Top Ten Ways to Teach Vocabulary October 12 2009

Building vocabulary is foundational at any reading level. Doesn't matter who, where, or what grade you teach - building vocabulary across the curriculum is a top priority.

Drilling lists of spelling and isolated content words can get monotonous. Dry. Bo-ring. But building vocabulary doesn't have to be. Here are my top ten fun ways to help your students build a solid vocabulary foundation!

First up, some classroom systems or routines to help implement vocabulary study regardless of level:

Word Walls

Word Walls receive a prominent place in a classroom environment. They are usually front and center, large, and easy to see. These word walls are great places to put sight words and high frequency words throughout the year, adding content-rich vocabulary as you and your students explore across the curriculum.

Content Rich Words

 Kids love to learn something new, and sophisticated vocabulary gives them that opportunity. Higher level words, when connected to the physical word and a picture of what it means, gives students a way to process those words for meaning and understanding. Mine the curriculum you already teach for those higher level vocabulary words, and make lists of these words by unit in order to incorporate them as the year progresses.


 The content-rich words you identified can be used in context of your curriculum and your spelling program. If students are incorporating these higher level words into their foundational vocabulary, they should know how to spell them as well. Combining word patterns and content-rich words also gives students a better grasp of easier and more difficult words, depending on where they are on the learning spectrum.

Repeated Reading

Have you ever found that, when seeing a movie or reading a book for the second or third time, you've gotten a lot more out of it from subsequent viewings? It's the same for the kids in my classroom. I found that I have to use this mantra daily, especially with older kids: “Re-reading is ALWAYS OKAY.” They fight me on it, but I don't care! In my mind, the first time reading through something doesn't even count! Therefore, I've built re-reading into each reading lesson along with identifying vocabulary - the first time read-through works well for students to simply find and record important or difficult words, which we then review. Then the second time reading through a piece, understanding on a variety of levels comes easier.

Word Book/Personal Dictionary 

 In my classroom, each student possesses a composition notebook for this purpose only. At some point during the first two weeks of school, I'll lead them through the process of labeling their pages from A to Z; the number of pages per letter depends on how many pages your notebook contains. Then as we study new, content-rich vocabulary, students record the words, definitions and sketches in their word books.

Graphic Organizers 

If you have a basal-based curriculum, then you probably have a book of some kind that is a collection of graphic organizers. Could you put any of these to use - maybe with a few changes - for vocabulary study? For example, a web would work nicely - the center is the word, then the spokes going out could be the prediction, definition, sketch, part of speech, etc. One of my favorites to use individually and with the whole group is My ABC Chart. Look through your collection to see if there are a few graphic organizers you could use for this purpose.

And now, skill-building exercises to make good use of those systems:


Even as an adult, I find that I don't really learn something unless I experience some discomfort. Prediction is a way to provide students with some discomfort that's fairly secure. Every student or small group will come up with a prediction for what a vocabulary word means, but this thinking process is less threatening because everyone will probably be wrong. Record each group's guess and compare - how many are alike? How many are different? How did each group come up with that particular guess? The message remains that "right" and "wrong" don't matter, the thought process behind the prediction does!


The funniest sketch I ever saw for a word was from a fourth grader - she sketched a stick figure, puking into a toilet- for the word "retch." I think what made it so funny was the detail. Will I ever forget it? No. She probably won't either. Sketching is a great way to help kids process the meaning of vocabulary words. 


Combine vocabulary building with two additional important skills: identifying synonyms and antonyms. Give each person a sheet of white paper and assign him/her a higher-level vocabulary word. They write their words across the top of the paper in marker, then decorate the rest of the sheet with synonyms, antonyms and sketches. Hang them around the room for instant reinforcement of your vocabulary!


Flashcards – Use 3x5 cards, cutting them in half for older kids. On one half, put the word and the definition goes on the other half. Lay out the cards upside down on the table top and kids take turns flipping over sets of two cards for each turn, trying to match the word with the definition.

Charades - Secretly assign vocabulary words to individuals or small groups. Set a timer for 1 to 5 minutes to give them a little planning time, then they must act out the word, one at a time.  Classmates raise their hands to guess the word - they can also provide the definition or use it in a sentence. The first one to guess correctly gets a small prize!

Bingo - Write down the vocabulary words on pieces of paper, and students write definitions of words, one to a square. Draw the pieces of paper out of a container, and students match the definition and cover it. You can also play it so students write the words, one to a square, and you read the definition one a at a time. Here's a Bingo Board in case you need one!

Building vocabulary with your students can be a fun part of your every day routine as you explore new learning experiences across the curriculum!

Additional Reading

Grade-Level Vocabulary Lists?