Vocabulary Strategies

Engaging and effective vocabulary strategies

Mary Comingore-LIST 5373


Vocabulary strategies are extremely important to building strong literacy skills. Often times students get bogged down in reading because they are confused by the words they don’t understand. This, in turn, overwhelms the students and their understanding and comprehension of texts begin to break down. Without an extensive knowledge of vocabulary, students will not or cannot comprehend what they are reading. This is especially important for ELL learners who are not only in the process of building strong literacy skills, but are also dealing with a language barrier that makes building these skills that much more difficult. The average ELL student and students from low economic backgrounds face a large deficit vocabulary in the elementary grades and unfortunately previous vocabulary instruction has struggled to close this gap, (Manyak, 2014).

Evidence shows that the average high school student needs to know at least 40,000 words-that means that students need to learn about six new words per day beginning in elementary. (Manyak, 2014). This shows the importance and necessity of strong vocabulary instruction. Teachers are in need of strategies to use when teaching vocabulary that are easy to implement, with little preparation, and engaging. As educators we tend to fall back on the method of giving students words and having them copy down definitions. This has proven to be ineffective at helping students to internalize words. (Heitlin, 2015) The strategies that are being presented will help teachers plan instruction to most effectively teach vocabulary.

Top 10 Strategies

Strategy #1-Tiered Vocabulary

One strategy for teaching vocabulary is recognizing that there are three tiers of vocabulary and using this information to inform instruction. Categorizing words and focusing on specific tiers can maximize your instruction. Teachers should focus on tier 2 which give the students “more bang for their buck.” Teachers can also color code the tiers and have students categorize these tiers in vocabulary journals.

Tier 1-Everyday speech. These words are not a problem for native English speakers and are therefore not practiced or studied in classrooms. (Heitlin, 2015) These include words such as "happy," "walk," and "play." Most instruction would not focus on the words with the exception of English Language Learners.

Tier 2- General Academic Words-these words appear in multiple subjects and genres. (Heitline, 2015) Teachers need to explicitly teach these words as they are the most beneficial words for English Language Learners. These include words such as "apply," "verify," and "analyze."

Tier 3-Subject Specific Words-these words would mostly appear in a certain subject area. These types of words would be explicitly taught. For example, the math term “radius” or the science term “lava.” (Heitlin, 2015)

Strategy #2-Procedural Introduction of Words

According to the academic article “Four Practical Principles for Enhancing Vocabulary Instruction,” in order for teachers to introduce a large number of vocabulary words, they must develop a routine that streamlines the instruction. The following is a strategy adapted from MCVIP project in which they introduced key vocabulary terms using the following routine. (Manyak, 2014)

1. Present the word in context (focus on using the word within a sentence and the students can practice using context clues)

2. Give a student friendly definition

3. Give several examples of the word (various forms of the word, part of speech, etc.)

4. Prompt students to give examples

5. Use a visual (provide a pictorial representation of the word)

6. Interactive Activity (this is a formative assessment to check for understanding.)

Strategy #3-Word Walls

Most teachers understand the importance of word walls in their classrooms-many districts require that teacher’s post and update their classroom word walls. However, many teachers post these words walls and then do not know how to incorporate these word walls into their classroom activities.

Organizing your Word Wall

Refer to the first strategy of “Tiered Vocabulary” and organize your word wall accordingly. Place words in the appropriate tiered column and assigning each tier a color is beneficial for students to distinguish the difference between the words. (Manyak, 2014)

Strategy #4-Word Wall Activities

Connect two- Students choose two words from two different columns from the word wall and explain the connection between the words. A variation of this would be for students to choose two words that opposites/antonyms and explain. (Manyak, 2014)

Two in One- Students write a sentence using two or more words from the word wall. Students should use the correct tense of the word and the sentence should use the words correctly. (Manyak, 2014)

Text Connect- Students use a word from the wall to connect to a text they’ve read in class. For example, they could use a word from the word wall to describe a character or explain a plot point. (Manyak, 2014)

Precis Writing- Students must explain a word from the word wall, but must stick to a word limit imposed by the teacher. (Manyak, 2014)

Strategy #5-Morphemes

In this strategy, adapted from "Interactive Frames for Vocabulary Growth and Word Consciousness," the teacher takes a word and breaks it into morphemes. Each morpheme is defined and then more words are created from those morphemes. A graphic organizer is used and depending on the number of morphemes depends on the shape of the graphic organizer. For example, a word with three morphemes would use a triangle graphic organizer. (Winters, 2009)

Vocabulary Games

Vocabulary games are a fun and engaging way for students to reinforce their knowledge of the new words they have learned. These games are also a break for students from normal routines which can sometimes be tedious and monotonous. (Ekiaka, 2014) Students should be encouraged to play these games after explicit instruction of vocabulary words.

Strategy #6-Matching Card Sort

Students create three color coded cards for new vocabulary words-word, definition, picture. For example, blue cards are the vocabulary words, yellow cards are the definitions, and white cards are the pictorial representation of the word. Once students have created their card sets, they can exchange card sets and sort and match the words. Students can also use these cards as flashcards.

