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Effective Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

written by: Trent Lorcher • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 1/17/2012

Building vocabulary takes more than jotting down a list of words, copying the definitions, and throwing the paper in the garbage can after failing a quiz.

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    I handed out the vocabulary tests. I felt good. I had reviewed. I had instructed. I had given it my all. I knew my students would do well.

    They all failed.

    I sat, bewildered, head in hands, wondering where it all went wrong. My principal walked in. I was sure he was going to fire me. Instead he gave me a brochure on effective vocabulary instruction. I set it on my desk, forgot about it, found it three years later, and read it.

    It was pretty good.

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    Understanding Etymology

    Etymology is the study of the history of a word, from its origin to its current meaning. Encourage students to use dictionaries to analyze word origins. As you might imagine they find it incredibly boring and would rather slice their tongue with paper and drink mouth wash than analyze word origins by searching in a dictionary. Here are some suggestions for helping students appreciate etymology:

    • The threat of a failing grade often motivates.
    • Reducing the number of words and requiring an etymological breakdown tricks students into thinking you're nice. Before they realize you're a jerk, they'll be finished.
    • While reading in class, show how understanding word origins adds meaning to a word. For example, while reading "The Devil and Tom Walker," we examine the word "mortgage" and trace its historical roots.
    • Explain word origins in context of the lesson. For example, while studying Spanish explorers, explain that Balboa, after sailing the choppy waters of the Atlantic, crossed the Isthmus of Panama. Delighted by the calm and peaceful waters on the other side, he named it the Pacific Ocean. Other words with the same root include pacifist and pacifier, two items associated with peace and calm.
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    Analyzing Word Parts

    Many words originated here Remind students that analyzing the parts of an unfamiliar word--prefix, base, and suffix, provides clues to its meaning. A key component of word analysis involves Greek and Latin Root knowledge. Students who can apply this knowledge learn thousands and thousands of words in the time it takes most to learn a dozen words. As you might imagine, students get as excited about analyzing word parts as I do about a prostate exam. Here are some suggestions to make it fun (the analyzing word parts, not the prostate exam).

    • Analyze words like "hyperbole" with this absolute amazing, best ever created Greek and Latin Root Lesson Plan (linked at the bottom of this article).
    • Engage your class in an analyzing word parts challenge based on the greatest lesson plan ever written in the entire history of education, the Context Clues Challenge Lesson Plan.
    • Teaching is most effective when we model the desired behavior. As you read break down difficult words by analyzing word parts. For example, you read the word "anachronism." Since it's not a text-message friendly word and has never been spoken on MTV, your students don't understand it. Explain that chrono means time, ism makes it a noun, and an means "without or out of." Hence, "anachronism" means not in the right time. Give a few examples: George Washington on a cell phone or Babe Ruth doing a TV interview.


  • Image from Wikipedia
  • Author's Experience