21 Ideas for Teaching Vocabulary in the Classroom
I’m sharing 21 ideas for teaching vocabulary. You may not be able to use all of them, but I hope you can find some ideas that will work well for you!
I’ve shared books about vocabulary instruction, as well as the theory and techniques. This post is a lot more practical. We’re all about ideas today!
IDEA #1: Semantic Maps
In this activity, the teacher chooses a word and displays it for the class on a whiteboard, etc..
Students read the word and then think of words that come to mind when they see that word (this is awesome because it activates prior learning).
A list is created of all of the words that come to mind, and then those words are categorized. This can be done as a whole class or in small groups. Students then create a “map” using a graphic organizer and discuss it. Additional or substitute categories can be suggested.
As students read through the text, they can add related words to the map.
IDEA #2: Eye Spy
Give students a list of words to search for in a text or have them find unfamiliar words. You can award points to the words based on different criteria (longest new word, word with most consonants, etc.). Invest in a set of inexpensive dollar store magnifying glasses to make this more game-like. Do this as a pre-reading activity.
IDEA #3: Making Choices
Students show their understanding of vocabulary by saying the word when it applies, or remaining silent when it doesn’t.
For example: “Say radiant if any of these things would make someone look radiant.”
-Winning a million dollars.
-Earning a gold medal.
-Walking to the post office.
-Cleaning your room.
-Having a picture you painted hung in the school library. (This idea is from the book Bringing Words to Life, recommended in the books section.)
IDEA #4: Sorting Hat
Use a Harry Potter theme to have students sort words into categories. They can pull them out of a hat. If you give them the categories, it’s called a “closed sort.” If they come up with their own categories, it’s called “open sort.”
IDEA #5: Word Pairs
Give students words in pairs and have them evaluate if the words are the same, opposite, go together, or are unrelated. (adapted from Word Power: What Every Educator Needs to Know about Teaching Vocabulary)
IDEA #6: Linear Array
In this strategy, students use a graphic organizer that is a rectangle, three ovals, and then another rectangle, all in a line. The word in question goes in the rectangle on the far left. The rectangle on the far right is filled in with a word that is the opposite. The center three ovals are filled in with words that go from the far left to the far right, gradually become less similar until they reach the opposite. For example, microscopic, tiny, small, bigger, large. (adapted from Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4 – 12)
IDEA #7: Games
Many “real” games work well for vocab play and practice. Games such as Balderdash, Taboo, Scrabble, Blurt, Bananagrams, word bingo, and others are fun. There are online games as well, such as Scholastic’s Synonym Toast.
[Note: I am a notoriously horrible Scrabble player, and every time I play I think, “English teachers should be better at this.” It’s not my favorite.]
IDEA #8: Scavenger Hunt
Have a word scavenger hunt in books, magazines, articles on the net, or in the school or home. Don’t just go for numbers; go for unusual words, academic vocabulary, weird spellings, homophones, etc.
IDEA #9: Word Wheel
IDEA #10: Vocabulary Photo Album
IDEA #11: Tally
Use tally marks to track words you’re trying to practice. Mark whenever the teacher says the word in context, and mark twice when a student does. Alternately, you can have the tally marks be even, but play the teacher versus the class.
IDEA #12: Relay for Words
Print out words on one set of cards (copy this set a few times) and definitions, context, or sentences in which they could be used (fill-in-the-blank) on another set (just one set).
Jumble up the words in a pile in the middle of the floor, and jumble up the definitions, context, and sentences to keep with you. Break students into teams of five-ish.
Call out the definition/context/sentence and give students some think time (8 – 10 seconds) to talk about what word it might be. After the discussion time, call out “Word!” One member from each team runs to the center and tries to find the word in the pile. I like having multiple sets of the words so more than one team can get it.
Check to make sure they’re correct, and then discuss it briefly before the next round.
