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This lesson describes how to introduce a new vocabulary word and several sample activities for reinforcing the meanings of the terms.

A short quiz follows the lesson.

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Approaches to Teaching Vocabulary

There are many different ways to teach vocabulary. First it is important to decide what you actually want the students to know. Do you simply want students to be able to match a term to a definition? Or do you desire for the students to have a deep understanding of the term, be able to use it accurately and be able to generalize the term? Especially with standardized tests where the exact phrasing of questions is unknown to the teacher in advance, usually the second goal is necessary for success. Let’s look at how two teachers approach a vocabulary lesson using some nonsense words.

Decide which one you think better teaches the new term.Mrs. Snores begins her vocabulary lesson by writing the word ‘vort’ on the board.

She tells the students to copy the term into their notebooks then states that the definition of a vort is ‘an extravagant, fancy covering for a sneen.’ She uses the term for the students in a sentence by stating ‘Your vort is beautiful!’ She tells the students to write down the definition and sentence in their notebooks also. As they are writing, Mrs. Snores writes the word on the poster labeled ‘word wall’. Mrs.

Snores tells the students to write four sentences using the word vort for homework, then moves on to the next word.Across the hall, Mrs. Clearly also writes the word ‘vort’ on the board and states the definition, but she also displays a picture of a vort.

‘Yesterday we covered what sneen means, can someone remind us what this word means?’ A student says that it is another word for head. Mrs. Clearly tells her she is correct and then asks someone to describe what extravagant means and calls on several students to answer.

Mrs. Clearly concludes her explanation of the term by showing several examples of vorts including a derby hat and Native American headdress. She also asks the students to share some examples of things that are not vorts. Students reply with visor and baseball cap. Mrs. Clearly has the students write down the definition in their own words, list some examples and non-examples, and draw a picture that helps them understand the meaning of the word.Which lesson gave you a clearer understanding of ‘vort’? Obviously, Mrs.

Clearly led her students to a more in-depth understanding of the word. Mrs. Snores did not do everything wrong; using the word in a sentence for the students and adding it to the word wall are good vocabulary teaching strategies. Let’s spend more time exploring the strategies these teachers used and others for teaching vocabulary.

Picture of a word wall in an art classroom
Art word wall bulletin board

Keys to Successful Vocabulary Lessons

One of the keys to teaching new vocabulary words is repetition.

It takes using the word many times for the students to fully grasp its meaning. Another key is context. Seeing the word used in writing and using the word itself helps students learn the meaning.

Motivation is also an essential element to learning. Students should enjoy rather than dread vocabulary work. Inserting fun activities into vocabulary teaching increases student motivation.

General Teaching Plan for Vocabulary

Just like both Mrs.

Snores and Mrs. Clearly did in their lessons, usually the first step in teaching vocabulary is introducing the meaning of the word. This could be done by the teacher telling the definition through notes as the teachers did in the story, or the students could look up the definition on their own.

After the initial definition is given, a greater teacher-led discussion of the word should take place. Imagery, synonyms, and antonyms are good to use at this point. After students feel they have an understanding of the word, they should put the definition into their own words. This is the first formative assessment for the teacher. It allows the teacher to notice any misconceptions the student may have about the word’s meaning and correct them.

Next it is time to start using the word. Many different activities exist to help students learn the word. A simple search on the internet for vocabulary activities will bring up hundreds. A few ideas are listed below.

Activities Using New Vocabulary

A standard activity for using vocabulary is to read a book or article that uses the word.

Below are more creative ideas for practicing vocabulary.

Word Sorts

Give students a set of words and have them sort them into groups of synonyms and antonyms.

A Picture is Worth A Thousand Words

Have the students draw pictures showing the meaning of each vocabulary word.

They can then make books of their drawings, which can become a great study tool to use for review. Students could trade drawings and try to guess which vocabulary word from the current unit it represents.

Think Dots

Put students in pairs or small groups and give them dice and a question sheet. Each student rolls the dice and answers the question corresponding to the number. Questions could include listing a synonym for the word, listing an antonym for the word, using the word in a sentence, spelling the word, defining the word, and drawing a picture of the word.


Divide students into small groups. One student takes a turn being the guesser; the other students in the group are clue givers.

Clue givers say one word to describe the vocabulary word. The guesser tries to figure out which word the clues are about.

I Have – Who Has

Write the definition on one card and the vocabulary word on another. Give each student one definition card and one vocabulary word card, but be sure the definition and vocabulary word do not match. Have one student read their definition card starting with the phrase ‘Who has.’ Whoever has the vocabulary word card that matches that definition stands up and says ‘I have’ and the word. Then they read their definition and the game continues.

This is a good activity when students are first learning the definitions since it does not explore deeper meanings of the words, only the basic definitions.

Lesson Summary

When teaching vocabulary, focus on students fully understanding the words, not just memorizing a definition. Explore the word fully with students by discussing the synonyms, antonyms, imagery, and other aspects of the word as Mrs. Clearly did in the example. Employ repetition by providing multiple opportunities for students to interact with the word and see the word in context. Finally, incorporate fun into vocabulary learning to increase student motivation.

All of these steps increase student vocabulary knowledge and help students fully understand new terms.

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