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For whatever reason, whenever I think of vocabulary I think of Pee Wee’s Playhouse and the “secret word”. Most that will read this probably only remember Pee Wee Herman for being creepy. Before all that, Saturday mornings meant the insanity of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. How the secret word works is that Pee Wee and the characters in the playhouse would all know the secret word. When someone said it they would all scream and go nuts. Here is a clip of how it worked.

As a teacher I always wanted to do this with our vocabulary words. The only problem is that my neighboring teachers would probably want to KILL me. They would have a legit case to do so. I’ve wanted to incorporate more consistent vocabulary instruction in my class. I wrote about that in this post about rethinking the first 5 minutes of class. I needed more ideas and resources so I sought out the help of our building’s two learning support coaches the amazing Ms. Okarma (@jenniferokarma) and fantastic Dr. Lukawski (@KimberlyCuko1). They recommended the book Vocabularians by Brenda Overturf, Leslie Mongomery, and Margot Holmes Smith. It was exactly what I needed as it was a treasure trove of resources and ideas. This post will highlight the strategies I gathered from that book as well as other resources I have found to address vocabulary in your classroom.

The authors of Vocabularians believe that teachers should be teaching their students the skills to tackle words on their own. Before they get into strategies to practice vocabulary they explain in depth how students can use context clues to make inferences on word meanings. They also stress the importance of teaching roots, prefixes, and suffixes so students can be better equipped to make meaning of words. In addition, they stress that teachers should be teaching their students how and where to find accurate definitions of the words. The final chapter of the book explains authentic assessment practices with vocabulary. All of the material is outstanding if you want to enhance your vocabulary instruction.

Chapter 6 of the book highlights strategies teachers can use to build up students vocabulary skills. Some of the strategies I liked and want to incorporate in my class for next year are:

Word Walls: Post the word, its correct definition, and a photo representing the word on your classroom wall. You can start the word wall and then turn this task over to students for them to create the word wall posters. I love this “Talk Like A Geographer” word wall from Amy Searle. (@MissASearle)


Word of the Day: On your board, post the word of the day, with the definition of the word. I did this last year on my class Twitter feed ( @mrcaseyljhsyet, I didn’t post it on the board. I will change this for next year.

Photo/Meme/Emoji/Gif Guess: You project a photo, meme, emoji(s), or gif and then students guess which vocab word is best represented by the image you have projected.

Word Colors: Student writes the word on one side of index card. They then color that side of the card. On the backside of the card they write out why they think that color best represents that vocabulary term. You could do the same thing yet have students draw a picture to represent the word on the side with the word on it. On the backside they have to explain why that picture best represents that word. You could also have students create an annotated image for a word using Thinglink.

Act Out: Students act out the word meaning while their classmates guess the word.

Rap/Song: Students write a rap or song about the word.

Hot Seat: Student faces away from the board. You project the word. The student on the hot seat has to ask questions to determine what vocab word is being projected behind them. You can flip this and the the student on the hot seat knows the word and the class has to ask questions to determine the word.

Project vocabulary images and videos your students create: The authors recommend using your school’s T.V. cameras to project images and videos that your students create for their vocabulary words. I love this idea in that their creations will be for an authentic audience and it spreads the word love.

Some additional ideas that I’ve gathered and want to use are as follows:

Play Like A Pirate: #worldgeochat is wrapping up their book study of Quinn Rollins (@jedikermit) awesome book Play Like A Pirate.  As it pertains to vocabulary students could create an action figure, Transformer, Hot Wheel Car, Smurf, or super hero to represent their word. #worldgeochat’s very own Sam Mandeville (@SamMandeville) did just that for climate zones and landforms. She wrote about it here. Beyond just creating the character to represent the word, you could have the students market their figure or create an entire set. Students could also create a representation of theword using Play-Doh or using Lego. Finally, you could also use Read Write Think’s (@RWTnow) trading card generator to create trading cards for their vocabulary words. 

The school district I work with brought in Dr. Michael Manderino (@mmanderino) to work with our social studies teachers on disciplinary literacy instruction. Dr. Manderino is outstanding. He coauthored the book Content Area Learning: Bridges to Disciplinary Literacy with Roberta Berglund and Jerry Johns. Two of the strategies in the book that I would like to use in regards to vocabulary are:

Vocabulary Self Collection:

  1. Teacher nominates 1st important word (Write out sentence it appears in the text you are looking at.)
  2. Teacher explains how he or she determined what the word means
  3. Persuade the class as to why everyone need to learn this word
  4. Each student then finds a word to nominate and they repeat the process
  5. Give students 1 minute to sell their word

Word Sort

  1. Create set of 15-20 vocab words on index cards for small groups of students 
  2. In small groups of 3-5 give them the groups of vocab words
  3. Have students group the words
  4. Have students do a gallery walk to see how others grouped the words
  5. Allow students to reclassify
  6. Have them explain to the class why they grouped the words as they did
  7. Have students reflect on the activity at the end

Additional Strategies:

Pictionary: Put the terms on scraps of paper. Students take turns pulling a term. They have to sketch the word while their classmates guess the word.

Words in the Wild: I plan to use Classcraft next year to gamify my classroom. If students find our vocabulary words in the wild. (In articles, photos, video clips, etc…) they will be awarded XP points.

Additional Resources: 

Free Rice In addition to a great vocabulary game, the website also has geography questions too.

Visuwords Creates a web of synonyms and examples for the word you search for in the search bar. Their tagline is, “Not your grandad’s dictionary.” Cool resource that is worth a look.

Cram Flashcard Creator Create digital flashcards

You could also create great formative vocabulary assessments and games using:

Kahoot Create multiple choice quiz games to use with your whole class. Students that answer the quickest rack up the most points. You can also use pictures and videos in your questions.

Quizizz Another multiple choice quiz game. This one though is self paced for students. It also incorporates memes. The memes are positive if you got the question correct and negative if you didn’t answer correctly. It is also easy to import questions from other public quizizzes on this free website.

Socrative The space race game turns your questions into a game format for your students.

Quizlet Live Students work in teams to answer your questions.

Kupiter This game is like asteroids. The students shoot at asteroids with the correct letters on them to spell out the correct answer to the question.

Hedbanz Create your own Hedbanz game. Here are some easy to follow directions. The students have the term on their head and have to ask questions to figure out the word. You could also make this even easier by putting the terms on Post-its. Then just stick one Post-It on each of your students backs. Then they need to ask questions to guess their vocab word.

I’m definitely excited to infuse more vocabulary instruction into my class. What vocabulary tools and strategies do you use in your classroom?







3 thoughts on “Vocab Strategies & Resources: Because Words are Important

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