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Learning high level vocabulary is essential for success in school—and it’s helpful for life success, too. Teaching vocabulary is important because it:
- boosts reading comprehension
- improves communication and thinking skills
- builds academic and social confidence
- has been linked to occupational success
But to reap these benefits, you can’t merely teach fancy new vocabulary. You must encourage students to actually use it in their writing and speaking.
Here’s how to effectively teach new words and motivate students to put them to use:
Model a sophisticated vocabulary
In the classroom, your use of language provides an important model for your students’ vocabulary development. When you use a word you think is unfamiliar to your students, ask if they know what it means. If not, explain the definition and discuss examples as a class.
Naturally introduce higher level synonyms for words that students already know. For example, tell a student, “Please pass out the papers.” After the student is done, say, “Thank you for distributing the papers.” Gradually begin substituting these more sophisticated terms for words you commonly use in the classroom.
You can also provide more explicit verbal instruction. If you have classroom jobs, for instance, you may start the year with a “cleanup helper.” Later in the year, say, “Everybody knows what the cleanup helper does now, right? Today, we’ll learn a new phrase that we’ll use for our cleanup helper. From now on, we’ll call the cleanup helper our sanitation engineer. A sanitation engineer is in charge of cleaning up, collecting garbage, and taking care of community cleanliness—or, for our sanitation engineer, a classroom. Can you all say those words with me? Sanitation engineer.”
Build word consciousness
Word consciousness is an awareness of words and an interest in learning about language. Word conscious students are curious about new vocabulary and enjoy playing with words.
You can encourage word consciousness in your students by creating a classroom “rich in words.” Provide access to thesauruses, dictionaries, word games and crossword puzzles, age-appropriate books, and more. Word games like Scrabble, Scattergories, Outburst, and Pictionary (which requires players to illustrate vocabulary words for other students to guess) are often popular with students.
Create word walls, introduce word play, and discuss the relationship between words, such as synonyms and antonyms. You can also classify words by sorting them into parts of speech or categories such as places, foods, clothing, etc. Integrate vocabulary into your classroom and make words fun, and you’ll encourage your students to continuously enhance their vocabulary.
Provide student-friendly definitions
When you define words for students, avoid dictionary definitions, which are often incomprehensible for students. Always provide student-friendly definitions that are simple and clear to the children in your classroom.
It’s also helpful to provide examples and include a photo or illustration of the definition. Images are especially important for English language learners.
Define words in context
For years, teachers have passed out vocabulary lists and asked students to memorize and regurgitate words and definitions. Unfortunately, these words rarely make their way into students’ everyday vocabulary. In fact, many children probably can’t use them in a sentence.
In addition to providing examples and images, it’s helpful to define words in the context of a sentence. Pairing activities with fancy new vocabulary is another way to add meaning and context, like the Word Collector Vocabulary Activities I’ve created.
You can also choose vocabulary words from a story or poem that you’re reading in class. In fact, research shows that the most effective time to introduce and define a new word may be the moment it’s met in a text. Teaching vocabulary in context is powerful. Older children can create their own word lists using a text. Have them preview the text, highlighting or jotting down five words they don’t recognize. Next, students can create an “unknown words” chart on a sheet of paper or in a notebook.
As students read the text and reach their unknown words, they determine their meaning using context clues and a dictionary. Direct instruction on using context clues is incredibly beneficial. Encourage your students to never skip words they don’t know.
Notice and encourage fancy vocabulary usage
Make a habit of noticing when kids use fancy words in their writing and speaking. If a student answers a question, for example, address their usage of a fancy word before responding to the answer: “Wow, first let me say that I’m impressed by your use of the word dubious. What a spectacular way to use that word!”
If you see fancy words in a student’s writing, circle it and leave an encouraging comment, a smiley face sticker, etc. The more you encourage the use of fancy vocabulary, the more students will feel motivated to use it.
Assign value to words
Another way to encourage fancy word use is assigning value to words. For example, adjectives could be penny, nickel, dime, or quarter words, such as:
- pretty = penny
- beautiful = nickel
- stunning = dime
- exquisite = quarter
There’s no correct way to classify words, but the idea is that more sophisticated words have more value. This is similar to (and can be paired with) the classic paint chip vocabulary activity. Students write synonyms on paint chips in order from weakest word (lightest shade) to strongest word (darkest shade). Helping students understand shades of meaning will contribute their understanding of word values.
Create a word wall
Word walls are a simple method to encourage word consciousness and teach vocabulary. There are several different ways to incorporate word walls into your classroom. For example, you can regularly post new vocab on a word wall, along with a picture or sentence.
Another option is a “Words We Love Wall,” which students can add words to themselves. As you and your students encounter fancy words in literature, videos, music, or conversation, they can be posted on the wall. When you have spare time in class, you can discuss the latest additions to the board.
You may consider a synonym wall, which students can refer to when speaking or writing. List words that your students commonly use, then provide fancier alternatives. As students practice using the synonyms, they’ll become part of their everyday vocabulary.
Remix the Frayer Model
The classic Frayer Model is a four-square graphic organizer for teaching vocabulary. It includes a word’s definition, examples, non-examples, and illustration or characteristics.
Remix the model, making it more engaging with new categories. Options include synonyms, antonyms, a personal connection to the student’s life, a sentence, or related words. Alternatively, try having the students compare their words to something they could find outside, types of candy, famous people, etc.
This strategy gets students thinking more deeply and creatively about new words, ultimately making deeper connections.
By building word consciousness, context, and connections, you’ll help your students become vocabulary virtuosos in no time.
You may also want to check out this post, 5 Easy Ways to Make Vocabulary Fun, for more ideas.