How to Teach Vocabulary in Fun & Effective Ways

How to Teach Vocabulary (Fun & Effective Ways)

Teaching vocabulary is a vital component of instruction at every grade level and in all subject areas. Unfortunately, many teachers don’t feel confident that the methods they’re using to teach vocabulary are truly the best way to teach these new vocabulary words to students. Fortunately, when it comes to how to teach vocabulary, there’s a tried and true method you can follow to make sure you are teaching vocabulary in the most effective way.

I have personally used the 6-step process created by Robert Marzano for teaching academic vocabulary for many years, and I know firsthand how effective it is for my students. The heart of his teaching process is that students get both direct and indirect instruction and are exposed to the vocabulary multiple times, in multiple ways.

Six steps may seem overwhelming, especially when you only get a few minutes a day to spend explicitly teaching vocabulary. But remember, you don’t need to do all six steps in a single day, and only a small portion of this is direct instruction. Many of the steps can be done in reading centers while you teach small groups.

For vocabulary words within the content areas, use abbreviated versions of these steps when you introduce a new topic and the vocabulary that goes with it. Then add additional practice opportunities throughout the unit or chapter in centers or as homework while you’re teaching those specific topics.

How to teach vocabulary in 6 steps:

1. Introduce it

The teacher introduces new words. This has to go beyond just definitions. Relate the words to your students’ prior knowledge and discuss examples. I recommend doing this as a whole group activity.

Vocabulary Anchor Charts

Start by reading the word out loud. Ask students if they’ve heard this word before or what they think it might mean. Next, provide definitions, examples, photos, or sentences with the word. Depending on the word and on your students, you may choose to do all of these or just a couple. Encourage students to use the context clues in the examples you provide to help them determine the meaning of the unknown words.

Since I teach vocabulary using Greek & Latin roots, after I introduce each word individually, I ask students what these words have in common. From there, we can discuss the meaning of the focus root for the week. Be sure to add each new vocabulary word to a class Word Wall or have students add them to their own Personal Dictionary.

2. Define it

Have students write a definition in their own words. This activity is especially important for students because it requires them to think critically about the word and its definition and come up with another way to define the word.

By restating the definition in their own words, and not just copying the teacher’s explanation, students are actively processing this new word, which helps them commit the meaning to long-term memory. This is a great way to help students internalize the meanings of previously unfamiliar words.

Picture Dictionary for New Vocabulary Words

3. Draw it

The next step in effective vocabulary instruction is to have students create a visual representation of the words. While this may seem “too young” for our upper elementary students, it’s actually a vital part of your vocabulary instruction.

This doesn’t have to look like an art project, though. Students can create visual representations in the form of a picture dictionary (seen above), graphic organizers, pictographs, etc.

4. Practice it

Being exposed to the new words multiple times is very important for students to learn the meaning of the word. Give your students opportunities to interact with the words in a variety of ways. These vocabulary activities serve to deepen the students’ understanding of the words and help the word meanings stick in students’ minds.

Vocabulary Practice Activities for Upper Elementary Grades 3-6

Activities should vary between open-ended and closed, giving students opportunities to build their knowledge as they practice. Here are some high-quality vocabulary practice activities you can use:

  • Have students create a graphic organizer
  • Have them use the new words in their own sentences
  • Having students use the vocab words to write a short story
  • Creating and completing a Frayer model for each word
  • Encourage students to identify target words that they struggle with and do extra practice with those specific words
  • Create word maps with students

5. Talk about it

Teachers should also periodically have students discuss their vocabulary learning in pairs or small groups. Talking about the new words they are learning helps to boost students’ vocabulary skills. This can be accomplished through think-pair-share activities, with elbow partners, or in small groups.

Younger students will need the teacher to help facilitate these discussions. This could be as simple as posing a question and then having students discuss. You might ask:

  • Which of these words is most interesting to you? Why?
  • Where have you heard these words used in real life?
  • Which of these words are you struggling with? (The rest of the group may be able to help explain it in a new way or give them ideas for how to remember the word.)

6. Play it

Vocabulary games are especially important for students because they provide fun ways to practice their new vocabulary words with some unique characteristics. Games provide a manageable challenge students are eager to meet. They engage even reluctant learners because the outcome isn’t obvious. And last, but definitely not least, they’re FUN!

You can adapt many common games to use them with vocabulary words. Charades, Pictionary, and even Checkers can be adapted to use for vocabulary practice.

You can even do something as simple as having students write their words on index cards and play a heads-up type game where their partner gives them hints and they guess the right word.

Vocabulary Games for all Content Areas

Regardless of the games you choose, make partner and whole group vocabulary games a regular part of your vocabulary instruction.

Getting it Right

Many years of classroom research has shown that direct vocabulary instruction using this process works best if you teach all 6 steps, without skipping any. Here are a few more tips for getting vocabulary instruction right and helping students truly retain the meaning of new words they learn in class: 

  • Explicit instruction is a must. We cannot rely on students “picking up” new vocabulary words just from the content we’re teaching and the books we read.
  • Students really need to write their own student-friendly definition or description of the word that means something to them. If they are just restating the teacher’s definition, they don’t make that vital connection. (Step 2)
  • The visual representation is very powerful. You might be tempted to skip this one, especially with older students, but don’t! If you don’t want to have students draw a picture every time, they can also use graphic organizers or act out the words. (Step 3)
  • Vocabulary Games are also a vital part of the process. Students are highly engaged when playing games, and they provide a non-threatening way to review the words. (Step 6)

With these strategies in your toolbox, you now have easy ways to improve your vocabulary teaching, and will feel like the best English teacher around!

How to teach vocabulary

Reference Marzano, R. J. (2004). Building background knowledge for academic achievement: Research on what works in schools. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.  

Happy Teaching, Kristen