Tips for Improving Vocabulary Instruction in Middle School

These strategies go beyond flash cards to help students learn new terms and apply them in novel contexts.

November 30, 2023
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Middle school students have a wide range of vocabulary knowledge. Many have developed a depth of knowledge from reading, verbal communication, and previous educational experiences, but some students lack the vocabulary skills needed to understand grade-level content.

All students benefit from additional vocabulary instruction. The ability to effectively use and understand words increases written and verbal communication skills, reading comprehension, and critical thinking. Flash cards are often the go-to strategy for helping students learn new words, and while flash cards can help with memorization, students benefit from opportunities to engage with the words that encourage making connections, application, and creation.

After incorporating a few of these activities into a regular vocabulary rotation, I’ve found that students not only memorize the words but are able to incorporate them more confidently into their writing and conversations and apply them to content. While I’ve used these strategies in English class, many of them would work in other content areas as well.

Strategies for Teaching New Vocabulary

Make it visual: Students create a visual that represents each word. Encourage students to create something that has a meaning for them and that will not only help them remember the word but also help make a connection to it.

I often create handouts divided into eight boxes, one word at the top of each box, and then the students draw their pictures in the boxes. 

Guess a word: Students are assigned a word and then create a Google Slide that includes  words, phrases, and images that relate to their assigned word. Once all the slides are added to one slide show, students try to guess the words based on the clues created by their peers.

While they can do this as a whole class, more students would be able to participate and practice if they played in small groups. Instruct students not to put direct definitions on the slides but instead to focus on connections to the word and creative ways they can represent it for their peers.

Teach a word: Students are each assigned one word to create a Google Slide that includes the word, the definition, synonyms, antonyms, a visual representation, the word origin, the part of speech, the word used in a sentence, and anything else they think would be helpful for their peers to learn the word. Then each student gives a short presentation to the class to teach them about the word.

At the conclusion of the activity, all students upload their slides into one shared document so that all students can reference them later. 

Sentences with context clues: Write each word in a sentence using context clues that would help a reader who is unfamiliar with the word to understand the meaning.

Students must use one of the following types of context clues in each of their sentences: definition, inference, example, synonym, or antonym. 

Free write: Students write about a topic of their choosing and try to include as many vocabulary words as possible in their writing. Encourage students to start with the words they’ve already learned and then refer to notes to include words they’re still learning.

Connection map: Students begin by writing one of the vocabulary words on a large piece of white paper. Then they choose another word that they can connect to the first word and draw a line between the words. On the line they write or draw how the words are connected.

They continue with this exercise adding additional words and connecting them to any other word already on the paper until they’ve used all of their words.

Shared silly stories: Seat students in a circle and give them a list of all their vocabulary words stapled to a piece of paper. The first person starts writing a story and must include one vocabulary word  in their sentence and then marks out the vocabulary word from the list. Then the students all pass their papers to the person on the right.

The next person reads the sentence, then continues the story with their own sentence that uses a vocabulary word of their choice, and marks out the word. This continues until all the stories have used all the words.

Enlist help from other teachers: Share vocabulary words that you’re using in your content with other grade-level teachers who teach your students, and ask them if they can use the words in conversation with students and/or in class as applicable.

If they’re willing, give them a few words to use within a week, and tell your students to listen for their vocabulary words in other classes and see who hears them first. Students will remember the words when they feel out of context, and they might just listen better in all their classes trying to hear the words.

Concept map: For challenging words, have students create a concept map for the word to help them to consider everything they know about the word and how it can be used. This can include definition, synonyms, antonyms, visual representations, word origin, part of speech, the word used in a sentence, things the word is not, and anything else they think would be helpful for their peers to learn the word.

Charades: Students play a class game of charades to guess each word.

Vocabulary improv: Put students into groups and give each group a container filled with the words written on small pieces of paper or note cards. Students take turns pulling out words and incorporating them into an improv skit or conversation within their group.

Is and is not: For each word, students complete a fill-in-the-blank that gives the word and then fill in what the word is and is not, but they can’t use definitions, synonyms, or antonyms for the blanks. Instead of simply using words that can be googled or found in a dictionary, they must come up with creative concepts and ideas that describe what the word is and is not. 

These vocabulary practices are engaging for students and help them begin to own the words as part of their vocabulary. The more they think critically and creatively about the words, write them in context, and use the words with peers, the deeper their understanding of the words. This helps push them beyond simply memorizing a definition and into understanding the word and how it can express their ideas.

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  • Literacy
  • Teaching Strategies
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School

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