5 Tips for Improving Student Vocabulary

  • To teach vocabulary effectively teachers must learn the skills necessary to apply the best approaches. Student vocabulary instruction is an art that will help pupils retain new terms that will allow them to prosper.

    So how is improving English vocabulary accomplished?

    According to Oxford University Press, “Students need to be able to do so much more than reel off lists of vocabulary. They need to be able to manipulate the language so that it can support their communicative needs.” This comes through a combination of memorization, reading, dictionary usage, context and other activities such as online games. Students must use a new word 10 to 16 times before it sinks in.

    Teaching vocabulary goes beyond memorizing words with flashcards. It is process that begins with encountering a word and ends when a student can produce the word.

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    English vocabulary can be tricky, particularly if it is not a student’s first language. Identical words can often have different meanings depending on the context in which they are used. Lexicon can also change over the course of time, meaning words can change meaning. Grammar and structure must be tackled to ensure that words are being used correctly.

    Here are 5 tricks and tips to help your students increase their vocabulary.

    1. Take a systematic approach to vocabulary practice

    Students should be encouraged to learn new vocabulary daily, but in short spurts. This is the best way to make it stick, experts say.

    Hours a day – too much at one time — means most of it will be lost in the long term. Instead, if students commit to just 15 minutes a day of focused practice, they’ll soon have a solid linguistic base of new words and definitions.

    Students can incorporate this practice into their daily classroom routine this way. Following up and testing can affirm and solidify the words they have learned.

    2. Reading for meaning

    Reading for meaning is a research-based strategy that helps all readers make sense of challenging texts. Reading is one of the most effective ways to teach vocabulary and regular reading is the strategy that gives students the opportunity to practice and master the phases of critical reading that lead to reading success and improved word usage. Strategies can include actively searching for new words during reading and reflecting on what was learned after reading.

    Much like physical exercise, one will see better results from small amounts regularly, rather than large amounts infrequently.

    In a classroom management context, studies show that students will be motivated if interested in the topic. So let the students choose to read what interests them, as long as it fits the educational rubric of improved learning. The more they read, the more they will be reviewing vocabulary and that increased exposure will help the vocabulary get stored into the students’ long term memory. This in turn will enable better spoken and written production.

    According to Oxford University Press: Bring a selection of different readers into the classroom and scatter them around the class. Tell students to circulate the room and simply discuss with each other which readers they like and which they don’t. They should just look at the cover and the blurb on the back. Based on this, they choose the reader they’d like to read.

    3. Teach vocabulary in context

    Going through a list of words that are not connected to a subject or story, or each other, is the wrong approach. Instead, Use a subject like cars to build use of adjectives – fast, big, compact, fuel, electric, automatic, manual, etc. Teachers can then ask students to answer questions based on descriptions or create their own fill-in-the-blank assignments.

    Games, puzzles, songs and music, and real-life objects are important tools. For students to effectively and accurately produce vocabulary, they have to spontaneously recall the words.

    4. Teach vocabulary specific to the content

     Content-specific refers to terms, concepts or vocabulary having explicit meaning critical to understanding particular content.

    A student’s maximum level of reading comprehension is determined by his or her knowledge of words. Teach keywords that children will need to comprehend texts and learn the content in those texts.

    Students must learn to define a word, recognize when to use that word, its multiple meanings, and spell that word. Some ways to do this is through pictures and symbols. It is also important to assess a student’s use of words in writing and speaking.

    5. Word association

    Word association is an activity that can be used with large classes and limited resources. How it works: Write a word on the board, and then get your students to say the first word that pops up in their head which has a relation to the word on the board. It’s a good idea to go around the class getting each student to give a word. If a student can’t come up with a word, this is the perfect opportunity to go over the meaning.


    Teaching vocabulary within the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is an essential component of standards-based curriculum alignment. Making the critical words second nature to our students will enhance achievement on assessments and will be useful in college and career, according to Author Marilee Sprenger.

    To process and store the academic vocabulary of the standards, students’ brains require an efficient automatic memory system. This system, also called nonmotor procedural memory, stores information that is repeated, such as multiplication tables, song lyrics, words and definitions.

    This post contains guidelines and tips, but vocabulary instruction can be taught in myriad ways. So discover which is most effective for you.