Vocabulary is something that’s often added to English classes as a bit of an afterthought. Something to get done randomly, in between all the other work. Alongside the lessons on grammar, literature, writing, speaking, debate, ethics, career studies, research skills, media literacy, love of reading, etc.!
I like what Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle say in 180 Days about how you just have to choose what to focus on. You can’t do it all. (Also such good life advice, am I right?).
But often, vocabulary is a must. You’re handed a book to get through, or a list with a certain amount of SAT words that you need to cover each week.
When I first began teaching, I didn’t really know what to do with my vocabulary book. It had some great title like “Hot Words for the SAT” with little flames around the printed letters on the cover. Whoo hoo! Surely those flames meant it would be fun for my students!
So when I was planning my units, I scheduled in vocabulary quizzes for Fridays and “study for vocabulary quizzes” on Thursday nights. I know you’re impressed.
Since then, I’ve learned a few things. We can definitely do better than “study for vocabulary quizzes.” Not that I’m blaming twenty-two-year-old teacher me. There was a lot going on for her at work. I know you can relate.
But let’s dive into some other options, for those who have the time and energy to pursue them. In this post and podcast, I’m sharing ten ideas for making the study of vocabulary something students might even look forward to.
#1 Video Journals
You know how you sometimes stumble upon AMAZING Youtube videos and you just wish that somehow, someway they were applicable to your classroom? Like the video below, that I’m laughing so hard at again right now.
Well, vocabulary video journals are the perfect way to work them in. Each week, once your students have their vocabulary list, turn their attention to whatever video you’ve discovered that you think will be riveting for them (this Ukrainian sand painter and this guy dancing are two of my all-time favorites).
Play the video and then give them a short related prompt. So with the cat above, you might say “Write this cat’s internal monologue. Who is it sneaking up on? Or what is it planning? What happens after it jumps?”
Ask students to write in their journals (or notebooks, or iPads), using ALL THEIR VOCABULARY WORDS in their writing.
Will their writing be a little crazy? Perhaps not totally connected? At times, yes. But I have found that the videos are so engaging to them that they bring that positive energy into their vocabulary writing. After ten minutes they’ve at least considered and thought through the meaning of their words as they try to build them into their writing. Then have them trade notebooks and give each other a bit of feedback on whether they used the words correctly. There’s no need to collect or grade this writing, it’s just a fun way to start memorizing the words and their meanings.
I wrote up a formal set of lesson plans for this activity for Read Write Think, if you’d like some printable materials and more video links.
#2 Create a Meaningful Vocabulary Product
What if instead of approaching vocabulary as something they had to learn each week, they approached their words as something they needed to be able to teach others?
I’ve been fascinated by Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine’s book In Search of Deeper Learning lately – I’ll be sharing more on this later, and interviewing Sarah on the podcast. One of the chapters is about a project at one high school to explain advanced economics concepts in a student-friendly way.
The students created their own economics text. “A student-authored economic textbook – in which each spread features students defining an economic concept with a facing page illustrating that concept – was praised by President Clinton as one of the most lucid and incisive books on the subject that he had ever read” (49-50). You guys, I couldn’t love this idea more.
So how might you build it into your vocabulary instruction? Well, maybe your students create their own version of that economics textbook, with vocabulary words on one page and sketch notes or one-pagers explaining them on the connecting page. Or maybe they create a video channel for SAT-takers all over the world, posting new videos with new words every week of the year. Then you let them know that you can share their digitized book, or their channel, with a group of over 15,000 Creative High School English teachers. So basically if it’s good, it could be used by many, many students.
I’ve got a weakness for buying postcards, but I’ve turned it into a fun classroom tool. It’s easy to pick up cheap and unique postcards in thrift stores, boutiques, and of course, while traveling. If you can build up a small collection, they make a really fun vocabulary tool. You can invite students to contribute too.
Simply lay out your collection across the front of the room each week and let students choose a new postcard. Then give them a fairly general prompt to write on, using their vocabulary words, inspired by the postcard. For example, “Write the story of a conversation that just took place in the scene you’re looking at. Try to include lots of descriptive details about the characters speaking, as well as all your vocabulary words.”
