Vocabulary-Building Activities for Young Students

Early elementary teachers can use these fun activities to help make vocabulary lessons accessible for all of their students.

June 6, 2024
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Vocabulary building supports the development of background knowledge, which is a crucial skill in comprehension. When I talk about vocabulary, I don’t mean simply giving the definition of a tricky word we might come across in a story. Rather, there is an intentionality and process behind my teaching of vocabulary. Here is how I make vocabulary lessons accessible to all kids in my class.

Introducing New Vocabulary Words

I like to introduce new words by having students hear them orally first. Sometimes I use Sesame Street: Word on the Street videos. These videos are so fun! Catchy songs, children, celebrities, and your favorite Sesame Street characters show, don’t just tell, what different words mean. For example, in the video for the word courteous, characters act out “giving up your chair” and “opening a door for someone.” In addition, some of the videos show what the word is not, which is also important. In the same video, Grover mixes up curtsy for courteous.

To further explore the meaning of the word, I write the word on the board and ask these questions:

1. What do you notice/wonder?

2. Have you heard this word before? If yes, where?

3. What does the word mean? How do you know? (This is to get them to look at the makeup of the word, any prefixes or suffixes, etc.) 

4. I then use the word in a sentence orally to assist with the meaning—for example, “Ms. Jones was very courteous when she held the door for the entire second-grade class.”

After the words are set up in this way, these activities help students develop a deeper understanding of the words.

Engaging vocabulary activities accessible to all kids

Interactive/Virtual Word WalI: This activity combines language (via audio) with visuals and can be easily displayed for the whole class on the smart board or individually in Google Classroom. Each picture has a corresponding explanation or definition that I prerecord. This gives students independent access to hearing how the word is pronounced and what the word means. I have also had students record the explanations in their first language for their peers. 

Vocabulary Journals: Each student has a journal where words are written and illustrated. Journals can be a stack of stapled paper (much more affordable) or a purchased journal. I am a big believer in the power of handwriting, so the paper needs to have spaces/lines that supported correct letter formation.

We clap out the word, spell it, and talk about the part of speech. Students write the word in their journal and illustrate it. This is also a good time to squeeze in explicit instruction in morphology (the study of words), by looking at the letters, highlighting suffixes or prefixes, and discussing the origin of the word. This activity could easily be differentiated as needed. For example, have the full definition prewritten on paper that can be pasted in the journal. Although a somewhat simple activity, it is a powerful and effective one, nonetheless.  

Illustration/Sentence: This activity is another way to incorporate both handwriting and vocabulary because it is completed on appropriately lined paper. Once I explicitly introduce the word by reviewing the spelling and definition, and by modeling how to use the word in a sentence, students have the opportunity to create their own sentence and illustration. This activity could also be scaffolded by providing a prewritten sentence frame, where students could fill in the blank. For an extension, students could be asked to expand on their sentences by writing complex sentences and/or writing multiple sentences.   

Which One Doesn’t Belong?: Give students a group of words, and have them decide which one doesn’t belong and why. Sesame Street also has videos of this activity. They are simple and use objects, not words, but I found that it was a good way to model for my kids what “Which one doesn’t belong?” means. This is such a great way to promote oral language. I have seen this activity push kids to reason and explain their choices to one another. Differentiate this activity by adding pictures to the words if needed, as well as limiting the number of words in each group.  

Guess My Word: This activity works best for words that have already been introduced so that they are familiar. This is especially true if a picture is not included with the word, because for our beginner readers, these words are not decodable (remember they are our Tier 2 and 3 words). Give students a stack of index cards with a vocabulary word written on each one. Cards are face down. Students take turns selecting a card. They explain to the group what the word is by giving clues as to what the word means. For example, a clue for the word courteous might be “holding the door for someone.” This is a great way to build oral language among peers, while building vocabulary. This activity could be differentiated by adding a picture to the word card.  

Fill-in Passages/Matching: This activity includes word cards and a passage from a text we read in class. The students are given a list of vocabulary words. They write one word on each card (all cards can be laminated to make it easier to wipe off). Next they place the card where it belongs in the passage or next to the definition. This activity could be differentiated by having the words prewritten and/or by limiting the number of sentences for them to complete.

Word Origin Dictionary: I cannot say enough about the book Once Upon a Word! This is such an engaging way for students to learn about word origins, etymology, and definitions. I make it a game by having a student pull a random letter tile from a bag of mixed letters. Then they flip to that section of the book to choose a word to learn all about. For fun, I supply whiteboards and markers for them. If there is time, they can transfer their writing to paper.  

Vocabulary-building Outcomes

To my surprise, implementing these simple activities for building vocabulary has yielded impressive results. It has broadened their background knowledge: Students discuss the topics they are learning about. They use vocabulary words outside of the classroom. I also have seen an improvement in writing ability. They write more because they have knowledge about the topics they were being asked to write about. Learning sticks because it is meaningful!

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  • English Language Arts
  • K-2 Primary

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