Vocabulary for Elementary: How To

According to experts, kids should be acquiring 2,000 to 3,000 new words annually from 3rd grade onward. This figure would mean that children learn roughly sixeight new terms every day—pretty amazing if you think about it. While professionals have long debated the biological and environmental factors at play when it comes to language and vocabulary acquisition, one thing is for certain—a child’s vocabulary grows and develops with exposure.

Here are a few ways to expose students to new words and help them further develop their vocabulary.

Expressive Word Labels

Consider borrowing a tip from ESOL or world language classes by using labels to introduce a more expressive term in place of a mundane word. For instance, print out multiple photos of a range of peoples’ facial expressions. Prompt students to replace typical or low-level words like “sad” or “happy” with “gloomy” or “pleased.” Once students get the hang of synonyms, ask them to collect as many synonyms as they can while learning new words.

Synonym Challenge

Students should feel free to ask clarifying questions like, “What is another way to say….?” This helps young learners to begin to see not only the context of the word, but also its grammatical function. After some scaffolding and practice, challenge your students to see how many words they can think of to replace happy. Be clear about the expectation by emphasizing that the synonyms must fully match the meaning and usage—since happy is an adjective, their synonyms must be adjectives, as well. Students with the longest list of true synonyms could be rewarded with a new mechanical pencil, their choice of seat for the day, a happy phone call home, etc. Even bragging rights are certain to make any child happy, ecstatic, cheerful, glad, amused, exuberant, elated, delighted, thrilled, jovial, jubilant, and merry.   

Word Apps

Elementary teachers can also make use of technology in order to help increase students’ vocabulary. Free apps like Wordle and Wordsift help students to learn and analyze new terms and phrases by using a visual component. Students are able to paste a portion of text and watch as Wordle or Wordsift breaks down and arranges the text. Often times, the Wordle presents the information in more than just a visually appealing way. The software helps students see how terms are related, distinguished, aligned, etc. It is also designed to manipulate font size and color based on how frequently a term is used in the excerpt. For instance, if students paste text from an article about cloud formation, repetition of the word “cloud” will cause the Wordle to increase the font size of that particular term in the final visual.  

Caption Game

Ask students to provide captions for selected photos or magazine ads using new vocabulary words. Allow students to work in groups to collaborate and generate a brief explanation or caption for what is happening in the photo. For example, if the image depicts a complete standstill on a highway while a family of ducks crosses the interstate, ask students to write a caption using the word “peculiar.” Perhaps another image portrays a beautiful snow-covered cabin in the woods. Ask students to create a caption or conversation between two of the cabin-dwellers using the word “enchanting.”

How to Acquire New Vocabulary: At the Middle School Level

While vocabulary instruction has drastically changed in the past decade, some of the basic principles of language acquisition still pertain to building students’ vocabulary. For instance, a voracious appetite for reading has long been linked to a stronger vocabulary—and this belief still stands, as it is widely supported by research. Additionally, repeated exposure over time also helps to solidify words to memory. Both of these basic methods, reading and repetition, are still utilized in classrooms today.

However, best practices focus on more than mere memorization. Vocabulary acquisition can and should be taken to the next step to ensure that terms are not only committed to memory, but are essentially committed to a student’s academic and everyday language.

Teach connotation: Too often, direct vocabulary instruction relies on a student’s memorization or understanding of a word’s definition—which makes sense since students must know what a word means before adding it to their lexicon. However, if focusing solely on a word’s definition, students are missing a key aspect of the importance of vocabulary, which involves context and connotation. Vocabulary instruction is more than knowing the meaning of a word—it’s the ability to choose the most appropriate form of a word or term for a specific context or purpose. Take the words smell, scent, odor, fragrance, and aroma. The definition of each of these terms is rather similar; at a glance, students may declare these terms to be synonymous. However, teaching these words in their appropriate contexts and with an understood connotation allows students to see how each of these so-called synonyms would serve a strikingly different purpose.

Scent, fragrance, and aroma all have a generally positive connotation. Scent and fragrance are more frequently used when describing non-food items like flowers, perfume, natural surroundings, etc. Aroma differs slightly in that it often denotes a combination of smells, like a laundry room’s aroma of fresh cotton, rain, and rose petals, for example. Odor, conversely, typically has a negative connotation. You wouldn’t likely want to describe someone’s cooking by saying that it has a “unique odor.” Something with an odor is usually deemed smelly, stinky or unpleasant. So, even the simple practice of matching scenarios to their most appropriate terms helps middle schoolers to begin to see the value in vocabulary. Words are much more than their definitions; they allow speakers and writers to specify more precisely depending on the context or situation.

Teach using synonym/antonym games: Another method to help prompt middle schoolers to step outside of their everyday language boxes involves a modified skit from the game show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” Have students sit in a circle. Explain that students will go from person to person saying essentially the same phrase, “I feel happy.” The catch, however, is that students must replace the word happy with a new synonym each time. If a student cannot think of a new synonym for the initial emotion, he or she is eliminate from the circle. After a while, switch from synonyms to antonyms. For instance, students would respond to “I feel happy” with “I feel…sad, forlorn, melancholy, depressed, low, glum, gloomy, blue, unhappy, negative, sullen, etc. The key here is for students to begin to see the vastness of their options for expressing and expanding upon a simple emotion such as “happy.”

