Teaching Vocabulary in the Classroom: Eight Fun Alternatives

Teaching Vocabulary

It’s the dreaded V-word, the one that makes both students and teachers cringe. A big vocabulary is important to have for so many reasons, from improving reading comprehension to doing better on the ACT, but acquiring that vocabulary isn’t always easy. Rote memorization is boring and not very effective, even if it is the most commonly used approach.

The number one strategy for improving vocabulary is to read, read, and read some more. Reading exposes us to new words in context, so we learn them with very little effort at all. But teachers don’t have much control over how much reading students do outside of the classroom. Fortunately, there are some other types of lesson plans, graphic organizers, and activities for teaching vocabulary that are both more effective and more fun than memorizing words and definitions.

Alternative Lesson Plans

Owning the Word: Rather than just teaching rote definitions, encourage students to generate their own content and examine a word from many angles. This is a far better way to foster real understanding, so have students generate their own dictionary entries for each new vocabulary word. They should come up with a definition, examples, antonyms and synonyms, the word’s part(s) of speech, and a simple picture to represent it. Also, have them use the word in one or a few original sentences, rather than making them copy pre-written sentences.

Vocabulary Posters: To engage visual sense that is most students’ primary learning style, have the students create their own posters for new vocabulary words. They should include the word, a definition, and a sentence on the poster, as well as pictures and other visuals. Encourage them to be creative and attentive to the aesthetics of their poster, using color and space in a way that reflects the meaning of their chosen words. Then hang the posters around the classroom to serve as a visual reference.

Analyzing Word Parts: Sometimes it helps students with comprehension to pay attention to the parts and origins of a vocabulary word. It may seem a bit advanced to teach junior high or high school kids about the Latin or Greek roots of a word, but it will make the word more memorable and interesting. It also provides them with the tools they need to make educated guesses about other unfamiliar words in the future.

Games & Exercises

Word of the Day: Focusing on one new vocabulary word every day is easy, and it doesn’t take much time. Yet by the end of the school year, students will be familiar with more than 150 new words. Each day, write the new word on the board or post it somewhere in the room, and cover its meaning, spelling, and uses. Then encourage students to find creative ways to use the new word. Alternately, you could introduce one new word a week and have the students practice using it throughout the week.

Other Vocabulary Games: The possibilities are nearly endless when it comes to games for teaching vocabulary. Charades is one fun option, where one student acts out a word and others try to guess what it is. This forces the students to focus on the word’s meaning at a very sophisticated level, in order to translate it into gestures and motions. Then there are more traditional games such as Pictionary and Boggle, which challenge students’ vocabulary and their ability to use and generate a range of word types.

Graphic Organizers

The Four-Square Method: This method is a way of visually organizing the most important information about a word for easy reference and understanding. Have students write a vocabulary word across the top of a sheet of paper, then draw a box with four squares, labeling the squares “synonyms,” “antonyms,” “drawing,” and “sentence.” For the first two boxes students can research the answers, or they can come up with their own synonyms and antonyms for the word. In the “drawing” box they should draw a picture to represent the word, and in the “sentence” box they should invent a sentence using the vocabulary word.

Words in Context: Sometimes it can help to break up an unfamiliar word into parts, in order to make guesses about its meaning. This graphic organizer simply involves providing a few empty boxes so students can fill them in with the parts of a vocabulary word, such as its prefix, root, and suffix. Then they can make an educated guess as to what the word might mean, before looking it up in the dictionary. (It would be a good idea to combine this graphic organizer with the “Analyzing Word Parts” lesson plan above.)

Study Cards: Note cards are a great study tool, and work very well for teaching vocabulary. Vocabulary study cards should include the word on one side, and the definition, a sentence, and any other helpful words or examples on the other side. Encouraging students to design their note cards with colors and pictures can help engage them in the task and makes the cards more fun to use. Also, be sure to demonstrate the best way to use the cards for study, and to make it clear that the cards will not work unless students force themselves to come up with the answer on their own rather than just looking at the answer side of the card each time.

Last Words

These are only some suggestions, of course. It’s likely you can come up with your own lesson plans and activities for teaching vocabulary that are just as creative and useful. The key is to focus on the meanings of a word, and to have students generate their own answers rather than reciting an answer prepared for them in advance. It’s also crucial to teach to as many learning styles as possible, giving students the chance to use their visual, audio, and kinesthetic senses to better comprehend the words. These simple strategies make a word meaningful to the students, guaranteeing that they will remember it for longer and actually be able to use it on their own.