How to Teach Vocabulary to Your Students (2024)

There’s a common misconception that vocabulary instruction consists of having students write down the definitions for a list of words and then the students magically know the words well. Some students may pick up on vocabulary quickly, but others might need more support. Plus, there are many other components to having a true grasp of vocabulary, including correct spelling, understanding applicable Greek and Latin roots, and changing a word’s form into an adjective, verb, noun, etc..

Clearly, there’s much more involved in the process of true language acquisition than merely copying down definitions from a dictionary. Additionally, there’s more at stake than just adding new words to a student’s vocabulary for the sake of grading. According to the National Reading Panel, several different studies have found that:

  • Students receiving vocabulary instruction perform better on semantic tests than those that don’t
  • Vocabulary instruction has a strong relation to comprehension
  • Pre-teaching vocabulary has a significant effect on retention

9 Engaging Ways to Teach Vocabulary

The National Reading Panel shared a list of implications for instructional practice specific to teaching vocabulary. Explore these 9 engaging ways to teach vocabulary.

1. Vocabulary should be taught both directly and indirectly

Direct instruction includes vocabulary as part of the lesson plan. This approach may involve utilizing pre-teaching, graphic organizers, or discussing usage and grammatical implications. Conversely, indirect instruction models the use of academic words in a teacher’s writing or conversation.

For example, if a vocabulary word in your unit was “monarch,” instead of merely referring to King George III as the leader of Great Britain at the time, be sure to utilize the word “monarch” as much as possible. This gives the term more context, allowing students to draw connections between it and other material they learn.

2. Repetition and recurring exposure to vocabulary items are important

Students will not add a word to their vocabulary organically if they’ve only heard it once, or without applying the word in daily usage. Spiraling vocabulary — reusing new vocabulary throughout your lessons — is a highly effective practice for vocabulary instruction.

3. Learning in rich, real-world contexts is valuable

Students will retain new vocabulary effectively if the word is given more context than just the dictionary in which its definition was found. Consider when, how, and why a word was (or is still) used in a historical, political, or social context. This simply makes sense — words are rarely thrown around in isolation: Context plays a key role in how words are used and interpreted in speech and writing. The more context a student is given for a particular vocabulary word, the better they’ll be able to retain its meaning and assimilate it into their daily usage.

4. Vocabulary tasks should be restructured when necessary

There’s a place for routine in all instruction, but when it’s no longer serving its purpose, it’s time to switch things up. Have your students use models, such as the Frayer model, to thoroughly explore the meaning and applications of a new vocabulary word. Show pictures related to the word and ask students to describe other terms that could be used in a conversation related to the picture. This ties into #3 above by giving students an additional context for a vocabulary term.

5. Vocabulary instruction should entail active engagement in learning tasks

Active engagement is more than simply completing a rote assignment. Ask students to inquire, research, and create, even within vocabulary tasks. For example, you could assign students a vocabulary word scavenger hunt where they scour the Internet for relevant, authentic uses of a given word. Consider articles, speeches, poems, and song lyrics.

6. Vocabulary can be acquired through incidental learning

Have you ever learned something without attending a class or consciously trying to study? Everyone has — and that’s what’s known as incidental learning. It stands in contrast to deliberate learning, which is what’s usually practiced in a formal classroom setting through instruction. Both have their value, but incidental learning is particularly effective for incorporating new vocabulary words into daily usage. Have students search their everyday life for uses of new vocabulary words. This gives students additional context and helps them retain the meanings of new words through association.

7. How you teach, assess, and evaluate vocabulary matters

Make sure your students know how their vocabulary comprehension will be assessed. Vary vocabulary assessments just like you vary your instruction. Traditional summative tests can be useful, but so can inquiry projects, writing, or other application-based assessments, such as using a term correctly in an academic discussion.

8. Dependence on a single vocabulary instruction method will not result in optimal learning

This is where copying answers from the dictionary is not optimal for teaching vocabulary. Think about developing engaging vocabulary instruction, including through writing, speaking, and inquiry assignments. It’s clear from the National Reading Panel’s findings that this will effectively build and expand a student’s vocabulary.

