How to expand students’ vocabulary in different and fun ways

Is stale the best word, or is stagnant better? Is there rain outside, or a deluge? Do you hear noise, or a commotion? And are the differences important?

They are, especially in a world where teens text phrases like what u doin? or get outta here! all day long, when abbreviations such as LOL (laugh out loud), BTW (by the way), or POS (parent over shoulder) stand in for real language in the blink of an eye.

Vocabulary skills play a critical role in reading comprehension, writing ability, and correct communication of ideas. An individual student’s vocabulary at age 5 reflects what they have learned at home, from the way their parents speak, to having books read to them, to watching television or movies. That same child’s vocabulary at age 10 will have expanded exponentially, taking in words and nuances from school, technology, and their peers. And by age 15, social media will play a role as well.

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Students with larger vocabularies will communicate more successfully and express themselves more effectively in writing. Vocabulary strength can be directly linked to success in reading comprehension and language development, which in turn are directly linked to success in school overall.

In an age where reading scores are falling – two out of three American fourth- and eighth-grade students didn’t meet reading proficiency standards set by the National Assessment of Educational Progress test in 2019 – building vocabulary is more important than ever.

“To teach vocabulary effectively teachers must learn the skills necessary to apply the best approaches,” writes Dominican University of California. “Student vocabulary instruction is an art that will help pupils retain new terms that will allow them to prosper.”

Here are five ideas for teaching vocabulary in new or fun ways:

  • “New and Improved” word lists: For her third graders, teacher Genia Connell writes in Scholastic that she begins each week with a “baby word” or “little kid word” that they used to use when younger, and then has the students create a list of about 10 words that expand on that word. So “eat” could expand into gobble, taste, consume, devour, wolf, gulp, and so on. A sheet of chart paper on the wall holds all these words, and as the students come up with more words through the week, they’re added with sticky notes. At the end of the week, Connell makes a copy of the list for all her students, with punch-holes so they can be kept in a notebook. During writing lessons, Connell tells her students to, “Watch out for baby words!” and sees them immediately start consulting their past lists of words to write in more sophisticated ways.
  • A “Breakthrough Box:” Have your students cut out a word from a magazine, a newspaper, a cereal box, or a mailing, and bring it to class. Paste the words on 3×5 cards and put them into the Breakthrough Box. Each day, one word “breaks through” when the teacher calls on a student to pull a card out of the box. The class then has the task of discovering  the word’s meanings and all the ways in which it can be used. When finished, that word can be pinned on the bulletin board or written down in students’ vocabulary books.
  • Picture of the Day: Each day, pin a picture to the front board. It can be nearly anything – an advertisement from a magazine, a printout from the Internet, etc. Ask the students to come up with as many different words to describe the picture as they can. A picture of an orange, for instance, might inspire the words orange, fruit, dessert, juice, healthy, peel, and seeds. As time goes on, make the pictures more difficult.
  • The “Shades of Synonym” Wall: Jessica Azar tells Teacher Magazine about an idea she first found on Pinterest. Collect a bunch of paint-chip cards at a hardware or home-improvement store. At the top of each paint chip, write a common word. Then, on each remaining color of the paint chip, write a synonym. Pin all the paint chips on a bulletin board and encourage the students to come take a paint chip during a writing exercise and use different words. The paint chips themselves help the students learn. “If a student sees a word down on the bottom like ‘amazing’ and they don’t know what that means, they can go up and they can see the word ‘good,’ Azar says. “So sometimes I’ll even see that they’ve written a word like ‘hungry,’ they’ll cross it out and they’ll go get the Shade Wall word and it will say ‘ravenous’ and they’ve written that in their writing. They’re more aware of the word choices that they’re using, trying to make their writing more interesting.”
  • “Fast-Talker” Game: Create a list of categories, and pass them out to all your students. (Categories can be animals, things that are red, things you see at the grocery store, words associated with the environment, and so on.) Then create a card for each category that lists words that go into that category. (Words for animals could be dog and cat, or course, but since you’re working to expand vocabulary, you could use coyote, lynx, lemur, orangutan, and so on). Choose a student to be the first “talker,” and give that student one of the cards with the lists. That student’s job is to talk fast – “mile-a-minute talker” is another name for this game – and get the other students to guess each word on the card. For “coyote,” for example, the student could say “like a dog but wild,” or “lives in a pack,” or “smaller than a wolf.” Once the class guesses coyote, the student would move on to lynx.

A six-course series at Dominican is designed to help teachers learn strategies that will significantly improve the ability to teach the Common Core State Standards, including vocabulary. To view a class syllabus or learn more about the topic, click on each link.

  • Vocabulary’s CODE (EDUO 9213): an approach to vocabulary instruction that will help students master crucial concepts and retain new vocabulary terms. 1 semester credit.
  • Reading for Meaning: (EDUO 9208): Learn to implement the research-based strategy of reading for meaning. This focus can help all readers make sense of challenging texts. 1 semester credit.
  • Compare and Contrast: (EDUO 9209): Builds a student’s memory, helps eliminate confusion, and brings crucial similarities and differences into focus. 1 semester credit.
  • Inductive Learning: (EDUO 9210): Helps students deepen their understanding of content and develop their inference and evidence-gathering skills. 1 semester credit.
  • Circle of Knowledge: (EDUO 9211): This class provides teachers with the framework for planning and conducting discussions that foster student participation and critical thinking. 1 semester
    • Write to Learn (EDUO 9212): A strategy to improve students’ thinking, deepen their comprehension of content, and help teachers with formative assessments. 1 semester credit.

    And for a look at all of Dominican’s professional development courses, visit us here.

    Photo credit: RA2Studio via iStock photos

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