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How to Teach New Vocabulary

Instructor: Esther Bouchillon

Esther has taught middle school and has a master's degree in gifted education.

This lesson describes how to introduce a new vocabulary word and several sample activities for reinforcing the meanings of the terms. A short quiz follows the lesson.

Approaches to Teaching Vocabulary

There are many different ways to teach vocabulary. First it is important to decide what you actually want the students to know. Do you simply want students to be able to match a term to a definition? Or do you desire for the students to have a deep understanding of the term, be able to use it accurately and be able to generalize the term? Especially with standardized tests where the exact phrasing of questions is unknown to the teacher in advance, usually the second goal is necessary for success. Let's look at how two teachers approach a vocabulary lesson using some nonsense words. Decide which one you think better teaches the new term.

Mrs. Snores begins her vocabulary lesson by writing the word 'vort' on the board. She tells the students to copy the term into their notebooks then states that the definition of a vort is 'an extravagant, fancy covering for a sneen.' She uses the term for the students in a sentence by stating 'Your vort is beautiful!' She tells the students to write down the definition and sentence in their notebooks also. As they are writing, Mrs. Snores writes the word on the poster labeled 'word wall'. Mrs. Snores tells the students to write four sentences using the word vort for homework, then moves on to the next word.

Across the hall, Mrs. Clearly also writes the word 'vort' on the board and states the definition, but she also displays a picture of a vort. 'Yesterday we covered what sneen means, can someone remind us what this word means?' A student says that it is another word for head. Mrs. Clearly tells her she is correct and then asks someone to describe what extravagant means and calls on several students to answer. Mrs. Clearly concludes her explanation of the term by showing several examples of vorts including a derby hat and Native American headdress. She also asks the students to share some examples of things that are not vorts. Students reply with visor and baseball cap. Mrs. Clearly has the students write down the definition in their own words, list some examples and non-examples, and draw a picture that helps them understand the meaning of the word.

Which lesson gave you a clearer understanding of 'vort'? Obviously, Mrs. Clearly led her students to a more in-depth understanding of the word. Mrs. Snores did not do everything wrong; using the word in a sentence for the students and adding it to the word wall are good vocabulary teaching strategies. Let's spend more time exploring the strategies these teachers used and others for teaching vocabulary.

Picture of a word wall in an art classroom
Art word wall bulletin board

Keys to Successful Vocabulary Lessons

One of the keys to teaching new vocabulary words is repetition. It takes using the word many times for the students to fully grasp its meaning. Another key is context. Seeing the word used in writing and using the word itself helps students learn the meaning. Motivation is also an essential element to learning. Students should enjoy rather than dread vocabulary work. Inserting fun activities into vocabulary teaching increases student motivation.

General Teaching Plan for Vocabulary

Just like both Mrs. Snores and Mrs. Clearly did in their lessons, usually the first step in teaching vocabulary is introducing the meaning of the word. This could be done by the teacher telling the definition through notes as the teachers did in the story, or the students could look up the definition on their own. After the initial definition is given, a greater teacher-led discussion of the word should take place. Imagery, synonyms, and antonyms are good to use at this point. After students feel they have an understanding of the word, they should put the definition into their own words. This is the first formative assessment for the teacher. It allows the teacher to notice any misconceptions the student may have about the word's meaning and correct them. Next it is time to start using the word. Many different activities exist to help students learn the word. A simple search on the internet for vocabulary activities will bring up hundreds. A few ideas are listed below.

Activities Using New Vocabulary

A standard activity for using vocabulary is to read a book or article that uses the word. Below are more creative ideas for practicing vocabulary.

Word Sorts

Give students a set of words and have them sort them into groups of synonyms and antonyms.

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