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Teaching Strategies: 5 Ideas for Instructing Vocabulary

Janelle Cox

As children, many of us remember the teaching strategies our instructors used for vocabulary: We’d copy down definitions into our notebooks, and then for homework we would have to rewrite each word for what seemed like a million times.

We can probably all agree that passive learning is not an effective teaching strategy to instruct vocabulary. Studies are now showing that students need multiple exposures to a word before they can fully understand it. They also need to learn new words in context, by reading. Teachers can emphasize active processing by having students connect new meanings to words they already have knowledge of. The more exposures students have to a word, the better chance that they will remember it.

Here are 5 teaching strategies for instructing vocabulary words to elementary students.

1. Semantic Maps

A semantic map is a graphic organizer that helps students visually organize the relationship between pieces of information. Researchers have identified this strategy as a great way to increase students’ grasp of vocabulary words.  Sematic mapping can be used as a pre-reading activity to active prior knowledge, or to introduce key words. As a post-reading activity, it can be used to enhance understanding by adding new concepts to the map. Here’s how it works:

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  • The teacher decides on a key word and writes it on the front board.
  • Students then read the key word and are asked to think about other words that come to mind when they read the word. Students then make a list of all of the words.
  • Students share the recorded words, then as a class the words are categorized.
  • Once category names are assigned, a class map is created and discussed.
  • Students are then encouraged to suggest additional categories for the map, or add to the old ones.
  • Any new words that relate to the topic are added to the map as students read through the text.

2. Word Wizard

Cooperative learning is an effective way for students to learn and process information. The jigsaw learning technique is a quick and effective way for students to work with their peers while learning key vocabulary words. For this activity each student is responsible for learning three new words and teaching those words to their group. Here’s how it works:

  • The teacher divides students into groups. Each student in the group is responsible for learning three new words in the chapter.
  • Each “word wizard” is instructed to write the definition of the word in his/her own words as well as draw an illustration of the word.
  • After each “word wizard” has completed their task, it their job to come back to their group and teach their peers what they have learned.
  • Each group member can copy the new words that they learn from each member in their notebooks.

3. Word Detective

The most valuable thing that you can do to increase your student’s vocabulary is to encourage them to read. Research shows that wide reading is the main pathway for word acquisition. This activity enables students to see words in different contexts, therefore deepening their knowledge. It requires students to find new words as they encounter them in their daily reading. Here’s how word detective works:

  • The teacher gives students a list of key words to search for.
  • Students are to write each target word and its sentence on a sticky note, then place it on their desk each time they encounter a key word.
  • At the end of each school day, devote a few minutes to reading each sticky note.
  • You can even make a game out it by assigning each word a point.

4. Word Connect

A Venn diagram is a great way for students to compare similarities and differences within words. It also provides students with new exposures to words, which helps them solidify what they have learned. For this activity, students are directed to connect two words that are written in the center of a Venn diagram. Their task is to connect the two words by writing down each words definition on the Venn diagram, then explaining the reason for the connection.

5. Concept Cube

A concept cube is a great strategy to employ word parts. Students receive a six-square cube (which will eventually be folded into a three dimensional cube). On each of the squares students are instructed to write down one of the following:

  1. Vocabulary word
  2. Antonym
  3. Synonym
  4. Category it belongs to
  5. Essential characteristics
  6. Example

Students then cut, fold and tape the cube to make a square. Then, with a partner, they roll their cube and must tell the relationship of the word that lands on top to the original vocabulary word.

Implementing a variety of approaches will help prevent boredom. Experiment with different strategies and techniques to determine which ones work the best for your students.

Do you have any ideas to help your students learn vocabulary words? Share with us in the comment section below. We would love to hear your thoughts.

Janelle Cox is an education writer who uses her experience and knowledge to provide creative and original writing in the field of education. Janelle holds a Master's of Science in Education from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. She is also the Elementary Education Expert for, as well as a contributing writer to and TeachHUB Magazine. You can follow her at Twitter @Empoweringk6ed, or on Facebook at Empowering K6 Educators