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Word Up: The Must Dos of Vocabulary Instruction

Rebecca Alber

Edutopia Consulting Editor
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A while ago, I wrote a post called Doing It Differently: Tips for Teaching Vocabulary which spells out (get it?) the process and rationale for selecting certain vocabulary words and also describes six steps for teaching new words.

Here, I'm going to add to that earlier musing on this topic by offering up some must dos that took me a few years down the teaching road to figure out.

Must Do #1: Be Very Selective 

As for vocabulary lists, less is better. Long lists of words just don't stick. We have to ask ourselves as teachers: Are we killing class time by having students labor through defining and writing sentences for a big heap of words or do we really, really want them to use these words out in the world? If the answer is the latter, then each week, be very, very selective. I usually had about seven words per two-week unit that I really wanted my students to own. That doesn't mean they won't be exposed to many other new, or semi-familiar, words -- words that will be given attention as they read and write. It just means that during your unit, the spotlight will be on a very select group.

When you choose, choose high frequency words. These are words students can often use in all subject areas, and words your students are more apt to experiment with out in the world or in another learning setting. (See the post I mentioned earlier which describes Isabel Beck's three tiers of vocabulary words; high frequency words are tier two words.)

And once those big-bang-for-your-buck words are chosen, you will want to really own those as a whole class -- including you, the teacher. Let's talk about that . . .

Must Do #2 Use the Words Every Day

Pull those words out of isolation in that novel or textbook and use them every day and every way you can. Include them when speaking with students, for example, "Wow, our glue sticks are becoming scarce. I better order more!"

And challenge students to take those words out of the room. Assign a Word Challenge each week: "Okay, class, we will all go out into the world and use the word scarce this week. Be ready to report how and where you used it." And, sure, keep having those weekly vocabulary quizzes, and in addition, solidify those words even more by including them in the directions you write for daily tasks and assignments.

Must Do #3: Prominently Display the Words  

Create a word wall that uses images, examples, analogies, and connections to their own worlds. Challenge students to the task of creating photos of themselves that put the words into action, for example, one student may show that her Halloween candy bag is nearly empty. In the photo, she has a sad, sad face as she points to the two or three candies left. The photo (or drawing) is displayed next to the word, you guessed it, scarce. Another student has written next to the word on a sticky note, "the opposite of abundant," while someone else has placed lyrics from a popular song where the word scarce appears.

Must Do #4 Revisit Past Words

Keep an ongoing list displayed in the classroom of all the words you have "owned" as a class. Periodically revisit and challenge students to use them, for example, in a one-minute essay or a quick write. Also, when writing those instructions for current tasks and assignments, use words from the past as well.

Must Do #5 Assess Application

Buy-in from students during those daily vocabulary activities will be greater if students know they will be held accountable for using the words in their big project, paper, or presentation at the end of the unit. So when assigning a summative assessment, whether it be, for example, a processed essay or a presentation using Prezi, include in the grading criteria or rubric that students must use words they have studied and owned as a class (present and past vocabulary). How many? You decide. But remember, less is better. 

Teachers, when it comes to vocabulary learning and teaching, what are your must dos? Please share in the comments section below.

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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


Words are powerful things. They're sometimes like bullets on a page of paper. Without words, all we'd do, I guess, is draw, wave our arms around, spit, and grunt.

In first period language arts class today, we read, going around, one at a time, the new fifteen words at the beginning of lesson 4. Punctilious landed on Lucy. She asked...Is that OCD?

I was struck silent for a moment. Struck impressed. She's so sneaky smart. Lucy has obsessive compulsive disorder. I said, Not really. God. Sort of. Read the definition.

Lucy said...Careful of and attentive to details, especially ones relating to good manners and behavior. Punctilious.

In class, sitting at her desk, when Lucy speaks to you in her always-quiet voice, she puts her right elbow on the desk and then presses the four fingers together. Then she moves her thumb underneath her fingers and it all looks like a duck beak. Lucy doesn't move the fingers like a beak when she talks, but she told me one time after I asked her why she does that...It helps me communicate better.

Lucy also constantly picks at the skin on her arms and pulls out her arm hair and picks at the skin on her ankles and picks the hairs off of her ankles, too. All the teachers let her do it for a while and then ask her to stop. She stops without complaining, but then she starts up again when you're looking the other way. She pays attention while she picks, but sometime you can catch her lost in that world and she can't find where the going-around-the-class reading had ended with Brainerd or Fabio.

Miss Velvet, her homeroom teacher and advisor by default, says Lucy's mother is oblivious to her daughter's disorders. That's hard to believe, but it could be true. As a teacher you get to know the parents real well, too, by default.