Strategy #7-Fact or Fib War

Teacher presents a fact about the word (definition, synonym, antonym, etc.) Students have fact or fib card. Teacher yells “1, 2, 3, Showdown!” Students slap down the appropriate card (fact or fib) and the first one to slap the correct card down gets a point. Teacher clarifies any confusion and students explain their choices.

Strategy #8-One of these things is not like the other

This game is similar to the Sesame Street clip in which the audience is shown four images and must decide which one does not go with the other pictures. The teacher provides four synonyms, antonyms, pictures, etc of a vocabulary word. Students select the one that does not fit and explains how this word does not go along with the others. Students should be encouraged to explain why the word or object does not fit with the others in the group.

Strategy #9-Dice Vocab Review

Students are organized in groups and given one die (from a set of dice) . The number they roll corresponds to an activity.

1-state the definition

2-state a synonym

3-state an antonym

4-create a sentence using the word

5-create an analogy

6-act out the word

Students can complete each task verbally or on a sheet of paper. If students get stuck, their group members can help.

Strategy #10-Sketch It

This game is similar to Pictionary. Groups are given a whiteboard and markers. One student draws a pictorial representation of a word and the other students have 1 minute to guess. Words that are not guessed correctly can be explained by the artist. The artist will defend the picture and explain the relation between the word and the picture.

Strategy #11 -Password

This game is similar to the Pyramid game show. Students are shown a vocabulary word on the board. Their partner has their back to the board and the student must give clues and their partner guesses the word. When the partner guesses the word, the students are given a new word. The goal is to guess as many words as possible in a time limit. The students love this interactive activity. This strategy can also be adapted to use as a review for concepts, as a pre reading activity, or formative assessment.

Tips For Parents

  • Engage your child in conversations every day and try to incorporate new words. Don’t be afraid to use higher vocabulary with your child.

  • Encourage your child to read everyday-whether they read independently or if you read with them. The more children read, the stronger vocabulary they develop.

  • Each day, family members can be on the lookout for new words. At dinnertime, each member discusses the new words they heard that day.

  • Post new words or words your child is learning around the house.

  • Tell jokes or engage in other word games. A fun game would be for each person in the family to tell a joke or pun at family time.


Donnelly, W. B., & Roe, C. J. (2010). Using Sentence Frames to Develop Academic Vocabulary for English Learners. Reading Teacher, 64(2), 131-136. doi:10.1598/RT.64.2.5

Ekiaka Nzai, V., & Reyna, C. (2014). Teaching English Vocabulary to Elementary Mexican American Students in South Texas: Some Responsive Modern Instructional Strategies. Journal Of Latinos & Education, 13(1), 44-53. doi:10.1080/15348431.2013.800816

Heitin, L. (2015). Forget Word Lists: Vocabulary Lessons Start With Context. Education Week, S10-S14.

Winters, R. (2009). Interactive Frames for Vocabulary Growth and Word Consciousness. Reading Teacher, 62(8), 685-690.


Frayer, Dorothy. Frayer Model for Understanding of New Words.


This link provides the Frayer model for teaching vocabulary including a rationale for the technique, blank templates, and examples from several content areas. They Frayer model has been proven to help students internalize words that they have been explicitly taught.

Gallagher, Kelly (2004). Deeper Reading: Comprehending Challenging Texts, 4-12. Stenhouse Publishers.

This book has several strategies in it to deepen comprehension while reading, especially vocabulary strategies. Gallagher focuses several of his strategies on using context clues to decode meaning of unknown words. He has a chart listed in his book that he uses with students. The chart has 3 columns: Unknown word in the context of the sentence, predicted meaning based on context clues, and the actual meaning after looked up in a dictionary. He provides the students with the words and they complete the rest of the chrat as a sponge activity.

Marzano, Robert J. and Pickering, Debra J. (2005). Building Academic Vocabulary. ASCD.

This book gives teachers practical tools to teach vocabulary. The book begins with a rationale that describes the importance of learning academic vocabulary and instructional procedures that teachers can implement in their classrooms. The authors use research based principles in their rationale and the strategies they provide in the book.



This website offers fun ways to teach students about academic and content area vocabulary. For example, the website offers songs relating to different genres, setting, context clues, etc. The only issue with this website is that a license must be purchased by the school for use, but the vocabulary is cross curricular and includes language arts, social studies, science, etc.


This website offers easy to use strategies for vocabulary comprehension and instruction. The organization of this website is very user friendly. The strategies are organized in two ways: skill learned and when to implement in instruction (before reading, during, and after.) Each strategy is a hyperlink to the rationale, instructions on implementation, handouts, etc.


This is a blog from Edweek that explores different strategies for vocabulary instruction including games, techniques for explicit instruction, etc. Out of the several tips, I liked the tip regarding pre-assessment. The blog advises that teachers should only teach a certain number of words and they can choose the words that are the most needed by pre assessing the students.