the word’s meaning?
- What can you do to show the word in action? Can you use an image? photo? sentence example? Use this first introduction to help students make a connection with the word.
- Have students work with the word. You can provide an activity for them to complete as a class, with a partner or independently.
- Come back to the word with a review or daily “quick look” to keep the word fresh in students’ minds.
- Use games and other activities to review — don’t teach & forget it. Check the tips below.
Tips to make vocabulary “stick”
Here are some teaching strategies that will help you make the most out of vocabulary instruction:
- Keep your students reading! Your students will encounter a wide variety of words just through reading. Provide students with a reading challenge to encourage them to pursue independent reading. We know that this alone will expose students to more new vocabulary.
- Keep it fresh. Don’t do the same thing week in and week out. Both you and your students will get bored! Switch up your teaching strategies to keep it interesting!
- As you add words you want your students to know, don’t forget to review. Continually bring back words they’ve already studied. Use past assessments to gather words students have difficulty with.
- Help all learners. Use a variety of practice activities. Not all students will respond to “write a short story using three vocabulary words in context.” I like to think about Gardner’s multiple intelligences. By offering multiple ways to practice, you can reach all learners.
- Set realistic expectations. Can your students learn 100 words in a school year? You may want to choose the “must know” words (or even Latin or Greek roots) that you want your students to know inside and out.
- Use Tiers. Sort the words into three tiers. Tier 1 includes basic words that don’t need instruction, Tier 2 includes high frequency words that are used to talk about more complex issues and through several contexts. Tier 3 includes very specific, low frequency content vocabulary. You can focus your instruction on the Tier 2 words — those that students need and will encounter across multiple texts.
- Work at a realistic pace. Can your students learn 20 new words a week? Remember that just because you get through the entire book or word list doesn’t necessarily mean your students will have retained anything.
- Visit vocabulary regularly. This may be the hardest tip to follow! We often put vocabulary instruction on the back burner. Short regular vocabulary reviews are better than a big cram session.
- Keep/create a stack of vocabulary words you’re working on. As you introduce new words, add a card. Use index cards and just write the word on the front in big letters. You’ll be amazed by how often you can pick them up, grab a card, and have a quick review or game with your students.
- Consider using a word wall. These don’t have to be just for lower grades. But, instead of sorting words by letter, consider sorting them by word families, roots, or tier 1 meanings. Again, though, use the words — point them out, use them, review them.
Fun vocabulary activities
Keep a list of vocabulary activities your students respond to.
- create a visual dictionary definition of the word
- use a word map
- personify the word with a picture & story
- write original sentences
- incorporate new words in creative writing
- play games using a dry erase lapboard
- use a wheel of words!
Keep adding to that list. You’ll find that some classes love one activity and another class responds to something different. That’s to be expected.
I had a class of eight graders that loved playing “Cherry Pie”; you just never know what is going to connect with your students!
Keep instruction tight
Of course, you need to introduce the words, look at them (roots, affixes, families, etc.), and pronunciation.
But, returning to vocabulary and using words in a variety of ways will be more effective than hours of vocabulary instruction.
By taking a little bit of time each day to review a few words, you’ll be bringing your students’ awareness back — and improving their understanding, retention, and ultimate use of those new words.
You can find 30 different vocabulary activities in this resource: