Tips for innovative vocabulary teaching, such as shelving the dictionaries, allowing students to choose their words, and making plenty of time for play and talk with new phrases.

Teaching vocabulary

I can still remember my junior high English teacher’s routine. At the beginning of the week, she’d write her list of vocabulary words on the chalkboard. Our homework was to write each word ten times in our best cursive, and then look up the dictionary definition of each word and write that out, too. We’d take the test on Friday, and then we’d never think about those words again. It might have improved my handwriting, it definitely got me familiar with the dictionary, but it didn’t really improve my vocabulary.

Simply copying words from a book isn’t a good way to learn anything, let alone the vocabulary you’re supposed to use to express your thoughts and ideas. Passive learning, in which the student is simply expected to absorb information in whatever format it is presented, just doesn’t work well. Repetitive practice without any feedback is an assembly-line technique that won’t bring us into the future.

Yet this is how many of us still teach crucial information, falling back on what we remember from our own primary school experiences instead of using the tools we have now as educators: up-to-date educational research, data collected from real students, and the creativity to try new ways of teaching.

Research and data show us is that young minds need more than that. To truly understand a word and to be able to apply it in an appropriate way, students need to be exposed to that word multiple times and in different ways. In short, they need to be exposed to that word in a context that makes sense. Lists written by rote and memorized in isolation from any real sense of use just won’t cut it. Students need to see and model how they can use the words.

Coming across a word in a piece of engaging reading material is one of the best ways to retain new vocabulary words, whether they’re on your list or a new word that a student can learn using modern methods. Make sure your classroom has a well-stocked library with a wide variety of books that will catch the varied interests of your students.

Select Words

The first time I ever taught a novel, I really over-prepared and almost sabotaged myself. I sat down and scanned through each chapter, writing down every word I thought my students might not be familiar with. My plan was to discuss the words with them before we read each chapter, so that when they came to the new words in the text they’d be prepared and confident. As my lists grew, I started to panic–there was no way I would have enough time to teach everything. I looked back through the first chapter and realized how many words I had underlined.

My mistake was in thinking that I had to predict what words my students would or wouldn’t understand, and trying to choose according to those assumptions. I had no real idea of what my students already knew. Instead, I had my kids read the first chapter at their own pace, each pupil selecting their own list of vocabulary words they needed to learn.

After the students make their own lists of vocabulary words:
  • Have each pupil make their own chart with their words listed. The child should score each word as “Know it,” “kind of know it,” or “don’t know it.”
  • The student will use the same chart to write their own definitions or their own “educated guesses” on word meaning for each word that they have scored as “Know it” or “kind of know it.” For this step, the children should not consult a dictionary.
  • Remind the students that their charts will not be scored for accuracy–they are to show the teacher what the class knows, doesn’t know, and might have to work on as a group.

Now that the kids have made it easier for you to understand their needs, it’s time for you to choose the words that will be most effective to teach to the class.

Rank words

As you choose the words you’ll focus on for the vocabulary lesson as a class, consider a modern method of sorting words into three categories to study:

Tier 1

Basic “building block” words that usually don’t require additional study (such as “house,” “book,” or “door”).

Tier 2

Terms which are fundamental to understanding academic and mature language, which appear in a wide variety of domains and that are used with high frequency (such as “reluctant,” “coincidence,’ or “analysis”).

Tier 3

Words which are specific to one subject or field of study, and which may require additional context or information (words like “Buddhism,” “postmodernism,” or “isotope”).

At most grade levels, it will be most helpful to the largest portion of the class to focus on the words that appear in Tier Two, which they’ll come across more often than the words in Tier Three in their everyday reading material.

As you select words for your classroom vocabulary list, focus on words that your students have marked as “don’t know” or “kind of know,” and take note of any words that fit into Tier Two. Choose a few Tier Three words carefully, and focus on words that provide greater context for the reading material.

Teach words

Direct instruction in vocabulary is crucial to your students’ ability to retain these words. Here are six steps to follow that will improve active teaching and learning of your list:

Step 1

Teacher explains the new word to students. Don’t just recite from the dictionary–build on what your students are familiar with, or use imagery to convey the concept.

Step 2

Each student writes (or explains to the class, if there is time) their own definition of the concept in their own words.

Step 3

Students use means other than words to explain the term. Drawing a picture or choosing symbols may be useful for this.

Step 4

Add activities to help students understand the new term in more depth, such as comparing other words or writing their own metaphors and analogies for the concept.

Step 5

The class may discuss the new term among themselves, using activities like elbow partners or pair-sharing.

Step 6

Play games with students that help them use and review their new vocabulary words. Games like Telephone, Jeopardy, or Hangman may be useful.

Connecting with new knowledge

All of these steps may sound complicated or exhausting, but they’re really simpler and more fun for both you and the students than endless lists and rote memorization. And having fun makes learning attractive, engaging, and easy. Building a large vocabulary this way helps students connect with new knowledge and express themselves, in academia and in life.