Vocabulary Instruction

What does good vocabulary instruction look like?

Eh.. good question…

Honestly, I don’t believe there is one solid answer to that question.  Just like with all types of instruction, quality vocabulary instruction consists of multiple factors that one must consider. Incorporating one lesson is not going to ensure students learn and use the vocabulary.  I believe it is more of a process.  What works in one classroom may not work in another.  As teachers, we must all modify and implement what works best for us!

I was asked to find a teacher-endorsed vocabulary lesson that works.  Instead of picking a “tried and true” lesson, (partly because I don’t think there is just one perfect way to do things), I decided to discuss five of my favorite vocabulary instructional activities/techniques. 

*Note… These strategies can be used across disciplines.  Math, ELA, Science, Art, Music, Social Studies… etc.. can all be implemented into the following strategies.

1. PUT THE STUDENT IN THE “VOCABULARY DRIVER SEAT”:  Let the students preview the text and identify vocabulary words that they think are important or that they have a question about. (Unfamiliar words)  

When using grade appropriate text, I like to present vocabulary words in context to students.  I don’t tell them what the words mean. Instead, I allow students to preview a piece of text where the words are used.  I have them annotate the text on their own at first.  This allows them to explore, gain interest, and develop questions that they may have. If you think about it, even as adults, when we are able to choose, it means more. I am pretty sure there is research that backs that up as well.  Anyway… In my class, we use annotation symbols during our “first read” of the text.  This allows for easy and quick discussion. (See the chart below)  Using the annotation symbols, I can simply ask the students if they had any question marks in their text, or if they found anything interesting.  This creates easy and focused discussion. (This can work in all subject areas.  Sometimes you have to create your own text, but it is always possible!)

Once the students have used annotation to identify confusing words or words they have never seen, I am sure to not simply tell the students the definition.  Instead, I encourage them to first use their context clues to try and figure out what a word means.  Often, I have them “Think – Pair – Share” with their tables or elbow partners.  This sets the stage and gets the students to actually begin using the vocabulary words even if they don’t know the actual meaning just yet. 

After the students have discussed what they think the vocabulary words mean, I allow the students to research the word using the internet, textbook, or a resource that I have provided to them.  You choose what works best for you!  It is interesting to see the students’ reactions when they discover the meanings of the words.  There are frequent “aha” and “light bulb” moments.  It is much more meaningful than just “doing definitions”. It is also fun to see the students’ interactions with one another. More often that not, the students compete with one another to see if they are able to identify the correct definitions for the words.  

Why this works: 

When students are given the ability to choose the words, they become more meaningful to them. They will be more motivated to discuss the definitions and search for answers on their own. This strategy also helps students develop their reading skills.  They begin using context clues and asking questions. 

****Note – for struggling readers, ALL words may seem challenging.  Be sure to select  appropriate text for these students or provide teacher help.  Furthermore, when reading extremely long text, you may want to pre-read and identify important words students may have trouble with. Go ahead and give the students the word list up front. You probably don’t want to spend a week just looking at vocabulary.  It’s okay to help the students identify the words to help on time! 

2. VOCABULARY HEADBANDZ: Where reviewing vocabulary is FUN! 

Have you ever played the game “Hedbanz”?  If not, you’re missing out!! Go check it out here: http://www.hedbanz.com/. I have implemented a similar game in my classroom that I use to review vocabulary. (Notice the word REVIEW).  I wouldn’t suggest using this to teach vocabulary because the students would have no idea what they are doing.  


Why this works: 
The kids are super motivated during this activity! They want to WIN, and they want to learn these words, so they are able to act/guess them.  The entire group is involved and engaged! 



Vocabulary flipbooks/foldables seem to be a “hot item” in the teaching scene as of late. For good reason! The students enjoy making these because they get to do some cutting, pasting, drawing, etc… It is, however, very similar to just writing definitions.  Don’t use them only for that! Here is the lowdown on vocabulary flipbooks: 

The teacher provides the students with the vocabulary words to use in creating their flipbook.  Students write the words on the outside, cut the slips for each word, write the definition in the inside, and draw a picture relating to the definition.  Some teachers may vary the directions, but most flipbooks are similar in design.  

To make these, all you need is a sheet of white paper and scissors.  Students fold the paper and cut slits for each word. 

I would NOT recommend using this as the sole way to teach the students the words!  There is so much more that goes into students learning and using vocabulary. This is, however, a great resource tool! Students can get these out and use them during class, or even use them to study/quiz themselves.   

