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Stretch Their Vocabularies

Found In: teaching strategies

A strong vocabulary impacts every part of a child’s school experience, including writing, speaking, reading in the content areas, comprehension, and standardized tests. Every minute a teacher uses in strengthening students’ vocabulary is an investment that will pay lasting dividends.

Statistics show that there is a wide vocabulary gap between our most at risk readers and our strongest readers. The question is how do teachers meet the challenge of improving students’ vocabulary.

Research has shown that students must make connections and have multiple exposures to words in order to make the words a part of their permanent memory. There are many strategies teachers can use to strengthen students’ vocabulary. Here are some that have worked for me as a K-5 reading coach and former third grade teacher.

Post-it Vocabulary

Give students a post-it note to put on the cover of the books they are reading during independent reading time. Have them write down words from the book that they don’t know or they feel are important. During conferences with students, you can discuss these words.

Also, you can appoint a word expert. Students enjoy leadership roles, so once a week, assign someone to be the word expert. He or she sits at a special table with a dictionary and students come to the expert to ask about the words they don’t know. Students can share these words with the class during sharing time, add the words to the word wall, or put them in their vocabulary journal.

Vocabulary Journal

Give each student a spiral steno book to record words they gather from independent reading, content area reading, read-alouds, or videos watched in class. On one side of the page, they write the word. On the other side, they put a representation of the word or tell something about the word. This could be a picture, sentence, student-friendly definition, synonym, or antonym. Students take ownership of the words like they’re small treasures. The words they put in the journal become a permanent record and celebration of the words they are learning.

Vocabulary Stories

Do you remember having to write a story with all your spelling words? Well this strategy takes that activity to an all new level—it improves students’ vocabulary and encompasses multiple learning styles.

First identify five to ten key words from a story or chapter that you plan to read with the class. Give students a copy of the words and have them cut them apart or have them write the words on index cards. Give students a few minutes to work with a partner to sort the words into categories that make sense to them. Sorting the words is important because students discuss their prior knowledge of the words, make connections between the words, look at word parts, and talk about the words. Allowing students to work with a partner helps generate thinking. Students may use dictionaries or thesauruses, but it is not necessary. Then, lead the students in a discussion of their thinking about how the words are connected and help them develop kid-friendly definitions.

Next, give the title and genre of the story they are about to read, but do not read the text yet. Guide the class in writing a group story in that genre using the title and vocabulary words. At first students will be afraid of saying something wrong, so remind them that this is a shared writing exercise and that everyone’s input is welcome. Encourage students to be creative with their story and use all the words. Finally, read the actual story and have students compare their vocabulary stories with the actual story. You’ll be amazed at the level of thinking and laughing this strategy encourages.

Word Webs

This activity helps students teach one another new words. When you introduce new vocabulary words, put each word on an index card. Have each group (or each partner) select a word and put their word in the center of a large sheet of paper. Working together the students research their word using dictionaries or the computer and create a graphic organizer to teach the word to the other students. Students love using poster board or large sheets of paper for this project. In each corner of the paper students “illustrate” the word, by drawing a picture depicting the word, writing a sentence using the word, listing synonyms or antonyms of the word, and writing a student-friendly definition. The power of this activity lies in the collaboration of students who want to find the best way to teach their word to their peers.

Showcase for Abstract Terms

To teach abstract concepts like independence, conservation, or friendship, introduce the word in context and discuss it with students. Ask the class to think of pictorial representations of the word. Encourage them to bring pictures, photographs, and artifacts to represent the word and have them create a bulletin board to showcase each word. Give students time to explain how the object or picture they bring in relates to the essential concept.

Vocabulary Parade

At our school, kids love having a vocabulary parade. Students choose a word to depict through costume and they stage an actual parade to showcase their words. You can set parameters for the words by using, for example, only words with multiple meanings or words dealing with a certain period in history. Each child wears a costume depicting his or her word and poster board sign with definitions, part of speech, or other ways to describe the word. Our school has done this parade for several years and it has made learning new words a memorable experience.

These are just a few of the ways I’ve used to stretch students’ vocabulary. These fun and engaging activities help students of all learning styles and academic levels. Building students’ vocabulary improves their reading comprehension by broadening their conceptual and background knowledge. Strong vocabulary development can level the playing field for students, regardless of their background. Devoting the time and effort in helping students learn new words is a wise investment in the success of our students in school and life.


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About the Author

Antonia A. Gilbert is an educator in the Birmingham City Schools in Alabama. She was a third grade teacher for ten years at Central Park Elementary School and has served as the school’s K-5 reading coach for the past six years. She created the school’s Literacy Team, which plans innovative and motivating activities for over six hundred students each year. She is a national board certified teacher and has served as a candidate support provider for other teachers pursuing national board certification for ten years.



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