Choosing a vocabulary program for middle school and high school English classes can be an overwhelming experience. There are so many options available, and unless you experiment with all of them, how will you know what works? The answer will invariably differ for each teacher, but sometimes it helps to narrow the focus of your search. In this post, I’m highlighting four possibilities that I have tried with success in my own classroom.
1. Test Prep Vocabulary
If test prep is important to you, finding a vocabulary program that focuses on ACT and/or SAT words is important. During one phase of my teaching career, this was a school-wide focus. At that time, I found a book called Yo Momma Vocabulary. It is now unavailable through Amazon, but you can locate it if you search hard enough. I bought my most recent copy from E-Bay. The words in this book are common in life, in young adult literature, and on standardized tests.
I made the words in this book engaging for students by sharing with them the Yo Momma joke for the day and by briefly giving some direct instruction on definition, part of speech, synonym, antonym, example, and correct usage. On subsequent days, I would ask my students to review the words we had studied up to that point using differentiated approaches.
Another amazing vocabulary program for test prep words is Flocabulary. The videos they create are engaging for students and appeal to the digital generation. It features vocabulary cards that prompt students to write meaningful sentences and draw connections on the computer. Flocabulary also provides short paragraphs for students to read and select the correct vocabulary word. Practices quizzes are structured in a similar manner. My absolute favorite part is the lyric lab, in which students can select a beat and write their own Flocabulary rhyme using the words.
2. Storytelling Vocabulary
One of my most recent vocabulary program discoveries is Mrs Wordsmith (no period – it’s a British company). This vocabulary program is unique because it focuses specifically on helping students grow their narrative vocabularies using 10,000 of the most challenging words that support comprehension, writing, and analytical skills.
Mrs Wordsmith groups vocabulary words into six broad categories to help students improve their writing abilities: emotions, weather, characters, taste and smell, action, and characters. Each of those categories is then broken down smaller. For instance, under the “action” umbrella, there are six chaos and confusion words: commotion, devastating, havoc, rebellious, turbulent, and unruly.
When using the materials from Mrs Wordsmith, its important to first introduce the words through direct instruction. Mrs Wordsmith suggests introducing two per day, but I would only recommend one. The program centers around helping students understand the relationships between the vocabulary word and its collocates. For example, look at the image below.
The first step is reading the definition and talking about the word’s pronunciation. In doing so, students are intrigued by the image, naturally making meaningful associations with the word.
The next step is talking with students about the collocates – the words that surround the vocabulary word on the back of the page. In the example above, I would discuss how the word contented can be related to a sigh, a cat, a customer, a smile, and so on. Students would draw lines from the center word to its related words. Then, they would circle the synonyms. This strategy is critical in helping students understand how to use their vocabulary words correctly in writing and speaking.
The fun part is utilizing the beautiful vocabulary flashcards (designed by illustrators for Madagascar and Hotel Transylvania), pictured below. I’ve found that playing games with vocabulary cards is an extremely effective way of teaching new words. You can easily play Name 5 Things with these cards. For instance: Name 5 things you would devour.
Another idea is to give students a theme. Perhaps you are working with weather-related words. Have students sort the words according to their “scary factor.” Then, ask them to defend their arrangement to demonstrate they understand the how the words relate to the overall theme.
As narrative bell ringer prompts, you can ask students to write a paragraph using the vocabulary word and the collocates on the back of the card. Students love these effective activities.
Like Flocabulary and Yo Momma Vocabulary, the Mrs Wordsmith program is sticky. Students will remember the words because it is based upon direct instruction, exploring word relationships, and humorous images.
Mrs Wordsmith would work extremely well in creative writing courses, classes that focus heavily on narrative writing, or secondary classrooms where teachers just want students to learn to show readers what is happening instead of telling them.
Due to the strong emphasis on using these words in writing, the Mrs Wordsmith program suggests using students’ writing products as the ultimate assessment of whether they have mastered the vocabulary.
Because this program features so many words, it would be especially beneficial to split them up between multiple grade levels. Some of the words on the list of 10,000 are simplistic and ideal for middle school while others are more challenging and appropriate for enrichment or high school. In this way, this program is great for differentiation, but it would also take teachers some time to sit down to narrow the list.
You can order from Mrs Wordsmith through this affiliate link and save forty-five dollars with the code READWRITEHAVEN45.
3. Root Word Vocabulary
I’ve experimented with studying root words using this Greek and Latin root words book. With my sophomores, I introduce two root words and three related vocabulary words each week. At the beginning of each period, we do something different every day.
- Mondays are we learn the new words and roots and take notes.
- On Tuesdays, we discuss these words as a class and practice using them in sentences verbally and in writing.
- Wednesdays are engaging. We play Pictionary and charades for a kinesthetic approach.
- Thursdays are fun because each student writes a test question about a word of their choice. Then, the class rotates around the room, and each student writes down his/her answer to that question on a piece of notebook paper. It’s an informal, student-generated quiz that doubles as a whole-class review opportunity.
- Friday is either a quiz day or a differentiated learning approaches review day.
In my experience, root words are tough for students to remember – even when teachers use best-practice instructional approaches. My students who have always excelled at root words are those who are currently in or who have previously taken Latin class. They have prior knowledge of the content, so the connections they make are stronger. While I completely see the value in teaching students to recognize and break down word parts, it’s not my favorite approach because it hasn’t proven to be the most effective method for the majority of my students. Your results may completely differ.
4. Text-Based Vocabulary
Teachers and students can work together to generate their own vocabulary lists based upon course texts. Whether you are the one who is selecting the words or you’re using words from a resource you have purchased, you need research-based vocabulary activities to support retention.
The issue I’ve always had with selecting words from stories is that we often only come across that word once or twice in literature. That’s hardly enough time to truly give it the attention it deserves. The best way I’ve found to address the situation is to introduce all of the words for a given unit up front. After the first day of direct instruction, we spend time reviewing on a daily basis. If you’ve poked around my blog at all, you already know I like to use a variety of engaging vocabulary teaching approaches.
Because of the constant changes in education, I’ve had to switch my vocabulary instruction approaches multiple times. Each time, I’ve adapted and found a way to teach effectively so that students not only retained word meanings but also developed an appreciation for our language.
When selecting a vocabulary program for your school, think about your teaching strengths, your course requirements, and the time you have to devote to creating lists and materials. Regardless of the approach you select, you’ll need meaningful activities that will engage students and push them toward retention. Click on the vocabulary activities image below to see some of my favorite approaches that are rooted in vocabulary research and can be used with any Tier 2 list.