21 Ideas for Teaching Vocabulary

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!

I’m sharing the bare bones of the ideas here.

I’m adding lengthier explanations for some of them with more tips and fleshed-out instructions on my website devoted just to vocabulary instruction, VocabularyLuau.

You’ll see that option at the end of the idea if it’s available. 

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.

Want more details on this strategy? Get the step-by-step on VocabularyLuau.

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.

This is a great pre-reading activity.

Want more details on this strategy? Get the step-by-step on VocabularyLuau.

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.)

This is one of the key strategies teachers need in introducing new vocabulary. Because of that, I’ve written extensively and given a dozen examples from different texts for Kinder through 12th grade on VocabularyLuau.

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.”

This one is so, so fun. I explain lots more about how to do it on VocabularyLuau.

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.

This strategy is terrific for building critical thinking skills along with the vocabulary.

Get even more details and variations at VocabularyLuau.

(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.

You can see examples of the graphic organizer, more details, and lots of variations on VocabularyLuau.

(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, Bananagramsword 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.

Want more details on this strategy? Get the step-by-step on VocabularyLuau.

IDEA #9: Word Wheel

Copy and paste this image onto a sheet of cardstock and make a vocab spinner game. EisforExplore shares the whole idea here.

Explore Spinner

Want more details on this strategy? Get the step-by-step on VocabularyLuau.

IDEA #10: Vocabulary Photo Album

Using a simple, inexpensive photo album, students create a visual glossary of key words.

I’ve got pictures of examples, details, and more ideas at VocabularyLuau, if you’d like to read more.

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.

Alternatively, you can have the tally marks be even, but play the teacher versus the class.

There’s so much more to this strategy. Learn more about how tally marks can help you teach vocabulary at VocabularyLuau.

IDEA #12: Vocabulary Relay

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!

I’ve written quite a bit about it here, but I’ve written more (and have lots of pictures of it in play) at VocabularyLuau.

IDEA #13: Vocabulary Category Relay 

This is a different relay activity than the one above, even though the names are so similar.

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.

This can be done individually, in groups, or even as a whole class. It’s also a good one for both digital and in-person instruction.

When I wrote about it on VocabularyLuau, I shared these score sheets for digital use, as well as printable versions.

IDEA #13: Comic Strip Word Activity 

I got the idea for using comic strips from This Reading Mama.

In some ways, it’s really a modified Frayer model. 

I loved it so much that I started making them like crazy. It turns out that they let me get a clear glimpse into how well the students had mastered the word. 

comic strip of frog with speech bubbles

 

I have an entire article about this, filled with loads of ideas and resources at VocabularyLuau.

You can check out that article here (or click the image below).

sample comic strip vocabulary scene with link to comic strip vocabulary on VocabularyLuau.com

IDEA #14: Paper Plate Vocab

I love this inexpensive matching game from Finding Joy in Fifth Grade, and I think students could create it themselves.

Paper Plate Vocabulary

 

IDEA #15: Heads Up Vocabulary Game

Students hold a word on a card in front of their foreheads. The students don’t know what words they have.

Students ask each other a series of questions to determine the meaning of their word. Or, students can give students clues to the person with the word to help that person guess the word.

This is a review activity, and it’s not for initial instruction.

It’s such a favorite that I wrote a very comprehensive article about it on VocabularyLuau. There’s even a hack for printing on Post-it notes!

IDEA #16: Word Sneak

Word Sneak is a game invented by Jimmy Fallon that he plays with guests on the Tonight Show.

In the game, Jimmy and the guest each get a stack of cards with words on them that they have to work into the conversation naturally (without sounding forced or stilted).

It’s hysterical to watch and fun to play.

It’s also a great way to learn different ways to approach a word.

It’s so much fun that when I wrote the article about in on VocabularyLuau, I also included a Tonight Show backdrop you can use in class to give it an even more “real” feel.

tonight show set with word sneak eyes

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.

frayer model graphic organizer with various shapes

This is such a must-know that I wrote a (very lengthy and detailed) plan for how to use it at VocabularyLuau.

It includes downloads and printables and digital versions, as well as exactly how (and why) to use this strategy.

If you are not familiar with it, please do yourself a solid and read more.

IDEA #18: Tweet

Have students create a “tweet” that a word would send out or with the word in the tweet in context.

You can use a tool like PrankmeNot or Siminator to make it look real.

This strategy is so fun and so useful!

I’ve written about five different ways to do this (with examples) on VocabularyLuau, and I even have this free template for you there:

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

A concept cube is a pattern that is printed on paper or cardstock, cut out, folded, and taped into a three-dimensional cube.

Students write, type, or draw on the pattern prior to assembling the cube, and then they “play” with the cube to explore concepts.

Depending upon the way you choose to use it, they can be similar to a three-dimensional Frayer model.

printed out concept cubes on colored paper

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.

You can get more ideas and details, as well as a free printable, at VocabularyLuau.

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.

There’s been so much interest in this that I created an entire website just for vocab ideas called VocabularyLuau.

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

There’s even a great book for teaching vocabulary!

These ideas work for all vocabulary words.

If your students need to learn vocabulary words and terms that are specific to your content (words like acute angle or latitude or simile or biome), have I got a book for you!

You know how I know it’s great? I wrote it! I wrote it for teachers just like you from the method I created in my own class with my own students and tested over and over.

cover of concept capsules book by Lisa Van Gemert

You can learn more about it by clicking on the picture of it, or you can read more and see loads of examples here.

If you already know you want it, you can grab a paperback version on Amazon.

Or, if you want a digital copy, you can use the coupon code GIFTEDGURU for 20% off you can…

Grab your copy

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