Okay, so I don’t have anything as fancy as a lab. But I do have twenty years of experience trying different methods of vocabulary instruction and reinforcement in my classroom, and therefore some idea of what practices tend to work well with middle schoolers at all levels as well as your English Learners. Consider incorporating some of the following ideas next time you are planning your lessons.

Get the Most Bang for your Buck

Consider teaching word families with Greek/Latin roots as the center. If you teach students that the root chron- means time, they can apply that understanding to a range of words, like chronic, chronological, synchronized, etc. Try working backwards, brainstorming words with a root, then considering what those words have in common when it comes to their definitions. Students are able to discover the meaning of the root based on what all of the words they brainstormed have in common. I have made this root exploration a daily warm-up in the past, but have also started the year out by reviewing a collection of roots. When students have twenty or so roots under their belt they can be challenged to find examples for each in their independent reading books over the course of the year as a sort of “Root Scavenger Hunt.” This adds purpose to their learning the topic and keeps them applying the concept as they start noticing word parts on their own.

Also, try embedding other skills you need to teach within vocabulary instruction. This example includes parts of speech instruction along with sentence writing, character education, and lends itself to later characterization study in literature and writing claim/evidence pieces.  

Another fun activity with amazing results has been to personify vocab words, making personalities and descriptions match their names. This is as fun for the kids to create as it is find out what their classmates came up with, and students are learning about one type of figurative language while engaging with their vocabulary words in a different way.

Make Word Lists Relevant

Students should see their vocabulary words in context as they are learning them. Making your lists literature based not only allows students to better understand what they read, but through reading they will get to understand the words better. When compiling vocabulary lists from literature you can consider:

  • their importance to the story
  • the likelihood that students will continue to come across the words in their reading
  • larger concepts that the words will allow you to teach

For example, perhaps you want to teach about how adding or changing suffixes alters a word’s part of speech. You can select words like educate (education, educator, educational, etc.) that will serve as good examples to refer back to.

To keep words from old vocab lists relevant all year, I like to encourage students to say a code word when they notice one of our words (from any time in the year) in a book or chapter we are reading together. Our code word is “pickle,” so on any given day, if you came into our classroom at reading time, you may hear kids yell out “pickle!” in the middle of reading with a partner or as they follow along with my fluency modelling. It becomes a bit of a game, so it adds an element of fun and a chance to show what they know during class. 🥒

Take Advantage of Their Competitive Nature

Students seem to love competition, so consider trying dictionary races to make getting the definitions in the first place a bit more exciting. You can choose a word at random from the list and watch to see who is the first with their finger on the word and their other hand in the air. Eventually you can have students work in pairs to race one person over multiple words while they keep score. You could also try incorporating charades, Win, Lose or Draw, or sparkle. Traditionally used for spelling review, Sparkle can be modified just by giving definitions instead of the word they need to spell. Finally, especially effective in March, is to have students write their best detailed sentences for their various vocabulary words and then have sentences go head to head in a March-Madness-like bracket competition! I’ve found Plickers to be a great app for assisting with the voting in this competition… and speaking of apps…

Incorporate Technology

There are many great apps and websites out there to engage students in learning their words. I try to space out my use of them so that students are trying something new with each list. To try:

Storyboardthat.com is a website which allows students to make 3×1 or 3×2 cell comic strips for free using just their Google accounts. I have challenged students to create a comic that uses as many vocabulary words as possible. There are loads of backgrounds to choose from and characters from all time periods and occupations which you can pose as needed.

Quizlet.com allows you to create your own vocabulary lists and has options for students to study those lists in several ways. They can interact with flashcards, make and take practice tests, play a matching game (I’ve made a tournament out of this by recording student times and having the top three compete on the Smartboard!), and a “type in the correct word before the asteroid hits Earth” game. The most fun of all comes when we are preparing for a cumulative assessment and have a large list of words. The Quizlet Live game creates teams of students who have to collaborate to identify a series of words based on the given definitions before the other teams finish the round. This is highly engaging as students incorporate technology, collaborate with friends, and compete!

“Texting Story” App (in the App Store for Apple devices only at this time) creates a video of a texting conversation back and forth between two (or more) parties. I have challenged students to create conversations that correctly use as many of their vocabulary words as possible in the context of their “chat.” Students not only have fun making these, but also watching what their classmates came up with, all of which further reinforces their understanding of their vocab. Note: You may want to warn the kids that everything they type then delete shows up in the video at the end…we’ve had some embarrassed kids that didn’t know their teacher would see that they wrote “something like that!” 😆

iMovie Trailers allow students to record video and type information into a template to create trailers for movies from many different genres. You can have teams draw a vocab word out of a hat and build their movie trailer concept around the meaning of that word.

The title of one of our “movie” trailers. Futile was their vocab word. The HORROR of a button that does NOTHING! 😱

Spark Their Creativity

Students can create picture dictionaries, draw a scene incorporating as many vocab words as possible, or, my personal favorite, build visuals to go with their words out of play-doh.

Students can practice by creating sentences, sure, but it is fun to replace vocab words with “pickle” and then share these pickle sentences with partners, using the context clues to figure out what word really belongs. Or how about creating haikus? The title is the vocab word and then they have 5-7-5 syllables to creatively and effectively communicate the word’s meaning…

Stickler for Spelling?

If you want your kiddos to spell their vocabulary correctly as well as know what the words mean, here are a few ideas for you!

  • Have students look for smaller words in the words without rearranging.  For example, I still say “chart, reuse” in my head when spelling that color’s name!  My favorite word to do this to is hearth- it contains he, hear, ear, art, earth, and a.  It feels so satisfying to find so many words inside that little example!
  • Create a spelling scavenger hunt where students write all the double letter words, all the words that start and end with a vowel, all the nouns, etc. Consider having them come up with new categories.
  • Try sign language spelling where the students use the ASL alphabet to spell a word for a partner to decipher.
  • Try tactile spelling where partners trace a word, one letter at a time, on their partners hand or back.  The partner, with their eyes closed, feels which letters are being formed in order to figure out the word being written.
  • Jumping-jack spelling gets kids’ hearts pumping and they are hearing, speaking, and moving as they practice.
  • Skywriting has the same benefits as jumping jack spelling with the muscle work more focused on the arms.  Be sure to make the letters giant!
  • Create teams and send one team member into the hall.  Give the remaining students on the team 60 seconds to spell a word with their bodies on the floor as you photograph the formations.  Bring the team member back in from the hall and show them the pictures you took as they try to figure out which word is being spelled!
  • A spelling relay race is a fun way to get outside in the spring! Set up two teams, and give them each a bag of letters they will need. They race to spell words, one person- one letter- at a time in a hula hoop. After the last letter is placed, the next person in line has to pick up all the letters and find out the next word.

The Most Important Vocabulary Instruction Advice

Have fun! -A


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s