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Sure-Fire Ways to Teaching Vocabulary

Jacqui Murray

Have you ever been around someone who knows exactly the right word? Don't you immediately conclude that they're smart? Capable? The one you want in your study group?

How about the opposite – you see an individual struggling with language, maybe picking words that aren't quite right or they can't come up with the right word. What do you conclude then?

Teaching vocabulary has classically been addressed in the classroom using word study, site words, Dolch and Hi-Frequency words. Common Core considers the proper use of words part and parcel to preparing for college and career. They categorize words into three types:

  • Tier 1: Words acquired through every day speech, usually learned in early grades.
  • Tier 2: Academic words that appear in textbooks, precise words that refine meaning, i.e. 
”sprint” instead of “run
  • Tier 3: Domain-specific words tied to content, words included in glossaries, highlighted 
in textbooks, and considered important to understanding content. 
The “tier” you focus on in your teaching depends upon the age of your students and the material being taught.

Here are five ways technology will make teaching vocabulary more effective, fun, differentiated, and authentic:

  • Context clues
  • SpellingCity
  • Online graphic dictionaries
  • Word clouds like Tagxedo, Wordle, Tagul
  • Vocabulary websites 

Before we begin, let's lay some groundwork. Teaching vocabulary (or word study) isn't done in a vacuum. You don't pass out word lists and tell students to memorize words and definitions (you don't do that, do you?).

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Maybe you used to, but that’s all changed with Common Core. Now, you take time to integrate teaching vocabulary into learning rather than spotlight it as a stand-alone subject. Every time students run into a word they don't get, pause and help them decode it.

It may be obvious from context, its parts (roots and affixes), but always – always -- pay attention so that students know that word meanings are important. Unfamiliar words are not skipped, hoping no one will notice.

Make this approach to vocabulary part of your teaching. Don't treat “word study” like something you get to if there’s time, or relegate it to homework.

The shift for you is in “attention,” nothing else. Once you've trained yourself to use the right words and expect students to do the same, to pause every time confusion on their faces tell you they don’t understand, it will become as important to your teaching as differentiation. Like breathing.

Use these five strategies to let students experience the “Wow!” of using exactly the right word. BTW, they can be used across all tiers.

Context Clues

The first step to understanding word meaning is context. “Context” is not only surrounding words, but construction of the word itself. What is its root? Prefixes and suffixes? What clues do these parts provide to meaning?

Have students read something for class -- any subject is fine -- and find at least five new vocabulary words. Don't research. Jot down each with its meaning based solely on context clues. Share via Google Docs (or a method of your choice) with a defense of their analysis.

Spelling City

This is ever-popular with 1stgrade and up. Use it three ways:

  • One of the themed word lists included on the site
  • A teacher-created list (through a fee-based account)
  • A student’s own words from class.

Once a list is selected/created, the site provides word-oriented activities (a test, a teach-me, games, flash cards) that the student uses to learn words. Youngers love the games.

This is great for classtime or homework, is easy to understand, intuitive to use, and never gets boring. 

Graphic Dictionaries

Sure, students can use or, but those won't excite students about word study. Those are online resources, but they aren’t graphic dictionaries. They don’t share information visually. 
A great option for visually representing words and their meanings is VisuWords or Lexipedia. These are free. Students type in a word and the site populates a mind-mapped image of the word, its definition and related words. This image makes it easy to find connections and relationships that assist with the meaning, determine the perfect synonym, and better understand the shades of meaning inherent to our rich vocabulary.

Word Clouds

Where graphic dictionaries help you understand the fullness of a word, a word cloud lets you analyze a group of words. The most common example is tag clouds on websites and blogs, showing the most common words searched on the site. Students can produce this same effect using online tools like Tagxedo, Wordle or Tagul.

Use any of the following ideas from Common Core to create word clouds:

  • Site words/spelling words from class
  • Synonyms
  • Prefixes
  • Suffixes
  • Roots
  • Word collections that signal precise actions, states of being, emotions, or are basic to a 
particular topic 

Vocabulary Websites

Finally, there is a massive grouping of sites that gamify the teaching of words, grammar, writing conventions and the like. Go through a list of sites like this from Ask a Tech Teacher and list five to ten of them so students can use them in those snippets of time that would otherwise be wasted -- right before lunch, for early finishers of a project, while you’re finishing up with another student. 

There you are -- five ways to add automaticity to word study and scaffold vocabulary learning. One characteristic all of them have is they make words beautiful. 



Jacqui Murray has been teaching K-8 technology for 15 years. She is the creator of technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. She is webmaster for six blogs, CSG Master Teacher, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blogger, a columnist for, IMS tech expert, and a weekly contributor to TeachHUB. Currently, she’s editing a techno-thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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