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5 Teaching Strategies for Reinforcing Vocabulary

Jordan Catapano

Ludwig van Wittgenstein, the 20th-century Austrian-British philosopher, tells us, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Language helps us understand the world around us. The more terms we can use to define the details of the universe, the better we can manipulate those elements in our mind.

Schools seem to offer an interminable series of teaching strategies involving new terms to students, year after year. History gives us names and places and years, science gives us the wonders of nature, math gives us properties and formulas, and English offers grammatical terms and general vocab studies -- not to mention learning a whole new language in world language class, plus all other areas of study. Schools are at no shortage of providing teaching strategies that instruct new vocabulary for students to further define their world.

But what do we seriously expect our students to do with our vocabulary? In many cases, we expect students to remember terms just long enough for a test. And then they forget about them.

The mind is designed to destroy neurons it doesn’t need – hence the very true “Use it or lose it” mantra – so once a student stops needing or using certain vocabulary terms, their minds destroy those neurons. Without proper reinforcement and application, students don’t stand a chance at remembering the words introduced to them through school.

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So as you’re considering what new vocabulary your curriculum will introduce to students throughout the year, consider how you won’t just “Introduce” or “Teach” those new terms, but how you’ll use teaching strategies to facilitate reinforcement of those terms for the long haul as well.

Teaching Strategies: Cumulative Vocabulary

Instead of thinking of vocabulary as existing in a confined unit of instruction, students need to see that the terms they learn at one point in time are relevant later on. One simple way to do this is to have accountability for old terms in new units of instruction.

So when students learn a set of terms early in the school year, we cannot allow students to be accountable for knowing those terms one time. Students need to know that on future assignments, activities, and assessments, they’ll need to know these terms again.

When subsequent units come up that feature new vocabulary, it’s important that we also include opportunity for students to demonstrate their continued proficiency on past vocabulary. Just knowing that there are tasks and assessments that require their continued maintenance of that knowledge is one – though not the only – step toward helping students reinforce their vocabulary learning.

Cross-Curricular Vocabulary

Just like holding students accountable for vocabulary from unit to unit is important, reinforcing vocabulary across the curriculum (“Horizontally”) is important as well. What if students heard new terms not just in your class, but in others’ as well?

As teachers work to build effective units of instruction, they can help students recognize that vocabulary is relevant not just because there’s a test on it next week, but because those terms are relevant elements in the world around us. Work with other teachers to identify which terms they’re learning, and actively incorporate those elements into your lessons and curriculum as well. When students see that their new vocabulary extends beyond just one classroom’s walls, they’re more likely to see its relevance and have those terms reinforced.

Play Games

We all love games, and games are especially helpful when it comes to learning and reinforcing vocabulary. Educational researcher Robert Marzano recommends that games, among five other important steps for teaching vocabulary, are included periodically to teach and reinforce new vocabulary terminology.

Games are excellent additions to other tried-and-true vocabulary instruction methods because they combine play with learning, helping to students to do with words what hands do with tools: Learn to manipulate them. When we give rote sentences and memorization tasks, those definitely contribute to vocabulary learning. But words are meant to be creatively adapted, and effectively designed games help students to consider words in new ways. And, if you make vocabulary cumulative and cross-curricular, students are more likely to learn words for the long-term.

Here is a fun list of vocabulary mini-games that could be played in your classroom. What would you add to the list?

Word Wall

What we surround students with in our classroom is what will sink in. While we work to create engaging learning tasks, we also need to consider what students will absorb from the environment itself. And so, when it comes to vocabulary, I recommend a simple “Word Wall” that posts the words and definitions your class has studied.

A Word Wall is a simple display of the words you have asked your students to learn to date. As you learn more words throughout the year, those words are similarly posted on the wall as well. By the end of the year, it’s likely that you’ll have dozens or hundreds of words occupying the space on your wall. Include definitions, pictures, and examples on the displays too!

The reason why this is helpful is because as students daily look around the classroom, they are passively exposed to terms they have already received direct instruction on. This passive reinforcement helps to reiterate meaning and encourage application for students as time goes on. It tells students that just because the unit goes away, the concept still exists!

Word Journal

In addition to the other forms of reinforcement listed above, students can keep some form of a “Word journal” to help them personalize their developing vocabulary. A word journal begins with students writing their own paraphrase of word definitions, their own sentences that apply new terms, and their own pictographs or illustrations. But word journals can extend into much more, where students compare new words to former and familiar ones, and attempt to apply these new meanings into appropriate contexts.

Research suggests that writing and personalizing definitions are good for the brain and memory. Plus, when students record their own paraphrased definitions and applications, they are achieving more unique ownership over the terms. Students can continually use these journals as a place to record new ideas as well as review and consider older terms from earlier in the year.

Use the Words Yourself

Finally, it’s important for students to see that vocabulary terms don’t just exist on a test. Life is the true test, and these new words play a role in the way we naturally communicate. We, as teachers, can intentionally use these new words ourselves in relevant contexts. Students then discover that educated adults actually use these terms for relevant purposes in their own lives. Teachers who use these terms themselves will encourage students to likewise find opportunity for employing these terms on their own as well.

So whether you’re holding students academically accountable for building a cumulative vocabulary, modeling vocabulary usage itself, or showing students that the terms they’re learning are relevant beyond the four walls of your classroom, make sure that you’re taking time to reinforce vocabulary words that students may otherwise forget. Our brains are designed to get rid of unused information, and too often our important vocabulary terms are memorized and then forgotten. But when we strategically apply any of the simple techniques listed above, we’re much more likely to help students embrace new words for the long term.

How do you help reinforce essential vocabulary for your students? Share your strategies with our community in the comments below!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated and head of his school’s Instructional Development Committee, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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