Ways to make Vocabulary meaningful

How can we make vocabulary pertinent?

Traditional vocabulary tests don’t really assess a student's word mastery. Quizzes that require a student to complete matching tasks, provide written definitions, or use of the words in an original sentence are not accurate determinants. Students may be able to recall a memorized definition and an example sentence provided by the dictionary but that is no guarantee that they can actually use the word with any true aptitude. Students have refined their skills in rote memorization and can successfully complete weekly tests but a week later they are unable to use these same terms in their writing assignments.

General Guidelines for Teaching Vocabulary

It is helpful to keep in mind several general principles that facilitate acquisition of new vocabulary.

  1. Ensure that students hear the correct pronunciation of the word and practice saying it aloud. Hearing the syllable structure and stress pattern of the word facilitates its storage in memory.
  2. Identify examples/applications and nonexamples / nonapplications related to the meaning of the new word.
  3. Help students connect new vocabulary to something with which they are already familiar.
  4. Teach word parts – root words, base words, prefixes, and suffixes that students will encounter frequently.
  5. Create opportunities for students to paraphrase the definition of a new term so that they can identify the main idea associated with the term and recognize specific bits of information that clarify its broader, more general core idea
  6. Teach new words in the context of a meaningful subject-matter lesson and facilitate student discussion that requires students to use the new word.
  7. Teach words in related clusters to help students understand how words are related and interrelated.

By making connections between words and ideas, and between words and pictures, we build vocabulary skills. Connections between vocabulary words make the process of building vocabulary skills faster and more efficient.

Vocabulary Scavenger Hunt

1. Give students a list of essential vocabulary they must know for a unit they are studying.

2. Organize students into small groups – usually three or four students per group.

3. Provide student groups with time to search for the new words using reference books, newspapers, magazines, websites, and other appropriate resources at school and at home. Instruct them to collect examples of the words, copy sentences that use the words, collect or draw pictures of the words, and build models or examples of the words.

4. Allow groups to meet each day for a few minutes to plan a strategy for gathering the representations of their words and assess how they are progressing in their collection efforts.

5. Create posters on which vocabulary words are written (one word per poster). On the day that the items/examples are due, give groups a few minutes to organize their objects in piles by the words written on the posters. Show each word poster and have students, group by group, share what they have brought to represent that word. Briefly record their ideas on each word poster. Post these posters on the wall.

6. Next, have groups sort their items by type. For example, put books about the topics in one pile, pictures in another pile, and models in yet another pile.

7. As the unit is taught, students can refer to the posters to review these essential vocabulary words. The teacher may also ask students to use the list of scavenger hunt words to write a summary of the unit.

Context Clues

Provide students with the opportunities to practice the common types of context clues: Definition, Synonym, Example/Description, and Antonym clues. They need to develop these tools to aid them when they encounter unfamiliar words.

In my class I show a PowerPoint with their new vocabulary words in a sentence and have them to use context clues to create a definition of the words as they are used in a sentence. The next day I provide them with definitions and we discuss their correct or incorrect responses.

Synonyms, Antonyms and Personal Definitions

  1. Teach synonyms. Provide a synonym students know, (e.g., link stringent to the known word strict).
  2. Teach antonyms. Not all words have antonyms, but thinking about for those that do, opposite requires their students to evaluate the critical attributes of the words in question.
  3. Paraphrase definitions. Requiring students to use their own words increases connection making and provides the teacher with useful informal assessment—"Do they really get it?

Vocabulary Charades

1. Put words that describe visual concepts on cards. (examples: hurricane, motivate)

2. Divide the class into teams.

3. Ask a member of each team, in turn, to draw a card and “act it out.”

4. Determine a time limit by which teammates must guess the word being acted out. Assign

points for each word guessed correctly by the teams.

5. Continue until all members of each team have had an opportunity to illustrate a word.

Frayer Model

Students are asked to provide

  1. a Definition of the word
  2. Facts or Characteristics of the word
  3. Examples or Synonyms
  4. Nonexamples or Antonyms

This graphic organizer will lead students to a deeper understanding of a word and its relationship to their own lives.


  1. One student stands with his/her back to the screen.
  2. Group members give clues to the vocabulary word onscreen as a clock keeps time. (1 min)
  3. The student tries to guess the word before the buzzer.
  4. Groups gets points for each right answer

Connect vocabulary words to images

By making connections between words and ideas, and between words and pictures, we build vocabulary skills.

Cloze Passage

Write a brief passage that includes some of the vocabulary words from the vocabulary list. Then, delete these words and leave blanks for students to complete. This modified cloze assessment will force students to scrutinize the context and draw upon a deeper understanding of the words' meanings. Have students to first read the entire passage and to then complete the blanks by drawing from their vocabulary list.

Vocabulary and Common Core

Teaching vocabulary within the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is an essential component of standards-based curriculum alignment. Making the critical words second nature to our students will enhance achievement on assessments and will be useful in college and career.

There are so many ways to help students increase their vocabulary and make new words their own. We need to be mindful that it is essential to remember that students must read extensively and be exposed to a variety of strategies to help them make cognitive connections between the new and the known.

Valerie R. Burton, M. Ed.

I am an English Language Arts teacher from New Orleans who looks for all opportunities to integrate technology into my classroom.

I am an English Language Arts teacher from New Orleans who looks for all opportunities to integrate technology into my classroom.

I blog. http://2blog2share2learn.edublogs.org/

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