Do you struggle with strategies for teaching vocabulary in your middle school or high school classroom? Vocabulary instruction is important. It’s something that comes organically through reading a diverse range of texts; however, students can also benefit from a direct focus on building their vocabulary.
This is something that doesn’t have to take a lot of time, and it’s something that I’ve noticed is easy to ignore as I focus on the “big-gun” reading and writing skills.
Don’t treat vocabulary like that “healthy” food that you’ve forgotten about in the back of your refrigerator. I see you, cauliflower.
Strategy of Teaching Vocabulary
If you don’t have a specific set of words in mind, you can play word games like puns of anarchy or Free Rice. You can also have students create their own lists of words they want to learn and/or remember.
With a focus on vocabulary, it’s important to expose students to words more than one time.
Students learn best with repeated exposure. The more students can connect vocabulary words to each other and to their prior knowledge, the more we get away from memorizing words randomly and move toward deeper learning through connections.
Adding to this, deepen student learning by teaching beyond just the definition of a word. Try bringing in synonyms as well as antonyms, using examples and non-examples. You can also have students explore the word roots to deeply understand the significance and meaning of the words.
Maybe you have a specific set of words for students to know. If you’re reading a text, frontload the vocabulary words before reading and have students find the words in the text as they are reading. When they find the words, have them explain how the sentence/context from the text demonstrates the definition of that word.
Teaching Vocabulary Activities
Vocabulary instruction does not have to be a yawn-fest! In fact, it can be fun!
Focus on active learning, using different modalities in your instruction and activities.
- Play a game of charades. Divide students into teams. Give each team a word to “act out” in front of the class. Have the class guess the correct word. For an added twist, have students act out the opposite of a word.
- Project picture that shows a vivid setting or human interaction. Have students “tell the story” of the picture using as many vocabulary words as possible in a given time frame.
- Create a multimedia quiz for students to participate in. Kahoot, Quizziz, GimKit are tried and true sites to rely upon.
- Have students create advertisements selling the word to the class.
Have students create a Kahoot or Quizziz game for the class to play.
Active Learning Strategy for Teaching Vocabulary
An active learning strategy that deserves its own special section is word sorting and categorization.
Use the list-group-label strategy for students to understand relationships between different vocabulary words. Give students 4-6 different categories or themes (or have students determine these “big ideas” for themselves) and have students determine which words fall into each category.
You can also give students a word bank and have them determine word pairs that are opposite/similar.
After this sorting process, have students then write explanatory or descriptive sentences demonstrating clear understanding of both words and their relationship to each other and/or to the theme they have selected.
One of the very first vocabulary activities I tried as a new teacher was to give students comic strips and have them create the dialogue/narration using their vocabulary words.
This was waaaay back in the days when everyone had physical newspapers with that beloved comics section, and I would white-out the text and copy for the students.
Students loved this activity and were always really engaged! And, though we’ve moved past the good old days, this strategy still works!
Any set of words can be used for this activity. The goal is for students to demonstrate mastery of vocabulary by creating the dialogue / narration for each comic page and adapting the words to fit into the created sentences.
Make sure to have students underline each word as it will be easier for you to find when assessing their work.
Also, I suggest modeling for the students what types of sentences effectively and clearly demonstrate understanding of the word through context.
A modernized twist on this activity is to have students create dialogue/narration for memes, take/stage pictures to represent a vocabulary word, create a Goosechase activity to have students find items that can represent the meaning of different words, create TikToks to illustrate one or more words, or to create their own digital comic strips.
I hope that this post has helped you to think about ways to focus on vocabulary in ways that are beneficial for students and not just going through the motions.
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