Vocabulary Activities for Middle School

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  • 0:00 Vocabulary Activities Defined
  • 1:57 Examples
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Esther Bouchillon

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

In this lesson, we will discuss important elements for teaching vocabulary terms. We'll also explore various types of vocabulary activities that are appropriate for middle school students.

Vocabulary Activities Defined

You and some fellow teachers were anxiously studying the results of the last practice test for the state assessment. Everyone agreed that vocabulary, or a collection of individual words or short phrases and their definitions, was a struggle for the students. Opinions about the problem ranged from placing the blame on the students, ''Students just aren't studying like they used to!'' to bewilderment, ''I don't know why they did so poorly! We've been using flashcards in class for weeks!''

Both statements are probably accurate. Students are not studying at home in the same way they used to, and their home lives are much different than in years past. Students used to share dinner with their families and have more daily interaction with adults, which helped to increase their vocabularies. Reading books, one of the best ways to build vocabulary, has also decreased.

Within the classroom, the standard study method of 'drill and kill' with flashcards does not give students the ability to generalize the definitions in such a way that they can recognize the meanings of terms on state assessment exams. On these tests, teachers struggle with preparation because they cannot know the precise wording of the questions or answer choices ahead of time. Flashcards, then, are ineffective, because instructors can't specifically prepare the vocabularies of their students. With all of these changes, the way vocabulary is taught also needs to be adjusted.

Students need to be exposed to words many times before they have a clear understanding of the term, its definition, and usage. Oftentimes, students lack exposure to new vocabulary at home and at school - basic memorization techniques alone are not enough to gain multiple exposures. Activities that provide a broad definition of the term and introduce synonyms, antonyms, and examples of usage are important.

Another key for success is motivation. Middle school students especially thrive on interacting with their peers. They also are highly motivated by games; however, teachers must be cautious of overly-competitive games because middle school can be a sensitive time for some students.

Examples of Vocabulary Activities

Below are several types of vocabulary activities that help students build an understanding of a new word and allow them to generalize the meaning of the term rather than memorize one specific definition. These activities are also aimed at increasing student motivation.


When introducing a new vocabulary word, try to include an illustration of the term. Encourage students to draw their own pictures to help define the word. This activity could later be turned into a Pictionary-like game, during which students take turns drawing and guessing vocabulary words.

Adding pictures to lists of words on the classroom wall can provide another source of exposure to the word and its meaning every time students walk around the room. It has an added benefit of helping any students who are visual learners.


While writing sentences that incorporate vocabulary words is a classic method of instruction, you can add a new dimension to the activity by turning a solo task into a collaborative project. Since collaboration can be motivational for middle school students, divide students into pairs and have them take turns making up a story one sentence at a time. Give the students a number of vocabulary words they need to incorporate into the story.


Introduce a vocabulary-definitions guessing game, based on generalized meanings for the terms. Have students take turns describing a word to a partner; the partner must guess what vocabulary word it is, based on the generalized description.

For an added challenge, limit the students so that they can't use any of the words from the original teacher-given or glossary definition in their own descriptions. This encourages students to think of other words that could also describe the term and helps them generalize the definition. To keep this game from being too competitive, no scores should be kept.

Hoops for Answers

In preparation, a teacher makes cards with questions related to vocabulary words. Questions should have definitions of terms re-worded rather than copied straight from the glossary to encourage generalization of the definition. The teacher should also set up a few empty trash cans and some soft balls throughout the room to serve as hoops and balls.

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