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Effective strategies for teaching vocabulary

Emily HammDecember 11, 2018

student at his desk writing on a piece of paper

In a previous blog, we explored ways to teach vocabulary and why explicit instruction is necessary. This time we are going to look into strategies to give students a deeper understanding of vocabulary.

You likely understand that merely repeating definitions from a dictionary is not an effective way to teach vocabulary to your students, yet this practice is often the first method that comes to mind in the context of our classrooms.

In 2003, researcher E.D. Hirsch noted the importance of teaching literacy in schools: “It is now well accepted that the chief cause of the achievement gap between socioeconomic groups is a language gap.” Consider vocabulary instruction as one way to level the playing field for all of your students.

Teaching vocabulary: strategies

pens on a piece of paper

1. Put yourself in your students’ shoes

To teach your students vocabulary (or anything) effectively, you’ll need to see things from their perspective. Because while you may have known the meanings of words like fortuitous or incremental, your students might not — consider your level of education and the number of years you’ve had to gain exposure to literature. If you’re an avid reader, it’s even more likely that you’ve developed a robust vocabulary.

According to Steven Stahl’s publication on vocabulary learning, a person’s understanding of various vocabulary words likely fits into four categories:

  1. I have never seen that word before.
  2. I don’t know what it means, but I have heard of it.
  3. The context helps me know if it has something to do with X.
  4. I understand and use it.

Stahl uses an example cited from Atlantic Monthly so adult learners can remember what it feels like to be in that vocabulary acquisition process. Consider the word vicissitude in the following context:

“America’s permanent election campaign, together with other aspects of American electoral politics, has one crucial consequence, little noticed but vitally important for the functioning of American democracy. Quite simply, the American electoral system places politicians in a highly vulnerable position. Individually and collectively they are more vulnerable, more of the time, to the vicissitudes of electoral politics than are the politicians of any other democratic country. Because they are more vulnerable, they devote more of their time to electioneering, and their conduct in office is more continuously governed by electoral considerations.”

Which category from the list above do you fit in for the word vicissitude? Why? Can you gain any meaning from the context? What measures would need to be taken for you to fully understand and include the word in your writing and speech?

Vicissitude is described in the dictionary as “a change of circumstances or fortune, typically one that is unwelcome or unpleasant.” In a traditional classroom setting, you’d be expected to write the definition repeatedly, find it in a word puzzle, and then be tested, likely matching words to definitions. But that’s ineffective — let’s look at a better way.

2. Make direct vocabulary instruction fun and engaging

When introducing a new term, teachers should:

  • Supply illustrations, descriptions, examples, AND anecdotes — the keyword here is AND. Students need to interact with words in both an auditory and visual way. If possible, have students physically interact with the vocabulary, such as performing physical actions to represent the word. Kinesthetic learners would remember a word’s meaning easier if there was a specific action tied to it. For example, for the word jocular, meaning characterized by joking, humorous, or playful, students could pantomime laughing uncontrollably. In the earlier example, finding other texts where vicissitude is used and comparing it to synonyms and antonyms could be helpful. A myriad of websites can help with this process. Here is one particular website that has vicissitude used in quotes, poetry, text, and in the news.
  • Consider ways to transition between grammatical forms, explicitly teaching roots and affixes of words. Think of connections to easily confused words related to the one at hand, and try to clear up any confusion your students might have. In our example, you’d review the root “vic” and find that it means change, substitute, and deputy; this would be a good start when looking for connections. Discussing the adjective form, vicissitudinary, can also help students connect affixes and possible uses of the word.
  • Have students develop their OWN connections, illustrations, and examples. In the final step of direct instruction, students need to personalize the information and capture experiences to develop a growing understanding of the contexts in which words can be used. For example, if a student heard the word wrangle used in one of their favorite movies, have them sketch the scene and describe why wrangle was chosen by the scriptwriters. For our term, I wondered if vicissitude had anything to do with victim. The prefix vic certainly helped me make this connection, but I can also see a loose connection based on the definitions of the two words. This simple inquiry could help me to both better understand and use the term vicissitude.

One graphic organizer that can help with direct vocabulary instruction is the Frayer model. This model asks students to define the word, give characteristics of the word, list examples and non-examples of the word, and, in some cases, create an illustration to accompany the word. As helpful as the Frayer Model is, this, too, can turn into a rote, ineffective practice if a teacher overuses it or neglects the best practices for direct vocabulary instruction.

3. Indirect vocabulary instruction is key

Students can learn vocabulary from hearing and seeing words repeatedly in different contexts. This includes exposure to vocabulary that is encountered in an independent reading book or heard in conversation, whether that be in person, in a movie, or online. Reading aloud to students, especially those with disabilities, can indirectly instruct vocabulary as well.

4. Create quality vocabulary practices

What are some ways students can practice vocabulary without just copying definitions from the dictionary? Let’s take a look at a few.

  • Sorting — Guided word sorts consist of telling students the categories in which to sort a list of words. This could be “adjectives,” “nouns,” etc.. For example, students might sort words related to ancient Egypt into people, places, the process of mummification, religion, and agriculture based on the context of the word. The teacher can even give clues, such as “There should be four words in column one and three in column two.”Free word sorts allow students to make categories themselves based on their own observations and methods of grouping. Some students may come up with a completely unique method of classifying the words, which helps them create their own understanding of the words. This works better with certain word lists and when students have experience with the sorting process.
  • On-purpose errors — The teacher or a member of a small group uses a vocabulary word incorrectly in a sentence (either aloud or in print). Students are then tasked with determining which word fixes the mistake and should replace the erroneous word in the sentence.
    For example: “The vexed businessman was shocked at how quickly the value of his stocks rose.” To fix the error, students would need to replace vexed with incredulous (or one of its synonyms).
  • Word races — Even older students like a good game. Have students line up in teams and set up the parameters of the game. Then, you could say the definition and have the students race to the whiteboard to write the word. You could make this more complex, too.
    For example: “Write the adjective form of the word that means having a quality deserving of praise, honor or distinction.” Students write: glorious (changing from the base word glory).
  • Mind mapping — Mind maps allow visual representations of connections through the use of branches (like a tree) or colors or pictures. Students can use pencil and paper or digital tools to create a semantic map of how they connect to the vocabulary words. Some might choose images. Some might choose song lyrics, colors, or a tree. This is where with instruction, individuals can develop their own creative methods of building a vocabulary.
  • Inquiries — Like my example above in step three of direct vocabulary instruction, sometimes allowing students to research their own questions about a word can help them build stronger connections. Find out what they’re wondering about. See what they assume about or connect to the word (possibly erroneously!), and spend time researching any questions they have (if you don’t already know the answers).

5. Vocabulary instruction can be engaging!

Vocabulary instruction is often overlooked as necessary or important in our classrooms. However, it can serve as an equalizer and an important asset for our learners. Moving away from the dictionary-copying model of instruction and toward explicit, direct instruction of vocabulary is a necessary change to empower our students for long-term academic success.

Photo credit: Ben Mullins; pulkit jain /

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