Vocabulary Strategies for High School Teachers

Instructor: Maryalice Leister

Maryalice has taught secondary and college English and trained new online teachers, and has a master's degree in Online Teaching and Learning.

Paced introduction, repetition, and creative presentation are all strategic approaches for teaching vocabulary. High School teachers are charged with preparing students for graduation and college entrance tests, and demonstrating maturity in language usage is a critical skill.

Why Study Vocabulary?

The five minutes before class starts are fair game for cellphone use, and the room is abuzz with the sound of text messages zooming back and forth. Mrs. Anderson's students know when the bell rings, the phones hit the desk face down with ringers turned off. They remain that way through class lest the student risks losing them to the in-room phone dungeon for the remainder of the school day. If Mrs. Anderson were to check message screens (always an open possibility but rarely done), she'd see a multitude of LOL and BFF, IDK and IMHO. Doubtful there would be any sign of words like efficacy or flotsam, jocular or mordant. That realization makes moving into the day's vocabulary a challenge and, more than ever, an academic necessity.

Teachers know the importance of improving vocabulary, but 21st C. students are not always on board. As technology has ramped up and texting shortcuts have taken over, any focus on vocabulary has become decidedly unpopular. Old school approaches of writing each word ten times or inserting selected words into sentences several times each week often are not well-received or certainly would not be enough to make the learning stick. It's time to take a look at teaching strategies which reinforce the importance of language while helping new words become part of a student's accessible language. Text messaging shortcut acronyms will never replace the level of vocabulary needed as students emerge as adult consumers of the written word.


Repetition is a fundamental and tested strategy and while simply writing words again and again is indeed an outdated approach, finding new ways to repeatedly practice newly-introduced words until they are embedded is key. The high school learner thrives on technology, so using the in-class white board to display words or projecting information to tablets if they are used in the classroom are both a great start. Is your class filled with text messaging students and teachers are permitted to text to them? Send a word and definition a day to your student phone list, offering a point incentive if they are the first to text back the synonym or antonym.


Texting answers brings us to the strategy most students respond to best: competition. Teachers see students come awake when they start offering incentives for a particular response. With all the online tools we have today to bring technology into the classroom, setting up impromptu word competitions is simple and effective. Some classic games from television and online websites can be easily transformed into vocabulary-based experiences.

Many software programs actually have templates to download which are game boards with easy set-up. If you are unsure of how to do this, seek out the most technologically proficient fellow staff member and he or she is usually more than happy to share their wisdom. Even easier? Ask the students which teachers have played classroom games recently and then seek them out. In this age of fast-paced introduction of new online tools, networking can make classroom vocabulary work both easy and exciting.


Students can only absorb so much information at a time. While that might be an obvious observation, high school students spend many hours each day moving between data- and content-rich classroom environments. It is important to remember to set reasonable and consistent pacing, especially when it comes to learning vocabulary. An English teacher has two responsibilities: in-class vocabulary acquisition for included literature, and grade level vocabulary in preparation for graduation tests and college entrance exams.

Other curricular area teachers bear responsibility for their vocabulary focus. So take a long range look at what needs to be accomplished in each semester and cumulatively for the year, and set up a plan for reasonable introduction and inclusion of new words. Do the simple math: number of vocabulary words on the formal list divided by the number of weeks in the school year. Realize you may make changes in that word list as discussions and unique student needs bring unknown words to the surface, but at least you have an organized starting place.


Even word lists for college entrance exams are best introduced in an integrated process. These words should be purposefully worked into the classroom dialogues, both during the introduction week and throughout the year. The teacher needs to keep the list visible and use as many in appropriate ways as possible. Add them into formative assessments, not only as 'words of the week' but as part of any suitable context. Make a conscious effort to have students include them in their answers as well.

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