6 Quick Strategies to Build Vocabulary

Teaching students new words can be a brief and agreeable part of the school day—providing valuable exposure to vocabulary they need to know. 

June 10, 2022
Allison Shelley for the Alliance for Excellent Education

When several of Megan Kelly’s sixth-grade social studies students kept stumbling over vocabulary words she assumed they already knew, she discovered a blind spot in her teaching practice. “Why should they know these words if I’m not being intentional about teaching them?” Kelly asks in an article for MiddleWeb. Aware that regular exposure to rich, varied vocabulary would bolster her students’ long-term academic success, she set out to find smart strategies “to incorporate vocabulary into small pockets of time in class.”

Traditional vocabulary instruction can be a passive exercise, says literacy specialist Rebecca Alber, an instructor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education—but “copying definitions from a dictionary,” isn’t ultimately an effective strategy, Alber argues. Instead, students need “multiple and various exposures to a word before they fully understand that word and can apply it,” research shows, and in order to be truly memorable, vocabulary needs to be learned in context, she adds, not as “standalone lists that come and go each week.” Kids also need opportunities to revisit words they’ve learned throughout the year: “Keep an ongoing list displayed in the classroom of all the words you have ‘owned’ as a class,” Alber suggests. “Periodically revisit and challenge students to use them, for example, in a one-minute essay or a quick write.”

Meanwhile, given the constraints of time and curriculum sequencing, vocabulary instruction often gets short shrift, observes veteran teacher and education consultant Marilee Sprenger in another MiddleWeb post. But dedicating entire lesson blocks to vocabulary isn’t necessary because even “brief encounters with words”—Sprenger says 10 minutes or even as little as 2 minutes—can be surprisingly effective, as long as they’re woven into lessons regularly. “If we explicitly teach about 300 words per year to our students, it can make a big difference in their vocabularies,” Sprenger writes. “Some students will learn about 3,000 or 4,000 words per year due to the literacy that surrounds them, while others have limited access and will only learn 1,000. Imagine how much you will be helping those students who have limited outside access to greater vocabulary.”

Here are six quick, engaging classroom strategies—sourced from Kelly and Sprenger and from our Edutopia archives—for weaving  vocabulary into your curriculum without disrupting your regular classroom flow.

Sing or rhyme it: Ask students to create a short song or poem that includes a chosen vocabulary word and its definition, suggests Sprenger. Students can work in pairs to develop the song or rhyme. “A jingle for the word clarify might be: ‘clarify and shed some light, explain with details and say it right,’ or ‘clarify to avoid confusion, explain clearly for the right conclusion,’” Sprenger writes. Later, as kids transition to another activity, or line up, or get out of their seats to get new materials, ask them to sing or recite their jingle.

Let students choose their own words: “One of the biggest mistakes we teachers make in vocabulary instruction is selecting all the words for the students and not giving them a say in the matter,” says Alber. Ask students to skim the first chapter or passage of a text you’re reading together, for example, and select their own words, marking them as “know it,” “sort of know it,” or “don’t know it at all.” Then, before looking up the actual definition, ask them to propose a definition for the words they know and kind of know, and use this data as a gauge to guide your vocabulary work.

Pick three: Choose three words to focus on that day, and post the words and their definitions prominently in class. “Ask students to set a goal with a partner for how many times they will use the words. Then, really ham it up with the word usage,” says Kelly. As her students played a board game about creating a civilization, for example, Kelly used the day’s words—thrive, surplus, and impact—as often as possible while giving directions, and then “made a big deal whenever I heard a student say one of our goal words,” which in turn encouraged students to find ways to incorporate the words as much as possible as they played the board game.

Act it out: In small groups or pairs, have students briefly act out one of the week’s vocabulary words, says Sprenger. Research shows that the body often remembers what the mind forgets: When researchers asked 8-year-olds to mimic the words they were learning in another language by using their hands and bodies to act out the word’s meaning—spreading their arms and pretending to fly while they learned the German word for airplane, for example—the students were 73 percent more likely to recall them, even two months later.

Think of what it’s not: Learning new words doesn’t need to feel like work, says Rebecca Givens Rolland, an oral and written language specialist at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In fact, “students can be more engaged when they’re allowed and encouraged to play with language,” which can deepen their understanding of new words, she writes.

One playful strategy is to challenge students to “Ask not just, ‘What does this word look or function like?’ but also, ‘What does it not look or function like?’,” says Givens Rolland. So when students are defining an acute angle, they might say “it looks sharp, but “it does not look curvy, or wavy, or square.”  For every word your class discusses, be sure that students are specific about the difference between the original word and the things it is not. “This process of description will help build their vocabularies and strengthen their abilities to make connections between one topic and the next,” she explains.

Draw it: For a novel take on drawing to remember, provide each student with a whiteboard and marker and then “ask students to balance the whiteboard on their head and then draw the vocabulary word in a set amount of time (40-50 seconds keeps the game moving),” Kelly suggests. “Once finished, they should explain their drawing to a partner.” Or, for a less giggle-inducing approach, have students draw the vocabulary words quickly—on paper on their desks—and explain their drawing to a partner. A 2018 study revealed that, even for fledgling or indifferent artists, drawing what they learned doubled retention rates, when compared to kids who wrote or read the same material. 

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