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Teaching Vocabulary So Students Really Learn It

Teaching Vocabulary

Teaching vocabulary is a vital component of instruction at every grade level and in every subject. Unfortunately, many teachers don’t feel confident in the methods they’re using to teach vocabulary to students. Fortunately, when it comes to teaching vocabulary, there’s a tried and true method you can follow to make sure your vocabulary activities are highly effective.

I have personally used Marzano’s 6-step process 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.

Six-Steps for Teaching Vocabulary

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.

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. 

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.

Picture Dictionary

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. 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. 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. Activities should vary between open ended and closed, giving students opportunities to build their knowledge as they practice.

Vocabulary Activities for Upper Elementary

5. Talk about it

Teachers should also periodically have students discuss their vocabulary words in pairs or small groups. 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 practice opportunities 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. 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 this process works best if you teach all 6 steps, without skipping any. Here are a few more tips for getting vocabulary instruction right:  

  • Students really need to write a 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, 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)
Teaching vocabulary

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

Happy Teaching, Kristen

Comments

  1. Michelle says

    Hi I was wondering if you have the vocabulary sheet pictured in this blog for sale? The one where the students draw a picture?

    • Kristen Doyle says

      Hi! That’s part of my Vocabulary Roots program. The 3rd & 4th grade units are available now with that sheet included. I’m in the process of updating the 5th & 6th grade units to include those sheets now too, so they should be available soon!

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real teachers said...

After 2 years of using this resource I can say that it dramatically helped my usually low performing students be recognized as in the top 10% of growth in the state. This is a must have for any 5th grade teacher.

(5th Grade Vocabulary Bundle)

Wendy S.

2019-10-14T17:05:08-06:00

Wendy S.

After 2 years of using this resource I can say that it dramatically helped my usually low performing students be recognized as in the top 10% of growth in the state. This is a must have for any 5th grade teacher. (5th Grade Vocabulary Bundle)
I love this resource! It was thorough and fun. The kids had a great time going through the various stations. The activities really helped to reinforce their understanding of probability. It was a hit and I will be using this for many years to come. Thank you!

(Probability Stations)

Kate A.

2019-10-14T17:09:01-06:00

Kate A.

I love this resource! It was thorough and fun. The kids had a great time going through the various stations. The activities really helped to reinforce their understanding of probability. It was a hit and I will be using this for many years to come. Thank you! (Probability Stations)
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(Back to School Flipbook)

Karina B.

2019-10-14T17:11:02-06:00

Karina B.

I had purchased other flip books in the past and found them tricky or time-consuming. Not the case with this one! Very simple to use and will be a friendly tool to communicate important information with parents. (Back to School Flipbook)
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(Digital Rotation Boards for Reading & Math)

Nikki J.

2019-10-14T17:24:31-06:00

Nikki J.

This is the best tool for organized groups! The kids love the timer and I love how it is color-coded for 2 minutes and 1 minute. I use this every day for reading and math centers! (Digital Rotation Boards for Reading & Math)