Write for a while, then, again, trade and let students read each other’s writing and give feedback on how they used the words.
#4 Word Wall Posters
Have you heard of a word wall? Basically you put vocabulary you’re studying up on your wall, in a visually striking, memorable way (if at all possible). When I’m doing these, I like to assign each student a word and have them create a regular paper-sized poster with their word on it along with complementary images, synonyms, the definition, etc. I like what my friend Melissa says about making sure word wall fonts are BIG so they can be read from across the room, and putting your word wall area up on the part of the wall students are most often facing.
You can choose to put the word wall posters up AFTER whatever vocabulary assessment you use, building a huge wall of posters throughout the year, or you can have them up all week and then take them down before the assessment. It probably goes without saying, but you won’t want them up during any vocabulary quizzes!
My own personal twist on the word wall concept is that I like to do a get-up-and-move activity with my students once they’ve created their posters. I divide the class in half, and have each half form a circle – one inside the other. Then they turn so they’re each facing a partner. I give everyone thirty seconds to present their word wall posters with their partners, then call for one of the circles to rotate. We repeat this until the circles have gone around. While they won’t see every word during this rapid-fire vocabulary stream, they see a lot, and it’s always fun. (By the way, I call this “rotating circles” and it’s good in lots of situations.)
#5 Vocabulary One-Pagers
Another great way to get students thinking carefully about their words is to have them create vocabulary one-pagers. If you’ve used one-pagers with novels, podcasts, films, or as a getting-to-know you activity, students already know the concept of connecting key imagery and words to distill concepts into a one-pager. It’s easy to do it with vocabulary too, and it makes the words far more memorable to see them illustrated.
#6 Vocabulary Review Games
By now, Kahoot and Quizlet are much loved tools for the teachers of a gamer generation. But have you ever tried Quizziz? I discovered this free tool through Jennifer Gonzalez’s info-rich Teacher’s Guide to Tech for 2019. You create quizzes students can play alone or live in your class. Then Quizziz grades them for you so you can see how everyone’s doing.
As a player, you see your ranking after each answer, and you also get a meme response to how you’re doing. I was entertained, and found myself scrambling for the right answers as the countdown timer showed my dwindling response time when I played another teacher’s vocabulary quiz. Here are some screenshots to give you an idea of what the platform is like.
#7 Vocabulary Tattoo Design
If you’re really struggling to get kids interested in the power of words, try an activity where you assign each student a word and ask them to create the tattoo image for someone who wanted this word as part of a tattoo. Ask them to brainstorm a backstory for why that word was so important to the person, and then come up with an image that connects the word, its meaning, and the backstory. Not easy! But perhaps outside-the-box enough to capture some interest. Then let everyone present back their tattoo designs.
#8 Post-It Stations
Stations are a great way for you to get your kids up and moving around. Try posting words around the room on the walls, then having students move from place to play and put up sentences using the words on post-its. As they circulate, they’ll get to see lots of others’ sentences as well. You’ll want to circulate too, so you can lightly edit post-its that don’t quite get the definition right in their usage. Or you can give this job to a handful of students, making them a team of official editors.
#9 Use your Makerspace
Have you fallen head over heels for Angela Stockman’s #makewriting concept with me? If so, perhaps you have maker elements like legos, clay, art materials, or other loose parts in your classroom. Why not create vocabulary maker challenges? Have student partners build a representation of their assigned word, then write on index cards or mini white boards how their made item represents the word. Proceed to gallery walk!
#10 Magic Spells
Like the tattoo activity, I think magic spell vocabulary has the potential to grab the attention of students who are really tapped out when it comes to studying vocab.
If your class loves Potter, try having them create magic spells that involve the words they’ve been assigned. Rowling does this with spells like “wingardium leviosa” (nice way to learn levitate) and “petrificus totalus” (you get the idea – petrify).
Have students go through their words and come up with a spell for each one, then explain what it does. You could even create a class vocabulary spell book, all working on it live together in class through Google Slides, then run through it at the end and choose your favorites together.
I hope these ideas help! I’d love for you to drop a comment below and let me know if you’re going to try some of them out.