Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

Instructor: Lindsey Pierron
Vocabulary instruction is an essential component in language development. Using a variety of teaching strategies, including vocabulary journals, foldables, word walls, and games, helps teachers increase student engagement and vocabulary retention.

Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

Think back to when you were in elementary school. Your teacher had written ten vocabulary words on the board, and it was your responsibility to write and define them in your notebook by the end of the week. You enjoyed learning new words, but looking them up in the dictionary every week felt tedious and redundant. As you reluctantly opened the dictionary, you thought to yourself, 'Ugh, more boring vocabulary words.'

Vocabulary is a key component of language development, and its instruction has changed dramatically over the last few years. While many teachers still rely on word lists, glossaries, and dictionaries to teach new vocabulary, other teachers are taking a more creative approach to instruction. Utilizing vocabulary journals, foldables, word walls, and games, teachers can make vocabulary development more exciting and meaningful for their students.


One common instructional tool is a vocabulary journal. Vocabulary journals can be set up in a variety of different ways, depending on age level and language development stage. In elementary settings, it is best to use visual aids to accompany vocabulary words as frequently as possible. A suggested format for a primary student's vocabulary journal is shown below.

Notebook pages can be divided into four squares for vocabulary practice.
Vocabulary Format

New words should be instructed as they are introduced. Imagine a young teacher, Mr. Hanson, presenting a vocabulary word to the class. He writes the word on the board, then asks students if they know its meaning. As students offer suggestions, the class defines the term as a group. The class definition may not match a dictionary definition, but it is more meaningful because discussion of the word built understanding. Mr. Hanson models using the word in a sentence. Then, students use the term to write their own sentences in their journals. Finally, Mr. Hanson draws a picture that he relates to the word. Students draw pictures of the new word in their journals. In ten minutes, Mr. Hanson taught his class a new term, and his students demonstrated understanding of its meaning.

Older students may use a different setup for a vocabulary journal. With older students, it is often better to have subject-specific vocabulary journals, so the vocabulary relates directly to concepts they are learning. For example, students could have a math vocabulary journal. As concepts are instructed, students write down and define vocabulary terms. Again, to increase student understanding, it is beneficial to provide instruction to accompany new vocabulary terms. It's also important to use examples or visuals when teaching new vocabulary, even with older students.

Vocabulary journals can be subject-specific. In addition, adding a visual to a term helps students build connections.
Obtuse Angle


Using foldables is a creative and engaging strategy for teaching vocabulary. Basically, students fold paper in a variety of different ways and define vocabulary terms on their foldables. When teaching subject-specific vocabulary, foldables are helpful for several reasons. For example, if Mr. Hanson is beginning a new book in his reading class, he might list several new vocabulary words his students will come across while they are reading. He can keep the list displayed, discussing the words and definitions as he reads the book with his class. As students learn the new terms, they can add the words, definitions, and pictures to their vocabulary foldables. One example is shown below.

Students can create their own foldables while learning new words.
Foldable Sample 2

Foldables are fun for students to create and can be displayed easily around the classroom. They can be used in any subject area to help students create visual representations of various concepts, and they are particularly useful in vocabulary instruction.

Word Walls

Word walls have been used in classrooms for years. When students master new vocabulary words, the teacher can write that word on a small strip of paper and add it to the word wall. Some teachers prefer for students to keep their own personal word walls on individual charts in their desks. Others simply make use of a classroom word wall. Word walls are great for a few reasons. For one thing, students can look at the wall and see how many new words they've learned. Another benefit to word walls is they can be easily utilized as a reference when playing vocabulary games.

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