Vocabulary Instruction: It Really Does Matter

vocab 2As teachers, we all know the importance of helping students develop strong vocabularies. This is true no matter if we are teaching first and second graders or seniors in high school. It is also true across disciplines. In fact, the research shows that there is a strong correlation between increased student vocabulary and greater reading comprehension, as well as greater overall academic success.[1] Teacher modeling of robust vocabulary usage is one of the easiest and most effective strategies to implement. It is also vitally important that students be provided with opportunities to use new words—both orally and in writing. Here are some ideas for practically implementing explicit vocabulary instruction into your classrooms.

  1. Involve students in decoding new vocabulary: When students encounter new vocabulary words, have them use strategies such as interpreting context clues or accessing knowledge of root words, prefixes, & suffixes to help them decipher the word’s meaning. Then encourage students to create a definition of the term using their own words.[2] This acts as a formative assessment for you, as well as enhancing recall for the students.
  1. raised handsEmploy strategic questioning techniques: When reviewing new vocabulary with your class, involve multiple students by asking follow up questions to student generated answers (for example, “Susy defined hypothesis as …, Grace, do you agree with this? Why/why not?”). In addition to involving more students in vocabulary instruction, this technique can help build students’ confidence in their knowledge and ability to decode words. (For more about strategic questioning, check out Christy Ware’s article here.)
  1. Teach vocabulary words through a variety of learning activities: The more ways a student interacts with a given word, the better her chances are of learning its meaning and being able to recall it in appropriate situations. Students of all levels benefit from exercises such as creating illustrations of the vocabulary word, acting out the word, creating songs, raps, or jingles with the word, etc.[3] Here are some of my favorites:
  • IMG_1132 wrath aVocabulary Pictionary:  Divide students into teams to play a quick round of this popular game. I usually rotate “draw-ers” from each team, but allow all teams to guess each round.  The team who correctly identifies the term first is awarded a point. (Depending on the level of your class, you may need to introduce rules about what constitutes acceptable drawings—ie: an iron on an ironing board is not a good drawing for irony.)
  • Vocabulary Charades:  Played the same way as vocab. pictionary, only the students must act out the term (without using sounds).  Both activities require students to think critically about the meaning of each vocabulary term illustrated.
  • Vocabulary Tableaux (or Vocabulary Statuary):  Divide students into groups of 2-3 people.  Assign each group a vocabulary term.  Using only their bodies, have students create a statue that illustrates the meaning of the vocabulary word.  At the end of the activity (usually no more than 3-5 minutes), students will have created a statue garden of vocabulary words.  Have one representative from each group explain the statue to the rest of the class.  (For a game variation, students can tour the garden and generate guesses as to which term is being illustrated by each group.)
  • Silly Vocabulary Stories:  This can be played as a whole class or in smaller groups.  Each student begins a story by writing a sentence using a teacher-provided vocabulary word.  Papers are then passed to the right and the students continue the story on the paper they received by writing a sentence using the next-teacher provided word.  This process continues until all the words have been used.  Students can then read their “silly stories” aloud.

If you have favorite instructional games or activities for vocabulary acquisition, we’d love to have you share them.   Feel free to add a comment below!

Becky Hunsberger
Teacher Education Services

[1] Multiple studies from researchers such as Robert Marzano, Douglas Fisher, & Nancy Frey have all shown high correlation between vocabulary acquisition and scholastic achievement.

[2] Students are more likely to remember definitions when using their own language, (Springer, 2005).

[3] Marilee Springer, in Vocab. Rehab.: How do I Teach Vocabulary Effectively with Limited Time? (ASCD, 2014) offers suggestions for over a dozen different games and classroom activities for explicit vocabulary instruction that take 10 minutes or less.

Photo Credits:  Vocabulary Ransom  jimmiehomeschoolmom via Compfight cc; Raised Hands World Bank Photo Collection via Compfight cc; Drawing B. Naylor, 2014.

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