Encourage the use of expressive words in student writing: Once vocabulary instruction is solidly underway, begin to track overused, misused, or “elementary-level” terms in student writing. Prompt students to be more specific when saying that they “went” somewhere. Perhaps they moseyed to the store; strolled to the store; travelled to the store; wandered to the store; meandered to the store; rushed to the store. Again, the point is for students to see the plethora of options at their disposal when writing or speaking. The more they practice, the more equipped they’ll be to say precisely what they mean.


How to Acquire New Vocabulary: At the High School Level

A robust vocabulary is a key asset when it comes to college and career readiness. I like to equate vocabulary acquisition to a toolbox—the more expansive your toolbox, the more capable you’ll be when fixing, creating, building and assisting. Much like having the right tools for any task at hand, we need to be able to communicate using different manners of speech and appropriate word choice for any number of scenarios. Yes, a hammer and nail can prove to be helpful; however, there are certain to be instances where the job requires more than the standard basics.

Alright, enough with the analogy—how can high school students continue to build a strong repertoire when it comes to vocabulary? Let’s take a look!

Vocabulary instruction and acquisition has drastically changed in even just the last 10 years. My own flashbacks of flashcards (see what I did there?) and rote memorization, while sensible at the time, have proven to be of little assistance to students. Instead of pounding definitions of vocabulary words and teaching terms in a vacuum, disconnected from any real usage, students need more of a real-world approach to adopt new words into their own vocabulary. Exposure is key when it comes to boosting vocabulary at the high school level. In order for students to begin to acquire and use new vocabulary naturally, they must be exposed to a term in both frequent and various contexts.

Consider the term multifaceted—a standard dictionary definition of this word is “having many facets or aspects.” Okay, but what does that really mean? If we want high schoolers to begin to make sense of the word in various contexts, we must model the usage of such terms at home and in the classroom. This accounts for cross-curricular instruction, as well. For instance, students in a geometry class might use multifaceted in the literal context to describe an object with many sides. Similarly, in science, students may examine a crystal or other prism to see how sunlight converges on a multifaceted object. Quite conversely, however, an English or history class might use multifaceted to describe a character or famous person from history with many diverse skills or strengths.   

Another way to look at a term such as multifaceted is to use Latin or Greek roots and affixes (prefixes and suffixes). You don’t have to go into an in depth linguistic study—instead, use a cliff notes-esque approach. When introducing such a word, pair it with other familiar words with the same prefix, like multipurpose, multiplication, multidimensional, etc. Prompt a conversation about what all of these words have in common. Then examine faceted—ask students if this word is familiar or if it reminds them of any other word. For some high schoolers, facet is already part of their vocabulary; for others, you may want to scale the conversation down to “facets sounds like faces, so a multifaceted object has many faces or sides.” These word analogies take memorization to another level. Not only do learners equate the new word to a simpler, already acquired term, but they also derive meaning from the relationship between the terms to help solidify the meaning into memory.

Building a Strong Vocabulary: Secondary Level

Comprehensive studies estimate that there are likely three quarters of a million English words, and this is a conservative estimation. With seemingly limitless options to choose from when speaking, writing, or reading, vocabulary acquisition is a vital, albeit somewhat disregarded, aspect of academic development. Surprisingly, many schools greatly limit vocabulary instruction after a certain grade, some even forgoing it altogether. So, how exactly can we foster a rich vocabulary for teens as they work their way through the upper grades?

Use theater practices or role play to encourage alternate ways of communicating. The idea behind these types of activities involves the practical uses of vocabulary. One major benefit, if not the most important gain from having a vast vocabulary, is the fact that it allows us to be chameleons, so to speak. The more ways that we can express ourselves, the better. Vocabulary is a key component when speaking for different purposes, audiences, or scenarios. When employing certain vocabulary, you are making a conscious decision about how to appeal to the person or persons with whom you are speaking. A sign of intelligence, as well as a major benefit for college and career-ready students, is the ability to alter speech and vocabulary for various circumstances. The more you can practice “playing” certain roles, the better.

Studies suggest that direct instruction of vocabulary does little to build an understanding. Word games, however, are a fun and easy way to practice building vocabulary at any age. Scrabble, Boggle, and crossword puzzles will provide students with skills to build a robust vocabulary. Even using an activity such as Mad Libs can help teens practice vocabulary use in a “play-like” format. Utilizing word games is a great way to build motivation and comprehension without making it seem like instruction.

Incorporating synonyms is another valuable manner of building vocabulary. When your teen is expressing emotions, prompt him or her to use other words beyond “mad,” “sad,” and “happy.” Expressions, actions, emotions—the categories are limitless for introducing synonyms. The point here is to provide as much exposure as possible. Even when speaking around your teens, introduce advanced or unfamiliar words so that they can hear them being used in everyday speech. When doing this, be sure to provide adequate context so that the new terms are rooted in speech or language that they already know. Otherwise, the new terms will be literally lost in translation.

Reading is a very obvious, yet necessary aspect of building a strong vocabulary. When adolescents encounter new texts, they are bound to face new terms, as well. Reading is a natural way to use context clues for vocabulary acquisition. Not every word meaning is going to be handed to a reader—the text will make the reader work for it. Encourage your middle or high schooler to recognize and pause when a word is not decipherable through the context. After rereading, if the word is still unidentifiable, prompt him or her to look it up. Nowadays, technology literally puts resources in the palms of students’ hands. Two seconds is all it takes to add that new definition or understanding to a teen’s repertoire.