Vocabulary lesson plans: 8 Techniques to Make It Stick 

Vocabulary is the basis of knowledge. According to British linguist David Wilkins “While without grammar very little can be conveyed, without vocabulary, nothing can be conveyed.” Therefore, vocabulary instruction is one of the most fundamental types of learning that occurs in the classroom. 

At the high school level, vocabulary instruction serves different purposes. On one level, it is the basic knowledge required to learn about a subject. For example, physics students will not get far in computing and predicting the movement of objects if they do not first understand the meaning of terms like inertia and force.  

On another level, vocabulary provides students a more expansive understanding of the world. They can describe things more precisely. They can make connections between subjects and ideas. 

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Good instruction in vocabulary facilitates cognitive development as it lays the foundations of knowledge and comprehension which, in turn, provide the language and tools necessary to pursue deeper analysis, synthesis, and evaluation. 

Here are eight ideas to broaden your students’ vocabulary. These ideas can be adapted for both classroom instruction as well as distance learning.  

1. Keep a personal dictionary 

As you present vocabulary words in class, or as they come up in readings or new units, have your students keep a personal dictionary of vocabulary terms. This should include words, definitions, and parts of speech. You may use any of the following methods for students to compile their vocabulary words: 

  • Notecards
  • A dedicated notebook 
  • A section of a binder 

2. Provide instruction in short doses and use repetition 

                                   

As with all knowledge, the goal of vocabulary instruction is not memorization, but retention. Often, students will memorize a list of vocab words for a test, a unit of study, or perhaps even for a semester or two. But, when it is no longer “needed,” the student will forget the information. 

Research has shown that it takes 17 repetitions of a new word for a student to learn and retain that information. One of the best ways to facilitate long-term mastery is to provide frequent exposure to new vocabulary in small doses using spaced practice. Vocabulary should be presented and reviewed frequently, without asking students to ingest too much at any one time. 

Bell ringers 

A useful technique for presenting and reviewing vocabulary is the bell ringer. Here are some pointers and ideas for vocabulary bell ringer activities.  

Have three to five vocabulary terms on the board when students enter the classroom. The list should contain both older and newer words. Review and reinforce these vocabulary words using any of the following methods: 

  • Call on students to define the words. You may also ask them to use the words in a sentence or explain the part of speech. 
  • Have table groups or partners take turns defining the words for one another. Again, this may include using the words in sentences or identifying parts of speech. 
  • For additional assistance or with newer terms, write the words in one column and the definitions, out of order, in another column. Call on students or have groups match the definitions with the words.  
  • Allow students to reference their notes or vocabulary flashcards as necessary, until the words and definitions are engrained.

                                                

  • Use a “word jar” that contains notecards or slips of paper with vocabulary terms on the front and their definitions on the back. At the start of class ask one to three students to come up front, pull a word from the word jar, read the word, and define it for the class. You may also have students use the words creatively in a sentence.  

As a regular part of your class routine, these bell ringer activities can be accomplished in just a few minutes at the start of class, providing valuable repetition and review with little time taken from other instruction.  

Exit tickets 

Another method for reviewing and reinforcing vocabulary is the exit ticket. You may ask your students to write down the definition of a particular vocabulary word on a slip of paper to be handed in before leaving class. Or, this may be done in the reverse, with your presenting a definition and asking students to write down the vocabulary word. 

You may also use the ‘verbal exit ticket,’ waiting at the door and asking individual students to define a vocabulary term or asking them to use a vocab word correctly in a sentence before exiting.  

Both bell ringers and exit tickets can be adapted to the visual classroom, as well. You may welcome students to a virtual class by presenting vocabulary words and having volunteers share the definitions of those words with the group. Or, you may present a definition on the screen and have students type in the corresponding vocabulary term via the online learning system’s “chat” feature. 

These interactions can also work equally well for exit tickets. You may allow students to log off at the end of class only after defining a vocabulary word or using it in a sentence. Or, you may use the “chat” feature to have students define an important term before logging off.  

 3. Word walls and other visuals 

Another way to reinforce vocabulary is through the use of word walls and other visuals. 

Word walls 

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Word walls are not just for the elementary classroom. These displays benefit high school students, as well, by putting important terms in their line of sight on a regular basis. Word walls provide not only visual clues to help students access a term or its meaning but also reinforcement of those terms through regular exposure.  

In elementary school, one of the main purposes of the word wall is to build students’ vocabulary and reading skills through exposure to high-frequency and new words. At the high school level, word walls tend to serve the purpose of cementing definitions for subject-specific vocabulary and teaching students more advanced vocabulary. Therefore, it is strongly recommended to include definitions along with words on high school-level word walls.     

In the distance learning classroom, or as a complement to in-class learning, many techniques exist for creating virtual word walls. Here is an example of word wall creation using Google Slides: 

Visual representations 

                                            

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Visual representations can also help students absorb new vocabulary. Consider adding visuals to your word wall definitions. Another idea is to provide images that students can cut and paste into their personal dictionaries, or have them draw their own visuals to accompany definitions. Notecards like these from Quizlet, which include not only definitions but also visuals, are extremely helpful for student retention.  

