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When we reflect on our childhood days of learning vocabulary in school, most of us will remember our teacher’s strategy to drill in the words repeatedly, hoping that repetition would eventually make the word stick in our minds.

This may have been through writing and rewriting the definition time and time again in class, only to be asked to repeat the exercise at home with our homework or pop quizzes where the words or definitions were put on the board, and we would regurgitate the answers. I’m sure some of our teachers, as well as their former students, still get panicky at the thought of it!

Luckily, in more modern times, passive learning is known to be a less effective strategy when teaching kids vocabulary and has fallen very much out of favor. Studies indicate that children need more than one exposure to words before they can truly and fully understand them and the various meanings they can portray.

Learning words through context is incredibly important, whether reading or conversing with other kids and people. It is important that teachers, through active processing, can help children understand and connect different and new meanings to words they are already familiar with.

Having regular exposure to a word, just as our old teachers taught us, is a good way to introduce it into a child’s lexicon, but understanding that words can have multiple meanings and learning the other ways in which this word can be used can cement it in their memory as well as help them understand how to use it effectively.

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Vocabulary strategies

Teaching vocabulary to elementary-age children can and will be tough, but here are the five best teaching strategies to make your lessons more effective.

1. Try using semantic mapping to build on children’s prior knowledge

Semantic mapping is a great way to visualize the relationship between certain pieces of information using a graph to link all these seemingly unrelated words. Used with elementary school-age children, this can be made into a fun game before a reading activity to stimulate them into using their prior knowledge. This way, we can introduce a keyword to the children, create a visual graphic around the word and allow them to connect to it.

When used as an after-reading activity, semantic mapping has been shown to help enhance a child’s understanding of the groupings of words and their relationships to each other. Children can understand the meanings through context by slowly extending the map and adding new groups or regions to it.

Research has shown that this strategy is an excellent way to help increase a child’s grasp of new words and helps them form contextual understanding, thus widening their vocabulary.

Semantic mapping is not reinventing the wheel, but it continues to be an extremely effective way of opening up a child’s mind and allowing them to make associations with everyday words and, by proxy, injecting the understanding of the intended keyword into their vocabulary.

Here is how to put semantic mapping into practice:

  • The teacher will decide on a keyword and start by writing it on the class board.
  • The children will then read this keyword aloud and be asked to think of other words instantly coming to mind when they see or hear it.
  • Get the children to write down a list of all of the words they can think of about the keyword.
  • The children then take turns to share their related words, and then, as a full class, the related words are further categorized.
  • Once the separate category names have been assigned, a class map can be created and discussed further.
  • The children are then encouraged to suggest additional categories for the map or add more to the old ones.
  • Any new words that are encountered when reading through a piece of text that relate to the topic are also added to the map

2. Play the Word Wizard game to encourage peer-to-peer teaching

Teaching skills to peers is a good way for children to learn about a topic and demonstrate their knowledge to others using their own words. This type of cooperative learning is a brilliantly effective way for children to learn and process information from each other. The “jigsaw learning technique” is a very quick and super effective way for children to work alongside their peers to learn these keywords. When participating in this activity, each child is responsible for learning three new words and then teaching their words to the rest of the group. This is how the activity should play out:

  • The teacher will divide the children into small groups. Each child is now a “word wizard” within the group and is responsible for learning three new words used within the chapter they’ve just read.
  • The “word wizard” is then instructed to write down the definition of the word in their own words and draw a picture of the word.
  • After the “word wizards” have completed this, it is their job to teach their peers what they have learned.
  • Each group member can copy the new words they learned into their notebooks.

3. Play “Word Detective”

Reading is one of the most valuable things that can increase a child’s vocabulary. Research has shown that reading a wide variety of books is one of the main pathways for word acquisition. Reading enables children to see and use words in different contexts, which can help them understand better. Word Detective requires children to find and write down new keywords when encountered in their reading daily. Here is how the game works:

  • The teacher will give the children a weekly list of keywords to look out for.
  • The students write each keyword and the sentence they found it in on a sticky note and place it on their desks.
  • At the end of class, allow a few minutes to read each sticky note on the desk.
  • Make it a fun game by assigning each word a point; the highest score wins for the week.

4. Venn diagrams to help understand differences and similarities

Venn diagrams are a great way for students to compare similarities and differences between words. It can also provide new exposures to words which can help them solidify what they have learned. When making Venn diagrams, students should try to find the connection between two words written in the center circle of a Venn diagram. They should then connect the two words by writing each of the two definitions on the Venn diagram and then explain why they made this connection.

5. Use a Concept Cube

A concept cube is a great tool to teach students how to understand the meaning of words. The students receive a net design of a cube which will later be folded into a three-dimensions. On each blank square, the children are instructed to write down one of the following:

  • A keyword
  • An antonym
  • A synonym
  • Its taxonomy
  • An essential characteristic of the word
  • An example of the word

The children will then cut out, fold and tape up the paper to make a cube. They, along with a partner, roll their dice and must explain the relationship of the word they have landed on to the keyword.