Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

Building vocabulary takes more than jotting down a list of words, copying the definitions, and throwing the paper in the garbage can after failing a quiz.

Mean Business, Indeed!

I handed out the vocabulary tests. I felt good. I had reviewed. I had instructed. I had given it my all. I knew my students would do well.

They all failed.

I sat, bewildered, head in hands, wondering where it all went wrong. My principal walked in. I was sure he was going to fire me. Instead he gave me a brochure on effective vocabulary instruction. I set it on my desk, forgot about it, found it three years later, and read it.

It was pretty good.

Using Etymology to Teach Vocabulary

Etymology is the study of the history of a word, from its origin to its current meaning. Encourage students to use dictionaries to analyze word origins. As you might imagine they find it incredibly boring and would rather slice their tongue with paper and drink mouth wash than analyze word origins by searching in a dictionary. Here are some suggestions for helping students appreciate etymology:

  • The threat of a failing grade often motivates.
  • Reducing the number of words and requiring an etymological breakdown tricks students into thinking you’re nice. Before they realize you’re a jerk, they’ll be finished.
  • While reading in class, show how understanding word origins adds meaning to a word. For example, while reading “The Devil and Tom Walker,” we examine the word “mortgage” and trace its historical roots.
  • Explain word origins in context of the lesson. For example, while studying Spanish explorers, explain that Balboa, after sailing the choppy waters of the Atlantic, crossed the Isthmus of Panama. Delighted by the calm and peaceful waters on the other side, he named it the Pacific Ocean. Other words with the same root include pacifist and pacifier, two items associated with peace and calm.

Teaching Vocabulary by Analyzing Word Parts

Remind students that analyzing the parts of an unfamiliar word–prefix, base, and suffix, provides clues to its meaning. A key component of word analysis involves Greek and Latin Root knowledge. Students who can apply this knowledge learn thousands and thousands of words in the time it takes most to learn a dozen words. As you might imagine, students get as excited about analyzing word parts as I do about a prostate exam. Here are some suggestions to make it fun (the analyzing word parts, not the prostate exam).

  • Analyze words like “hyperbole” with this absolute amazing, best ever created Greek and Latin Root Lesson Plan.
  • Engage your class in an analyzing word parts challenge based on the greatest lesson plan ever written in the entire history of education, the Context Clues Challenge Lesson Plan.
  • Teaching is most effective when we model the desired behavior. As you read, break down difficult words by analyzing word parts. For example, you read the word “anachronism.” Since it’s not a text-message friendly word and has never been spoken on MTV, your students don’t understand it. Explain that chrono means time, ism makes it a noun, and an means “without or out of.” Hence, “anachronism” means not in the right time. Give a few examples: George Washington on a cell phone or Babe Ruth doing a TV interview.

A Few More Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

Teaching word maps, concept-definition maps, language structure clues, and possible sentences has improved vocabulary learning in many a class. It took me seven years to figure it out, which means I have approximately 2100 former students wandering the streets using a limited vocabulary. Don’t make the same mistake I made. Utilize these concepts now.

Using Language Structure Clues: take context clues to the next level with language structure clues. Look for negation: I needed a warrior not a pacifist. Look for parallel structure: The campout included spelunkers, explorers, and adventurists. Effective teaching strategies include:

  • Modeling: verbally demonstrate the thought process involved with determining word meanings with language structure clues.
  • Context Clue Justification: Require students to identify the type of context clue involved. Types include synonym, antonym, definition, example, compare and contrast, general context, and language structure.

Using Word Maps: Help visual learners by implementing word maps into your vocabulary assignments. Word maps show a central bubble containing a key word or idea. Bubbles that surround the center bubble are linked and contain words that show semantic relationships, explain structure, provide examples, or analyze word parts. Teaching Strategies include:

  • Modeling: You probably recognize a pattern. Believe it or not, students model teacher behavior in regards to how they learn. When you come across an unfamiliar word, write it on the board and make a concept map.
  • Concept map assignment: Instead of the traditional vocabulary assignment with which we are all familiar, require concept maps. Options include synonyms, antonyms, other forms of the word, examples, or just about anything that will help students learn.

Using Concept Definition Maps: Completing a Concept-Definition Map can be a powerful tool for providing background information and incorporating multiple aspects of vocabulary building. Direct students to use prior knowledge of the word to answer the following questions: What is it? What is it like? and What are some examples? Lesson ideas include:

  • In groups of 3 to 4 answer the aforementioned questions for a designated number of words.

Using Possible Sentences: encourage students to speculate about word meanings. Write sentences on the board using 10-12 key words, heretofore untaught. Some sentences are correct; others are not. Students speculate which words are used correctly. Teaching ideas include:

  • Check sentences immediately (beating students with incorrect answers with a wooden sledge-hammer. Just kidding. I wanted to make sure you were still reading).
  • Grade the possible sentences as you read the word in context.

ELA Common Core Standards Covered

Here are some common core standards that apply.

  • L.9-10.2c  Spell correctly. Knowledge of Language
  • L.9-10.3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
  • L.9-10.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases based on grades 9-10 reading and content, choosing flexibly from a range of strategies. Use context (e.g., the overall meaning of a sentence, paragraph, or text; a word’s position or function in a sentence) as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
  • L.9-10.4b Identify and correctly use patterns of word changes that indicate different meanings or parts of speech (e.g., analyze, analysis, analytical; advocate, advocacy).
  • L.9-10.4c Consult general and specialized reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation of a word or determine or clarify its precise meaning, its part of speech, or its etymology.
  • L.9-10.4d  Verify the preliminary determination of the meaning of a word or phrase (e.g., by checking the inferred meaning in context or in a dictionary).
  • L.9-10.5  Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.

Teaching Vocabulary

If they don’t learn it, you’ve wasted your time. These vocabulary teaching strategies will help.


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