Two Activities That Can Transform Your Vocabulary Instruction

Gone are the days of having students locate and copy the dictionary definitions from long lists of assigned vocabulary words. To foster a love for learning and acquiring new words, instruction must be authentic, engaging, and relevant to students’ lives (Beck & McKeown, 2013).

Let’s explore how to transform your vocabulary instruction into a robust part of the day that teaches all students to learn and love vocabulary. Inspired by the book Word Nerds, I recently conducted professional development at an elementary school in New Jersey with a large population of English Language Learners (ELLs). To expose students to Tier-2 words, or instructional-level vocabulary, a commitment to professional development centered on using Word Nerds in a book-club format with teachers. The two activities that follow were a favorite among K-3 students and teachers.

Creating a Space for the “Juicy” Word Wall

As a literacy professional developer, I have always been intrigued by how the Children’s Literacy Initiative (CLI) advocates for including a space for posting Tier-2 words in the physical literacy environment. Coining the term, “juicy word wall,” CLI stressed the importance of including a vocabulary space that is separate from sight words and commonly misspelled words.

In order to excite students about word learning, teachers can become excited about the process as well, beginning with making a simple change in the literacy environment. When designing a space to introduce 5-7 vocabulary words a week, consider your own personal interests as a way of getting started.

Here’s two examples from coaching alongside teachers in early childhood classrooms. Ms. Brotspies is known for her commitment to health and wellness, so her vocabulary space proudly declares, “We Flex Our Vocabulary Muscles!” Her colleague, Mrs. Concodora, loves figurative language and the many meanings behind words, so her space announces, “Vocabulary is a piece of cake!”

What does your “juicy word wall” say about you?

The Mystery Word Game

Once you create a space for posting vocabulary words in the classroom, it is exciting to provide students with “Word Nerd” notebooks. These notebooks provide a space for expanding upon understanding of new vocabulary and for independently jotting down words that students notice and appreciate when independently reading. A favorite activity involves taping “mystery words” to students’ backs. Just remind students not to peek! Once they are ready to go, students mingle around the classroom and find a partner. Partners then take turns taking the vocabulary words from one another without showing the word. Students then return to their seats to create “7-Up Sentences” for their partners,

What is a 7-Up Sentence?

  • 7 or more words to make a complete thought.
  • A clue tells about my vocabulary word.
  • I can write a telling, asking, demanding, or exciting sentence.
  • Important: Don’t forget to end with a punctuation mark! ( .   !   ? )

Once students are finished, provide an opportunity for them to reveal and teach the mystery words to their partners. Partners can sign their names in each other’s notebooks, symbolizing that they have learned new vocabulary. Allow your students time throughout the week to visit and teach other classmates while collecting more signatures!

I’d love to hear from you! What are your favorite ideas for vocabulary instruction that go beyond simply using the dictionary?

Dr. Kenneth Kunz is the Assistant Professor of Teacher Education at Bloomfield College in Bloomfield, NJ. He is also a Literacy Professional Developer.

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