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What is Vocabulary?

Vocabulary is the knowledge of words and what they mean. Learning and using new vocabulary is something that continues and expands throughout our lives, and is way more than simply looking up and memorizing a definition. Vocabulary is acquired through direct and indirect exposure, and explicit instruction using specific words, content, and strategies. This is also important for students learning other languages!

Related Activities

Check out these vocabulary activities from our guides on Hinduism, New Kid, and Spanish Family Tree Vocabulary.

How To Teach Vocabulary

There are many ways in which students can learn new vocabulary, but in general, there are four components to any solid vocabulary instruction.

  1. Word Connection: Students must be able to connect new vocabulary words to what they are already familiar with. One way to do this is by connecting new words to a theme and displaying these words around the classroom and hallways, allowing students to connect to the words on a daily basis.

  2. Significance: When a student looks up a new word in the dictionary or online, they are simply looking at the definition itself, and not the significance of the actual word. Definitions should be written in kid-friendly language and be accompanied by pictures and narratives.

  3. Context Clues: When words are embedded in a meaningful context, students tend to understand and appreciate their meaning easier. By using more than one or two sentences to surround a new vocabulary word, students grasp a deeper meaning and clues to remember the new terms.

  4. Word-Rich Environment: Students should be exposed to new vocabulary words on a routine basis, in a natural environment. True, practice and repetition helps, but organic exposure is also very important. One excellent example of this is having a “word wall” in the classroom, and even several around the school, perhaps in the gym, auditorium, or the cafeteria.

There are many other techniques teachers can use to engage students in vocabulary instruction that don’t involve using flashcards and writing sentences. One way is through music. Catchy tunes and beats often help recall and stay with students longer. Think of how easily kids can memorize the lyrics to their favorite songs!

Another technique is to teach students specific root words, prefixes, and suffixes such as anti, multi, mis, and so many more. Knowing the meaning of roots that can be applied to many words will help students decipher words they don’t know. Allowing students to create their own personalized lists is another technique to engage students. This empowers students to take ownership, and will motivate them to want to learn the words that they chose for themselves.

Why is Vocabulary Important?

Although children learn the meaning of words indirectly through everyday life, it is still important to explicitly teach them new words. Whether these words are in context of specific subject matter or words they may come across at any time, knowledge of word meanings will allow students to communicate effectively when they speak, listen, and write.

Vocabulary also plays an important role in learning to read and strengthening reading skills throughout life. If students do not understand the meaning of the words they are reading, they will struggle with comprehension, and slow down their ability to read fluently. It is more difficult for early readers to figure out how to orally say words that are not already part of their vocabulary.

Vocabulary Activity Ideas

A perfect way for students to practice their vocabulary skills is to create storyboards that incorporate use of words in a real life context. Allowing students to create illustrations of their new words will challenge them to be creative and get them thinking about the meaning of the words that they are learning. Any of these activity suggestions can be used across subject matter, making them perfect for ELA, science, math, history, and anything in between!

Before starting, teachers may wish to consider discussing the following questions with students:

  1. How can I increase my vocabulary?
  2. How does the understanding of vocabulary increase our comprehension of challenging texts?
  3. How do we determine the meaning of unknown words?

Frayer Models

The Frayer Model is a very useful template to provide students with. It challenges students to not only learn the definition of a word, but also its characteristics, examples of the word, and non-examples of the word. Students can complete storyboards like the ones shown below, or teachers can create custom frayer model worksheets for students to complete.

Spider Maps

Spider maps are a great way to cover multiple vocabulary words at once, or illustrate words with multiple meanings. Teachers may have students choose three or more words from their reading or list, and create a spider map that defines and illustrates each word. Or, they may have students choose a word, define it, and include three or more examples of that word being used in context with illustrations.

With the ability to edit templates, teachers can differentiate, and provide as much or as little information as they see fit. There are even spider map worksheet templates that can be used both digitally or offline.

Vocabulary Practice Worksheets

If you're looking for another step or an alternative assignment, you can create vocabulary worksheets to use in your class! You can also create worksheets to help students keep track of and practice definitions for their vocabulary words.

These worksheets can be customized and printed out for students to fill out with a pencil, or they can be completed in the Storyboard Creator like a digital worksheet. You can even create multiple versions for those students who might need a little extra help, and keep them on hand for future use! Find plenty of templates to work from or just start with a blank canvas.

Word Walls

Word walls allow students to be learning new vocabulary even when they're not actively focused on it. Teachers can choose to decorate their walls or boards before each unit, or ask students to create one tile for the wall. The plethora of templates we have created can be customized easily, and teachers can choose to print them off and have students complete them by hand, or they can be finished in the Storyboard Creator!

Vocabulary Posters

Like word walls, vocabulary posters give students the opportunity to learn simply by being in the classroom, and they can provide a very handy visual aid for illustrating new words and concepts. Both teachers and students can create vocabulary posters to help aid in comprehension of new words!

How to Foster Vocabulary Development Across Subject Areas


Identify Key Vocabulary Words

Review the curriculum and identify the essential vocabulary words relevant to each subject area. Focus on high-frequency words, domain-specific terms, and words critical to understanding concepts.


Integrate Vocabulary Instruction into Lessons

Embed vocabulary instruction within subject-specific lessons and activities. Provide explicit explanations, examples, and models of how to use and apply the vocabulary words.


Use Contextualized Vocabulary Strategies

Teach vocabulary within meaningful contexts, such as through reading passages, real-world scenarios, or content-specific texts. Encourage students to make connections between the vocabulary words and the subject matter.


Provide Multiple Exposure and Practice Opportunities

Offer repeated exposure to vocabulary words through various activities, such as discussions, writing tasks, games, and hands-on experiences. Incorporate interactive and engaging exercises that require students to actively use the vocabulary words.


Teach Word-Learning Strategies

Explicitly teach students strategies for independently acquiring and expanding their vocabulary. Include techniques like using context clues, analyzing word parts (prefixes, suffixes, roots), and utilizing dictionaries or online resources.


Foster a Vocabulary-Rich Classroom Environment

Create a print-rich classroom environment with word walls, vocabulary charts, and visual aids related to the subject areas. Encourage students to use and share vocabulary words in their discussions, presentations, and written work.

Frequently Asked Questions About Teaching Vocabulary

What is the best way to teach vocabulary?

There are many effective ways to teach vocabulary, including using contextual clues, graphic organizers, games and activities, repetition and practice, and explicit instruction of word meanings and usage.

Should vocabulary be taught as its own unit or integrated into content areas?

Both approaches can be effective, but it is often beneficial to integrate vocabulary instruction into content areas so that students can see how new words are used in context and make connections to their prior knowledge.

How can teachers differentiate vocabulary instruction for students with different learning needs?

Teachers can differentiate vocabulary instruction by providing visual aids, using multimedia resources, providing opportunities for hands-on activities, using adapted texts or leveled readers, and offering additional support or instruction as needed.

How can teachers assess students' vocabulary knowledge?

Teachers can assess students' vocabulary knowledge through formal assessments, such as quizzes or tests, as well as informal assessments, such as class discussions, written responses, and observations of student work and participation. Teachers can also use technology tools, such as vocabulary games or online quizzes, to assess student knowledge.

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