Note: I got this idea from another teacher’s site, but I cannot for the life of me remember where. I have searched Google for it, and can’t find it. A small prize to the person who can figure out the originator of the idea!
IDEA #13: Vocabulary Relay
This is a different relay activity than the one above. In this version, teams of students race to fill in words responsive to a category that start with the letters of the alphabet in order. Shared by Sarah Ressler, this activity is one that has a thematic base, and would work really well to target academic vocabulary.
IDEA #13: Comic Strip Word Activity (elementary)
IDEA #14: Paper Plate Vocab
IDEA #15: Vocab on the Move
Students all have a sentence strip with a word with which they are familiar in a “crown” on their heads. (this is a review activity, not an initial teaching activity). The students don’t know what word he or she has. They walk around the classroom asking each other a series of questions to determine the meaning of their word.
IDEA #16: Word Sneak
IDEA #17: Frayer Model
The Frayer Model is an oldie-but-goodie vocab activity model in which student work in multiple ways in a specifically laid out graphic organizer to engage with words. Find examples and great resources in The Teacher Toolkit.
IDEA #18: Tweet
IDEA #19: Brain Power Words
This is a strong academic vocabulary activity that takes a little bit of time, but would really help get the words past the superficial level of understanding.
- Ask small groups of students to preview sections of a text and identify difficult words.
- For long chapters, assign different sections to different groups.
- Students place a Post-it next to the words in the text they identify as potentially difficult.
- After identifying the words, the group goes back and uses context clues to hypothesize what the words might mean.
- Clues of substitution: A known word would make sense in the context and is probably a good definition.
- Clues of definition: The word is defined in the text (many textbooks do this).
- Clues of opposition: Words “not, unlike” etc. are excellent clues to what a word is not and thus help define the words.
- After the Brain Power Words list is identified and definitions sought, the students check their work with the teacher.
This strategy is from Becky McTague and Margaret Richek (it’s in the book Reading Success for Struggling Adolescent Learners by Susan Lenski and Jill Lewis).
IDEA #20: The Concept Cube
Students receive six-square pattern on tagboard that can be folded up and taped into a three-dimensional cube, which will be 4” on each side. You can create these digitally at the ReadWriteThink website.
You can print out a blank cube and have students print the responses below, or complete it online and then print it out.
Before folding, students write clearly in each square following the directions below.
Each student is given one challenging vocabulary word from a recent reading and asked to:
- Write the assigned vocabulary word in one square.
- Write a synonym (word or phrase) in another square.
- Write an antonym (word or phrase) in another square.
- Write a category or categories it could belong to.
- Write the essential characteristics of the concept of this word.
- Give one example.
Cut, fold, and tape the cube.
Roll the cube and read what comes up on the “top”; the student must tell the relationship of that word or phrase to the original word.
After students know their own cube without any errors, they exchange with a peer.
This idea is from Bridge of Vocabulary: Evidence-Based Activities for Academic Success
IDEA #21: Phone a Friend
Search TeacherspayTeachers or Teachers Notebook for vocabulary activities you can use or adapt. The beauty of this is that you can search by grade level and subject, so you can focus on what you’re studying.
A caveat to this is that if you create something grade level or content specific, you can share it with other teachers, too.
The Importance of a Variety of Activities
You want to have a variety of activities so that vocabulary instruction doesn’t become routine or boring. Keeping it fresh with lots of different ways of learning will help students (and the teacher) avoid getting burned out or tired of working with vocabulary.
These 21 activities for teaching vocabulary are just a start. I’d love to know your ideas!
The Vocabulary Series
This post is Part 3 of a four-part series on teaching vocabulary. If you would like to check out the rest of the series, visit the posts below
- Teaching Vocabulary: The books
- Theories & Techniques that work (and don’t)
- 21 Activities for Teaching Vocabulary (this one)
- Ideas for English Language Learners
Note: This content uses referral links. Read my disclosure policy (it’s fascinating) for more info.