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10 Easy Ways to Teach Vocabulary in a Meaningful Way

Teach vocabulary in a meaningful way to help your students increase their reading comprehension and become better writers.

Explicitly teaching vocabulary plays an important role in reading instruction. It makes sense that language comprehension is necessary for reading comprehension. While I had a basic understanding of this, the Texas Reading Academies really put it into perspective for me. A valuable course, but such a beast to get through. I’ve taken what I learned and put together some easy-to-implement ideas for you.

These ten ideas will help you teach quick, simple, and meaningful vocabulary lessons and provide practice in your third grade classroom every day.

Teach Vocabulary Explicitly

Introduce the Vocabulary Words

Introduce the word with a word card for the vocabulary wall. Say it, repeat it, and have the students say it. Break it apart by syllables and point out any familiar word parts.

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Use a photograph or picture card to illustrate the meaning of the vocabulary word.

Give a student-friendly definition of the word. (ie. To tremble means to shake, often because of fear or worry.)

Show a picture that illustrates the word and give an example sentence.

For example, “The girl trembled with fear as she hid from the monster.”

Ask a deep processing question and have the students think-pair-share. Give them a sentence frame to help them verbalize their answer and provide scaffolding for oral language.

Ex: What is something that might make you tremble? Say, “I would tremble if…” to your partner

Teach the Vocabulary Word in Context

Then explain that you are going to look for context clues around the word in the mentor text to help you understand the way the word is being used in the story. Look for clues together.

The following example is for the word tremble in the mentor text Kat Kong by Dav Pilkey:

What is trembling in the story? Is it a character, a structure, or a land area? (It’s the ground.) What is making the ground tremble? (Kat Kong is huge. Maybe his steps are so heavy it shakes the ground when he comes “crashing through the thick forest.”) Is there any fear in this part of the story? (Yes. The author described Kat Kong as “the most frightening creature ever known to mousekind.”) Why do you think the author may have chosen to use the word trembled instead of just shook? (To add to the mood. It helps us see that this is a scary creature and event.)

Mirrors with Words

“Mirrors with Words,” is a Whole Brain Teaching strategy that has the students mirroring your gestures and words. Say, “Mirrors with Words” and put your hands up in front of your shoulders with your palms facing the students. The students repeat your words and action. Then say the word and use a gesture to show the meaning of the word.

For example, if the word is tremble, you might put your hand up in front of your chin and shake your lower jaw while making your body slightly shake.

**Tip: This works really well when you can come up with an action or gesture that can be repeated to use the same TPR throughout the week.

Kate Bowski has a great YouTube video that explains how “mirrors” work. You can also see them in action with students in this video.

Context Clues Practice

I use fill-in-the-blank style sentences and have the students use the context clues to determine which of their vocabulary words best completes the sentence. This not only gets them thinking about and using their vocabulary words but also squeezes in more practice with context clues – which my students have always desperately needed. These sentences are usually just ones that I make up and show on the document camera. You don’t need anything fancy here.

Make Connections to Words They Know

The goal of this is to build on your students’ prior knowledge by making connections between the new vocabulary words and ideas they already understand. Write the word on the board and ask students deep processing questions about it using more familiar vocabulary.

For example, you could ask, “How might someone feel if they are trembling?” (afraid, scared) “Tell me about a time when you were trembling with fear.”

You can also look for familiar roots and affixes together to help construct the meaning of the word based on what you already know of those word parts.

Another great practice for helping students make connections between words is analyzing the shades of meaning by putting them on a continuum or scale.

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Activities and Games To Help You Teach Vocabulary Throughout the Week

Would You Rather

Show the students the vocabulary word and its antonym. Ask the question “Would you rather (be/feel/have) ___ or ___? Have the students think-pair-share or discuss their choices with their table groups.**Tip: Give the students a sentence frame to scaffold oral language development. (Ex: “I would rather be/have/feel ____ because ____.”) You can also show pictures of the two scenarios or options and provide the language for each choice.

Use GIFs to Teach Vocabulary Words

Gifs are a highly engaging way to illustrate word meanings. See how well this gif illustrates the meaning of tremble?

Gifs are a great way to show students the meaning of new vocabulary words.

Semantic Word Maps

Start by placing the word in the center of the word map. Then add related words to categories that surround the word. You can do this in two different ways with your students. Both will require modeling to help students understand the process.

  1. You write the categories and lead them through each one, creating a list of related words. This may be a good way to start, especially for words and concepts that are particularly foreign to your students. It’s also a great scaffold for emerging bilingual students and multilingual learners.
  2. Have the students brainstorm as many words as they can that are related to the word. They can do this in groups or together as a class. Once a good amount of words have been added to the list, have the students make connections and sort the words into categories. (Note: There may be some outliers. That’s ok.) Students can continue adding words to the word map after the categories have been determined.
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Frayer Model

The Frayer Model helps students develop a full understanding of the vocabulary and is incredibly easy to implement. All you need is a piece of paper that can be folded into fourths once the students are familiar with the template. The vocabulary word goes in the center and the definition, facts or characteristics, non-examples, and examples are put in the boxes as told in clockwise order starting with the top left box.

Charades & Pictionary

These engaging games keep kids motivated and excited about expanding their vocabulary. Have a student act out or draw the word for the others to guess. You can do this as a class or in small groups. I like to include this in various ways within my vocabulary station.

Teach Vocabulary Explicitly, Provide Practice in a Station

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A vocabulary station provides multiple exposures to vocabulary words with fun and meaningful activities.

Save yourself some time by adding activities to your vocabulary station that can be used with any word list. You won’t have to change the activities since the new word lists will change it up and keep it fresh for the students.

Allow your students to practice using the vocabulary words they’ve learned in class in fun and engaging ways during stations. Don’t add any words to the station that have not been explicitly taught during class. Having students practice using vocabulary words that they don’t have a full understanding of can lead to misconceptions about their meanings and uses.

Save even more time by grabbing my Vocabulary Activities for Any Word List here. These games and activities will motivate your students to use their newly learned vocabulary in conversation and writing.

This station is ready to go and requires very little maintenance. Once you set it up, you’ll only need to refill the papers every now and then. The best part is that the station will be ready to go for next year as well!

Here are just a few of my favorite ideas to get you started.

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Vocabulary Dice Game – Get your students excited about practicing their vocabulary words in a variety of engaging ways. It’s simple, fun to play, and best of all, easy to set up.

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Super Vocabulary Board Game – Add excitement to your vocabulary station with friendly competition in a vocabulary board game. This Super Vocabulary Game spirals vocabulary words throughout the year. Just keep adding word cards as they are taught. Gameplay gets more and more fun as the deck grows.

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Crossword Puzzles – Challenge your students by letting them create their own vocabulary crossword puzzles. The kids also love switching and completing each other’s crosswords. Double the practice, double the fun!

A Note About Assessments

Assess the students on their understanding of the words by having them use the words in context. This is so much more meaningful than having the students match the word to its definition. Memorizing which word goes with which definition doesn’t show a deeper understanding of how to use the word, doesn’t truly expand our students’ vocabularies, and certainly won’t transfer to their future use of the words.

This doesn’t need to be hard or time-consuming to create.

You can create multiple-choice questions for each vocabulary word, true/false questions, or have the students write a sentence for each word that shows the meaning. While the last option there seems the easiest – keep in mind that you will have to grade these.

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10 Easy Ways to Teach Vocabulary in a Meaningful Way
hello, i'm laura heinen from cultivating critical readers

I help upper elementary ELA and reading teachers like you create engaging and effective reading lessons without all the stress.

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