Lucy had come to class today with the hairs of her right arm shaved off. Her left arm still had hairs. No one other than Lucy's mother would have shaved the arm. I'm pretty sure. Maybe Lucy's mother is oblivious to everything else that puts her in this school.

Now we're quietly working on our own in the vocabulary workbook, except Lucy. She's hunkered down over her left arm. I don't say anything. I get up and walk around and look out a window and actually whistle a little bit and then sneak up behind Lucy to discover that in the duck beak she had hidden a pair of tweezers.


TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


While I was busy teaching fifteen really good vocabulary words...allure, antiquity, appraise, cleave, depreciate, facet, facsimile, impervious, nondescript, quandary, repose, scintillate, scrutinize, synthetic, and transmute...Miss Kentucky knocked on my door and motioned for me to come out into the hall.

When another teacher knocks on the door and motions for you to come out into the hall, right in the middle of class, and if she's got a weird grin on her face, you know it's going to be good.

Miss Kentucky was teaching Spanish to a bunch of high school guys in the next classroom. She asked me to step in there and take a good whiff.

I stepped in there and took a good whiff. In just one good whiff I smelled butts, armpits, greasy hair, and school uniforms that had not been recently washed. A cornucopia, in other words. I came back out, and without saying a word, held my hands over my mouth and nose to indicate that I felt her pain.

Miss Kentucky said in her Kentucky accent...That's so wrong on so many lev-ulls. Then Miss Kentucky asked me to go in there and deliver a quick and forceful hygiene lecture from a real man's perspective. She said they don't listen to her at all.

When another teacher asks you to deliver a quick and forceful lecture to their class it makes you feel like a guest speaker being paid a large speaking fee and you're filled with enormous professional pride. I stepped in there. One of the farters, Irving, moaned real loud...Oh, God.

I noted how badly the room smelled, and how it was tough for the awesome magic of education to take place when you subtlety try to kill your Spanish teacher with your body odors.

None of them disagreed. They actually seemed proud that I noticed their strategy. They were maybe even a little smug. At least they got Miss Kentucky to leave the room. I'll have to give them that.

I asked them do they frequently, like every day, scrub with soap and warm water...their exhaust systems?

Most of them said they did.

I asked them were they not embarrassed with their gleeful farting?

Nope. One of them said he thought Miss Kentucky likes it because she laughs so hard when we do it.

In the hallway, I heard Miss Kentucky giggle.

I asked them did they know that after several days...that if you don't shampoo your hair for several days...that it starts to stink? Your greasy hair?

To a man they said they did not know that.

I asked them to shampoo their hair tonight.

To a man they said they probably wouldn't.

I gave them a long, hard, man-to-man, hygienic look. I said...Listen up! Wash your butts and your hair and stop farting in class so much. And then I walked out while they applauded.

Miss Kentucky taught the last minutes of class from out in the hall. She wouldn't go back in there. I finally had to shut my door. Not because of the smell. To lock someone in. Lamar wanted to change classes so he could go fart with the rest of them.

olumo2014's picture

I am always looking for new ways to enhance my students vocabulary. This is a great article to get me thinking about the must dos when teaching vocabulary this month.

Marjam's picture

As a teacher for many years, I agree with your suggestions. My concern is with English Language Learners. Students who do not understand English won't comprehend the content of core subjects. I recommend WizdomInc's Bilingual Content Dictionaries and Glossaries. If students can look up terms, concepts, or vocabulary in each subject, they will have equal access to the curriculum. This will give them a chance to go on in their education. I use these dictionaries. The glossaries can be an accommodation for students to take into tests.

Farah Najam's picture
Farah Najam
Teacher Trainer and write on education

Before doing an activity, teaching content, or reading a story in class, pre-teaching vocabulary is always helpful. This gives them the chance to identify words and then be able to place them in context and remember them. You can pre-teach vocabulary by using such methods as: Role playing, using gestures, pointing to pictures, doing quick drawings on the board. To ensure mastery of more complex words and concepts, I pre-select a word from an upcoming text or conversation. Explain the meaning with student-friendly definitions. Provide examples of how it is used. Ask students to repeat the word three times.

Alexandra Walker's picture

I have recently started doing this though one word at a time because my students are completely unmotivated. I write the word at the top of the whiteboard and deflect all questions about it until I'm sure they've all noticed it and become curious and it can lead to discussion. I started with 'defenestration' which worked well in a classroom 3 floors up.

Cheks's picture

Nice article. My Child has participated in a vocabulary bee contest in last year and I was searching for some apps that are relevant to this but couldn't find none. So I ended up creating one myself, Please check this app on itunes at

Bea Talcott's picture

I think site words are very helpful for some students I wish we had them when I was in school you just had to learn it or else never said they were site words always tried
to sound out the word didn't work for me.

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