Teaching Vocabulary


When I was in high school and my teacher said vocabulary, I knew what I would be doing next.  There would be a list of words given to me.  I would go to the back of my textbook, and copy down a definition I did not understand.  Then a few days later, my teacher would give me a vocabulary quiz over the words I “learned” from the back of the book.  Now if you could memorize stuff, you did great on the quiz without understanding anything about the meaning of the words.  If you needed to comprehend the meaning of words to do well on the quiz, this was a struggle for you, like me.  I would make flashcards, I would study, I would do a lot of different things to try to memorize vocabulary.  However, I never did very well on the quizzes because I didn’t always understand the words.

When I first started teaching, I am sad to say, I did the same thing to my students.  I quizzed them on words, I had sort of taught them.  I may have mentioned the words and given them some information in the notes, but I never directly taught them the vocabulary.  Really, I was quizzing them on how well they could memorize and if they did not study at all, they did not do well on the quiz.  I would get mad, “Why did they not study?”  “What is their problem?”

If vocabulary is important, which every college education course and book will tell you it is, why didn’t I actually provide the students with some direct instruction to help them.  I did not have an answer, I just did what I had done when I was in school.  Sad day…….

Then I was challenged by a veteran teacher, whom I truly respected.  I was sitting at my desk, he was sitting across from me with his yellow notepad.  I can still see his face, smiling at me.  He asked me this question:

“Are you teaching the students the vocabulary?”

I stared at him blankly, thinking obviously the students just needed to study the words more and it was not my fault.  I shouldn’t have to teach vocabulary because the definitions were in the back of the book and I gave the students the definitions again when I did the notes.  All of this in my head, of course, I never actually answered him out loud.

He pressed me again.

“But if the words are important, are you teaching them directly?”

Ugh……”but I am doing vocabulary the same way it was done to me”, I said.

He responded, “how well did it work for you?”

I hate it when people answer their question with another question!!!  Usually it means they are right……he was right, I never taught the kids anything, but I quizzed them on it.

“And what about those students who have learning difficulties or don’t speak English as their first language?  How are they supposed to learn this vocabulary?”

“OK I get it!!  My way sucks and I need to teach the vocabulary!!”  Geez, no need to beat a dead horse……..

Now again, I truly respected and admired this teacher, so I accepted his criticism only because he inspired and challenged me to do better.  He was right, if these were the words I deemed important in a chapter or unit, I needed to teach them.  Period.

This week in my classes we did our vocabulary set for the first unit.  But before we did, I asked my new students about vocabulary they had done in the past.  I asked if they had been given words and been told to get the definitions out of the back of the book.  They said yes.  Then I asked them how that quiz went they got the opportunity to take a few days later.  They said not so well.

My teacher friends, is there a time and place to have students get definitions out of the back of the book……ABSOLUTELY!!!  But when I was doing it, that was all I was doing.  I never went back over the definitions, or did an activity or another piece of homework with them, nothing.  Just that one piece of paper with all of the definitions on it, all by themselves.  So getting definitions from the back is fine, but I feel pretty strongly that we must do something with the words again, to reinforce their meaning.


The picture above is my vocabulary sheet for this unit.  In class, I give the definitions after I have done a majority of the words in class notes already.  (When I used to do the back of the book thing, I would give the list as the very first thing, when the students had absolutely no idea what we were talking about at all.  Another not so good thing…..)  For this unit, I then had the students do the one word column with their table partner.  If you can narrow your focus to the one, most important word in the definition, I feel like that is a pretty good connection.  We share out our one word definitions and the students can add or change theirs if they feel they like a new one better.  Then we do the example or picture.  It is just a silly little visual helping them remember the words.  Depending on my class, I can draw mine or have the students draw theirs using the document camera.

I have graded my quizzes for the first unit and they are definitely better than they were in the past.  Many kids now can get a 100%, whereas only a few could accomplished this before.  I still have all of my old grade sheets…..Ridiculous, I know………

My vocab sheet for each unit might be a little bit different.  As we get deeper into Chemistry, some of the definitions can not be narrowed down to one word and then I might substitute a prediction column instead.  Sometimes a prediction column isn’t appropriate because they may have no background knowledge of the words at all.  All of my vocab sheets have a visual or drawing component to them.

Parents and grandparents, you too can help your child with vocabulary, especially if their teacher does not directly teach them to the class.  Teachers are still teaching the vocabulary through out their lectures and classroom activities, but sometimes if they don’t say the word vocabulary students miss the connection.  Have your student try to draw you a picture of the word or it’s meaning.  Make flashcards with them or just ask them to explain the meaning to you.  If they can explain the meaning and you understand what they are saying, they probably do understand what the word means.  Being able to teach a concept to someone means you have mastered it yourself, even if you are a child.

Challenge Time!!  This is just my viewpoint about vocabulary, so let’s start a conversation.  Tag a teacher and let’s see if they agree, disagree and what other strategies they have to teach vocabulary.  Parents and grandparents, what do you see from your students in terms of vocabulary.  Giving everyone more tools to help students be successful is good for us all.  Leave your comments here or on our Facebook page, Speaking Jelinese.  Tag a teacher and let’s get this conversation rolling!!!

Talk to you later,




6 thoughts on “Teaching Vocabulary

  1. I pinned this. Always looking for ways to improve how kids learn. Great info.


    1. Thank you!! Hope it proves to be helpful!!!


  2. Great tips for teaching vocabulary. Application is always beneficial as well!


    1. Thanks!! They have definitely helped me and my students!!!


  3. I agree. You have to explicitly teach the vocabulary words. I have found that only teaching 7 words at a time, taking the word apart (affixes) and teaching a base of root words and affixes have really helped students in the past. 🙂


    1. We talk about the roots and prefixes and such, but I could maybe add a column about that to the vocab sheet…….hhhmmmm, thanks for that idea!!!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
search previous next tag category expand menu location phone mail time cart zoom edit close