This is a photo of a flipbook I offer in my opinion writing resource on TPT.  You can download this resource here: 

Why this works: 
Students are able to be creative with their vocabulary words.  They get to make the words more interactive, and they can use the flipbooks as a reference/study tool. Requiring a picture integrates some of Marzano’s ideas. Teachers can incorporate more of Marzano’s ideas by requiring examples, synonyms, etc.. These are very easily modified to meet your needs.

4. USE YOUR WALL SPACE WISELY: No “wallpapering” allowed!!

I have walked into some classrooms that have everything covered with instructional material! Every inch: walls, doors, desks, bulletins, chalkboards, ceilings, doorknobs.  Okay, so maybe I exaggerated a bit, but geez! How effective can that possibly be?? In my opinion, you can overdo the amount of references/resources you post on your walls until it becomes absolutely overwhelming. That is why I decided to include the tip of using your wall space wisely! 

I know we like our classrooms to look nice, but while you are decorating, think about including a few areas that display vocabulary words. Be mindful of what you are putting on your walls.  Have a purpose! Doing this, along with the regularly speaking and writing, will only aide in integrating these words into the students vocabularies for a lifetime!  Here are some examples from my classroom:

I found this idea on pinterest.  The kids really love it!! They strive to use fancy words, and they actually use this display as a reference tool! I see them all the time looking back to try and use one of the words when speaking.  I always try to recognize their use of a “fancy word”, and I try to make a big deal out of it.  (This is a photo of my “fancy word” wall at the beginning of the year.  We have added many more words to our display!) 
For my math vocabulary, I have separated the words to math the Common Core State Standards.  We only add the words as we learn them.  This display will grow throughout the entire year. Not only does this include the word, but it includes the definition and a picture! I found these on teacherpayteachers.  You can download yours here: 
Why this works: 
Creating vocabulary displays integrates the words into the student’s environment.  It can be used as a reference/resource tool. Teachers can also come up with creative ways to make the boards interactive throughout the year.

5. POSSIBLE SENTENCES:  ‘Before Reading’ activity that generates class discussion.


Possible sentences is a strategy that I found in one of my teaching books. There is a bit of research to back this up, and I like the way it get the students interested in the text.  Here is how this works: 

  1. The teacher chooses six to eight words from the text that may pose difficulty for students. These words are usually key concepts in the text.
  2. Next, the teacher chooses four to six words that students are more likely to know something about.
  3. The list of ten to twelve words is put on the chalk board or overhead projector. The teacher provides brief definitions as needed.
  4. Students are challenged to devise sentences that contain two or more words from the list.
  5. All sentences that students come up with, both accurate and inaccurate, are listed and discussed.
  6. Students now read the selection.
  7. After reading, revisit the Possible Sentences and discuss whether they could be true based on the passage or how they could be modified to true.

Moore, P. W. and S. A. Moore. “Possible sentences.” In E. K. Dishner, T. W. Bean, J. E. Readence, and P. W. Moore (eds.), Reading in the Content Areas: Improving Classroom Instruction, 2nd ed.,1986. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt pp. 174–179.

Why this works: 
The students begin asking questions to themselves about the words as soon as they see the list.  They begin searching for meaning.  The writing and discussing of the sentences allows  the teacher to get an idea of the words that the students are struggling with, and it allows the students to think more about the vocabulary words they will encounter in their text.  The students are also more involved in the reading of the text because they are analyzing the vocabulary use. 


Wait! That’s not all!!  
So.. You have integrated these fabulous vocabulary techniques and strategies… (am I going too far? ha!).
Now what?
3 things…
Integrate these words into your everyday vocabulary. YOU.. the teacher must remember to try and use these words around your students.  You will notice that they will start doing the same. When you hear the students using the words, point it out! Make a big deal out of it. Brag on them. When they see the words used in different texts, they will point them out to you. This is a good thing. 🙂 
Repeat these words many times.  Don’t just teach the word and move on.  The more the student encounters a word, the more he or she will develop an understanding for the word. 
Meaningful use of the word is so very important. The students need multiple opportunities to use these new words across the curriculum. Provide challenges to the students to use certain words in their speaking and writing.  Ask them to go home and tell their parents about a word they learned in class.  Encourage the students to use this vocabulary!
I hope I was able to help you come up with some ideas that you will use in your classroom! All of these have worked well in my 5th grade classroom.  For the most part, they can be used across content areas and grade levels with some modification.  If you have any vocabulary strategies, tips, or techniques that work well in your classroom, please share in the comments! I would love to hear what works for you! 
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Stephanie Nash

I have been helping teachers organize, develop routines, and create inviting & beautiful classrooms since 2012!

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