Teaching Vocabulary is Key to Student Success

Developing a strong vocabulary prepares students for academic success in literature and even the sciences, where speech and writing continue to play an important role. By using each of these different ways to teach vocabulary, you will be helping your students to draw connections between new vocabulary words and their daily life, and they will be able to more effectively retain the meanings of these terms well beyond your classroom.

This article was adapted from a blog post initially developed by the education technology company Classcraft, which was acquired by HMH in 2023. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.


Find more lesson plans and classroom resources on Shaped.

How to Teach Vocabulary to Your Students (2024)


How can a teacher teach vocabulary effectively? ›

  1. Show images or drawings.
  2. Present vocabulary with realia.
  3. Introduce new words in the context of a story or article students read.
  4. Use translation from the students' first language (yes, sometimes it's okay!)
  5. Use antonyms and synonyms to teach and review ESL vocabulary.
Nov 25, 2022

How to teach vocabulary step by step? ›

How to teach:
  1. Introduce each new word one at a time. ...
  2. Reflect. ...
  3. Read the text you've chosen. ...
  4. Ask students to repeat the word after you've read it in the text. ...
  5. Use a quick, fun activity to reinforce each new word's meaning. ...
  6. Play word games. ...
  7. Challenge students to use new words.

How to teach vocabulary creatively? ›

Be sure to have a look at the comprehensive list of targeted strategies to help you teach vocabulary to your students.
  1. Take a student's perspective. ...
  2. Try using a word wall. ...
  3. Create vocabulary notebooks. ...
  4. Connect word meanings with semantic mapping. ...
  5. Make word cards. ...
  6. Encourage reading comprehension. ...
  7. Use visuals and situations.
Aug 3, 2022

What are the five stages of teaching vocabulary? ›

The significant 5 R's in Vocabulary Teaching and Learning: Read, Review, Recycle, Reflect and Research. TeachingEnglish | British Council.

What are four vocabulary teaching strategies? ›

Word-learning strategies
  • Dictionary Use.
  • Morphemic Analysis.
  • Cognate Awareness (ELL)
  • Contextual Analysis.

Which method is appropriate for teaching vocabulary? ›

One of the most effective ways of teaching vocabulary is to show students the word. Concrete words (mostly nouns) can usually be conveyed through pictures or realia (real objects). For example, a word like chair (as a noun) is quite easy to teach, by pointing to a chair or by showing a picture.

How do you introduce vocabulary in a fun way? ›

What Are Some Fun Ways to Teach Vocabulary?
  1. Draw pictures.
  2. Create picture dictionaries.
  3. Write sentences.
  4. Match words.
  5. Mime concepts.
  6. Choose synonyms or antonyms.

What are vocabulary learning strategies? ›

Vocabulary-learning strategies are a part of language-learning strategies which in turn are a part of general learning strategies. In general, the findings of research on vocabulary-learning strategies agree with studies of more general language-learning strategy use.

What are the 5 R's of teaching? ›

Certain principles of “best practice” foster high-level learning outcomes, at home and school. These include five Rs—being resourceful, reasonable, receptive to changes, respectful of students' feelings and abilities, and responsive to their questions. Find out more.

How do you write a vocabulary lesson plan? ›

Learn to plan vocabulary lesson plans!
  1. Choose appropriate words to teach.
  2. Decide what learners need to know about the words.
  3. Model the proper use of vocabulary.
  4. Get them using the words.
  5. Test their knowledge.
Mar 24, 2023

How to learn vocabulary efficiently? ›

Here are ten strategies to help you make words stick in your mind and use them in conversation.
  1. No random words. ...
  2. Learn in chunks and scripts. ...
  3. Use your inner voice. ...
  4. Visualise what the word or phrase looks like. ...
  5. Create mnemonics. ...
  6. Use spaced repetition. ...
  7. Dive deeper into etymology. ...
  8. Challenge yourself with word games.
Feb 16, 2017

What are some ways teachers can help children develop their vocabulary? ›

Vocabulary Strategies As Simple As ABC

Regularly introducing new words, creating a word wall, and reading aloud are all effective vocabulary strategies. Writing, word games, and storytelling activities can also help kids practice all the new words they've learned.

What is effective vocabulary instruction? ›

To be effective, a program of vocabulary instruction should provide students with opportunities for word learning by: encouraging wide reading; exposing students to high-quality oral language; promoting word consciousness; providing explicit instruction of specific words; and.

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