4. Use and define vocabulary words regularly 

Students must not only see and read vocabulary words, but also hear them. During classroom instruction, be sure to provide oral vocabulary instruction regularly. 

Say it!   

Students should know the correct pronunciation of words. As the teacher, use vocab words frequently during your instruction so that students make auditory, not just visual, connections with the words. Also, give students opportunities to speak these words using verbal knowledge checks, class and group discussion, and class presentations. 

                             

Define it!    

As you provide instruction, scaffold student learning by defining important vocab terms as you use them, even words that you have been using for some time. Remember, the key to retention is repetition. Even when you believe that students should know a word, err on the side of too much explanation and define it again. For example, 

In this equation, we need to solve for the variable x. Remember, a variable is a letter that stands in for an unknown quantity. In this case, the variable x represents the unknown number that we are trying to find. 

In this example, the teacher has allowed the students to hear the word ‘variable’ three times and has reinforced the meaning of this critical term, all while taking almost no time away from demonstration of the equation at hand.      

5. Use big words 

               

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Not all vocabulary instruction must be subject-specific nor tied to a particular unit of study. Use your classroom as a place to promote incidental learning by modeling rich and varied vocabulary yourself. In addition to the subject matter at hand, your use of sophisticated vocabulary will provide a secondary learning opportunity for students. 

In order to make this effective, set the ground rules: 

  • Maintain an open-door policy. If a student does not understand a word, create a classroom environment in which they are free to ask. 
  • Provide motivation for students to learn. For example, if you use a word that is new, students may earn extra credit if they look it up after class, write out the definition, and show you that they can use it correctly.    
  • When you use a new word, you can simply write that word on the board as a clue to students that they may look into it, as detailed above, for extra credit. Or, writing the word on the board may be a signal that students should add it to their personal dictionaries.   
  • When you use advanced vocabulary that may hinder students from understanding the core instruction you are providing, be sure to ask students if they know the meaning of and/or define the words as you go. For example,

 

The Nazi death camps were an egegious crime against humanity. Does 

anyone know what ‘egregious’ means? ‘Egregious’ means shockingly terrible.

The Nazi death camps were a shockingly terrible crime against humanity.  

If you would like to expand your own vocabulary or need ideas for new words to use with your students, here is an excellent reference. Or, access one of the many apps that exist to help you build your vocabulary, such as Word of the Day, and bring these new terms into your classroom. 

 

6. Have fun     

Games and other fun learning activities are not just the domain of the elementary or middle school classroom. They are fantastic tools for high school instruction, as well. Here are some winning ideas to bring vocabulary instruction to life in creative and new ways. 

  • Play games like vocabulary bingo, Pictionary, and charades to reinforce new vocabulary. 

  • Get creative. Have students write short stories, poems, or songs using vocabulary terms. 

  • Use songs and rhymes in your instruction. Write your own catchy songs and rhymes, perhaps to the tune of popular music, to teach and review vocabulary. Or, create mnemonic devices and show your students how to do the same.  

7. Explore the roots and etymology of words 

                                

When students understand how words are built and how they relate to other words and concepts, they can learn these words better. Help your students study the etymology of words by looking for roots, prefixes, and suffixes

The more students explore words in this way, the more readily they can see connections between words and the concepts those words describe. These connections allow students to remember the meaning of words better, and they can also use logic to figure out the meaning or the approximate meaning of new words. This is much easier work in the long run than relying on strict memorization!   

When introducing new words, teach students to perform root analysis. Have them research the Latin and Greek roots of words and look for other, similar words with those roots. Instead of trying to remember individual words and definitions, this will help students build a network of vocabulary. 

Then, show students how they can categorize words in a variety of ways based upon common roots, prefixes, and suffixes: 

Investigate the Morphemic Analysis Routine as a tool for this type of word analysis. 

 

8. Teach students to read words in context 

Finally, encourage your students to use context clues to figure out the meaning of words. This will work better for some words than others. 

                                            

Take these two examples:  

  • Adjust the aperture of the telescope. 

In this case, there is not much context for the student to know what ‘aperture’ means. We know that it is part of a telescope that can adjust, but that doesn’t help much because several parts of a telescope adjust. You will probably need to define this word for your students. 

However, here is an example in which context can take the student a long way in understanding a word’s meaning: 

  • When taking pictures in low-light conditions, set the camera to a lower aperture, allowing more light to enter the camera.  

In this case, the sentence itself tells us a great deal about the meaning of ‘aperture.’ We know that the aperture is something that can be set to allow more or less light into a camera. From that, we can guess that the aperture is something that opens wider to allow more light in or becomes smaller to allow less. 

Provide students opportunities to use different types of context clues to determine the meaning of words. This can include: 

  • Whole class or small group discussion based on class readings 
  • Asking students to identify unfamiliar words in assigned readings, using context to make an educated guess at definitions before looking up them up
  • Applying what students have learned about etymology alongside context clues to make an even better evaluation of unfamiliar words  

Apply one or more these eight ideas for vocabulary instruction to your traditional or visual classroom. Your students will better retain important subject-specific vocabulary while making connections between words, ideas, and subjects. And, what’s more, most of these can be incorporated into your classroom alongside other necessary instruction with little time taken from the other, important content that you must cover.