Tips for Teaching Vocabulary

In some classrooms, the teacher provides a list of vocabulary words on Monday, gives students some practice or homework on the words for a couple of days, gives a quiz on Friday, and then moves on to new words the following Monday. This age-old strategy might be efficient, but it seldom results in students permanently adding new words to their own working vocabularies.

Here are some tips for creating meaningful vocabulary study in your classroom.

  • Develop a list of words that you will use for the entire school year. The words can be culled from class readings, different subjects, or from domain-specific vocabulary lists that align to Common Core Standards. A typical list for grades three to five might include 50 to 75 words, for grades six to eight 100 words, and for high school, up to 150 words.
  • Make copies of a list of the words, with room for their definitions and parts of speech, so that there is one for each student to keep in his or her binder. If students have all of the words at the beginning of the year, they can work ahead if they like, or catch up easily if they miss a few days of school.
  • Provide definitions and parts of speech for one or two words each day. A good way to do this is to create a ‘do-now’ that gives students an opportunity to define the word in context. Put a single sentence on the board and allow students to propose definitions.
  • Administer frequent short quizzes that cover random sets of the words. In this way, each word will appear in more than one quiz.
  • Require students to use the vocabulary words in writing assignments or in class discussions or presentations.

The key to the success of this strategy is that the words never ‘go away.’ Teachers who use this strategy often administer a long, end-of-the-year vocabulary test that covers all of the words. Students do well because they’ve used the words all year long. Vocabulary study is more meaningful to students because the goal is for students to ‘own’ the listed words, rather than to memorize a short list for a short period of time.