Words in Context: Effective Strategies for Teaching New Vocabulary

By: Keryn Kwedor, M.S.Ed. (Landmark Outreach Associate Director and Landmark High School teacher)

The Landmark School Outreach Program's mission is to empower students with language-based learning disabilities by offering their teachers an exemplary program of applied research and professional development.

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Have you ever learned a new word, then you feel like you hear it everywhere? Is it really popping up more now that you know it, or was it there all along, hiding, unrecognized until it became familiar? Learning new vocabulary words is a key skill in developing reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. However, just hearing or even memorizing a word is often not enough for a student to internalize it and know how to properly use it. The end goal of vocabulary instruction is for students to improve language input and output, meaning that their ability to both comprehend and produce language is enhanced as vocabulary skills are strengthened. Consider the following approach to vocabulary instruction, practice, and internalization for use with your students.

Step 1: Locate useful and important vocabulary words

Vocabulary words are most useful to students when they recognize them in their reading and can use them in their writing. Therefore, it is important to introduce students to unfamiliar words before they are exposed to them in a text. If students come across an unfamiliar word while reading, they are more likely to wonder about its meaning if they have at least seen or heard it before.

To find vocabulary words for students to learn, turn to any of the following sources:

  • Textbooks: use boldfaced words
  • Novels and short stories: read ahead and write down a few of them from the reading assignment that your students are about to complete.
  • Vocabulary workbooks and guides: these have useful lists of important vocabulary words to know

Step 2: Create a set of vocabulary words

To collect vocabulary words, note cards work well. However, web-based programs like Quizlet allow for online collections to be created, shared, practiced, and mastered. It is up to educators to determine which method will work best for their students: handwriting note cards or using appropriate technology. Also, depending on your teaching environment, these lists may be created by individual students or whole classes. If you choose to use an online tool like Quizlet, you also have the option for students to either create personaized lists under their individual Quizlet accounts OR create a Quizlet class where lists can be posted for groups of students to share.

  1. Choose one or two new vocabulary words each day. More than 2 words can be overwhelming and detract from a student’s ability to recall and use what they have learned.
  2. Using one note card per word, have students write the word on one side, then the definition, part of speech, and a context sentence on the other side. The same applies with Quizlet use: put the word on one side and the information about that word on the other.

    Quizlet Tip: If you put the definition, part of speech, and context sentence in the left column and the word in the right column, you have the option to add an image on the word side of your digital flashcards as a reminder of what that words means.

    Sample note card:

  3. Make sure that your students keep their vocabulary cards together somewhere in the classroom where they will not get lost and can be accessed easily during class time. If using Quizlet, these words can be easily accessed at any time online.

Step 3: Help students learn the words

Once each student has a collection of 10 or so word cards, start using them in review activities to reinforce meaning and use. This reinforcement can take many forms, and it is usually more helpful when it taps into the student’s creativity and/or personal learning style. Try any of the following activities as context vocabulary practice:

  • Creative Writing: Ask students to choose 3-5 of their words (at random or deliberately) and use those words to write a story, letter, descriptive paragraph, etc.
  • Word Drawings: Ask students to choose a word to illustrate. This activity works well with visual learners because they can associate the definition of their words with images that they have created.
  • Synonyms & Antonyms: Ask students to choose a word from their collection (or have them all use the same word). Hand out paper and ask them to write that word on the top of the page, then fold the paper lengthwise. In one column, have the write synonyms for that word, and then ask them to fill the other side with antonyms. This activity can be given a time limit (see how many you can come up with in 5 minutes), turned into a competition, or used as a reference sheet, depending on the personality and needs of your class.

    Example: Make a chart of synonyms and antonyms for the word “melancholy”

  • Formal Writing: When students have a composition or summary to write for class, have them choose words from their vocabulary collection to incorporate into that writing assignment.
  • Structured Pull-outs: Pull specific words out of the collection and ask students tell you what they have in common.

    Take out the words “revolutionary,” “original,” and “innovative.” Without looking at the definition and use, what do these 3 words have in common? What is something that they could all describe?
  • Independent Pull-Outs: Give the class a category and ask students to choose 3 words from their collections that could fit into that category.

    Find 3 words that could describe a happy moment. (When students are done) Which words did you choose? How/why do they fit this category?
  • Word Chains: Take a vocabulary word that you can manipulate and ask students to make a chain out of it, changing part of speech, prefixes, suffixes, etc.

    original word = important
    make it an adverb = importantly
    make it a noun = importance
    opposite of “important” = unimportant
  • Games: Make and play go-fish, memory, etc., to match words to definitions, match words with similar meanings, etc. Having students make their own vocabulary games can be an excellent reinforcement of new words, as well.

    Example: make a memory game

  • Picture Writing: Show your students a photo or piece of artwork to describe using a certain number of vocabulary words, or give them specific words to use in their descriptions.

    Describe the photo below using the words “ecstatic,” “frolic,” and “cautious.”

    A Student might write: The baby penguins frolic together on a cold day. At least one of them is ecstatic to be with his friends, since his wings are raised happily in the air. However, the mother penguin is cautious as she protects them, keeping the babies close by.

    Important Note: Encourage students to play with words to make this vocabulary work in their writing. If the student who wrote the example description about penguins would rather use “cautiously” than “cautious,” let them make this change and help them to see how this form of the original vocabulary word best fits in the sentence.

Step 4: Ensure individual student mastery

Take a break from adding new words once students have a solid collection of vocabulary words (15-20 words might work for some students, while others may need to work with fewer words or more words, depending on individual needs and memory capacity). If students have had adequate practice with these words, stop to assess their understanding. This assessment can be a written quiz, a one-on-one oral drill, a writing assignment in which certain words must be used, or a creative project proving vocabulary understanding.

Words that students definitely know at this point can be placed aside for less frequent practice, while those that still pose a challenge should be kept in active use as they continue to increase the number of words in their collections. As you continue at add new vocabulary, come back to the familiar words every once in awhile so that students don’t forget them, but focus your activities on allowing them to learn more new words and continue practicing with the words that they still struggle to use or define correctly. At this point, each student’s collection might start to look different, depending on how quickly they individually master new vocabulary words.

Keryn Kwedor, M.S.Ed. (Landmark Outreach Associate Director and Landmark High School teacher) (2017)