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10 Ways to Add Rigor to Vocabulary Instruction with Picture Associations

Students are drawn to visuals. Movie clips, memes, cartoons, GIFs, coloring pages — you name it. Humans are fascinated with pictures. When teaching vocabulary, one of the best ways we can help students make meaningful connections is by introducing divergent thinking. The more divergent the media forms are from the words being studied, the more likely students will think creatively to make memorable links. That’s why I love helping students learn vocabulary through picture associations.

That’s fine, but how? Here are eight ways you can use visuals to spark interest, create meaningful learning experiences, and add rigor to vocabulary instruction. Notice, students are not doing more. They are just thinking harder.  You can find many of these activities here and here.



Picture associations like this one are simple yet so engaging. Give students coloring pages. Ask them to make a connection between a word on their list and the picture. Then, have them consider whether the connotation of the word is positive or negative as depicted on the coloring page. Incorporate symbolism by asking students to think about what color they would associate with the word. Students can then color the picture, using predominantly the color or colors they chose.


Assign students a word. Make sure at least two students in the room have the same word. Tell them to keep the word a secret. Then, ask them to draw a picture that represents the word. Collect the drawings from the students, and pass them back out to different people. Ask students to hold the illustration in front of them and silently move around the room until they have found the person who they believe has a drawing for the same word as them. Get in a circle and share out the pairings to hear students’ justifications for why they felt each pair of illustrations fit well together.


Hang large paper around the room. Write a vocabulary word on the top or in the middle of each page. Then, have students rotate around, gallery walk style, adding a hand-drawn illustration to each chart. Their drawing should represent a connection to the word.

Challenge: Tell students they need to study what has already been drawn and make sure not to duplicate an already existing idea.

Tip: Scaffold this activity for struggling students by beginning them at the harder words. This way, they will be able to use the first drawing that comes to mind instead of having to think of several other ideas for the most difficult words (assuming someone else already took their first idea).


Give students images. I use task cards, but you can also use QR codes or other sources. Then, ask students to write a word from their list that relates to that image. Finally, students should write a sentence about the picture while using the vocabulary word along with context clues.

Challenge: Ask students to discuss how they would revise the sentence to use the word as a different part of speech.


Students can look at any artwork, really. Pull up a picture of Dali’s Melting Clocks or van Gogh’s Starry Night painting. Ask them to cite evidence from the artwork that supports a connection with the word.

For instance, a student might write: “The night sky looks turbulent because there are intense, swirling patterns of paintbrush strokes that seem to roll across it like angry waves.”

10 ways to use picture associations to build vocabulary in middle and high school #highschoolELA #vocabulary


For a more divergent perspective, show students some ink blots. This approach is more challenging because inkblots are abstract. Scaffold students’ understanding by asking them to think about inkblots like fluffy clouds in the sky. Perhaps they are familiar with the childhood game of “Name that Cloud.” This activity works the same way.

Students find an image they recognize within the inkblot and make a connection to a word. If students don’t see an image, they can look at colors, symmetry, and other artistic choices to think about a more symbolic connection to a word.


Give students some of the creation power with picture associations! Tell students what word to think about in their minds. Then, ask students to find a GIF or a meme and to add them to a shared Google Slide.  After all of students’ images are uploaded, spend some time talking about how the images relate to the vocabulary word. This activity will open students’ minds to others’ connections, thereby broadening their understanding of the word.

Challenge: Ask students to group the memes or GIFS based on common types of connections.

Alternative: For an extra zest, ask students to create their own meme about a vocabulary word!


Play a short movie clip or short film, and ask students to reflect on their vocabulary list. Which word or words relate to the clip they watched, and why? Make sure students can justify their answers with evidence from the clip.


Turn students into photographers for a day! Students appreciate context. Tell them they are going on a safari hunt for wild words. Give them a few minutes in class, or assign the job as homework. Simply ask students to take pictures of anything that reminds them of a specific vocabulary word as they go on their “safari hunt.” Even older students enjoy the fun twist. Because students are the ones who are required to find and create the connection, they have to think differently than when we provide the source and they make the connection.


Tableaux are a great way to help students make mental images about a word. They are often used so that students can depict scenes from reading, but they also work well for vocabulary. This is how you use the drama strategy. In brief, students will work in groups and freeze simultaneously. The vision they create when they freeze will help both participants and classmates to understand the vocabulary words better.

Often times, vocabulary instruction consists of copying definitions, memorizing them, and identifying synonyms and antonyms. Students write sentences and, occasionally, draw pictures. These practices lack the rigor, relevance, and engagement factors that are needed to make vocabulary instruction meaningful and long-lasting.

The more images we can get students to download into their brains, the more meaningful connections they will have. In turn, they will be able to remember and utilize the words more effectively in the future in written and oral communication. Try adding some of these methods for helping students learn vocabulary through picture associations on a regular basis, and watch your students grow a true appreciation for new words.


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View more details about the picture associations, inkblot activity, and symbolic coloring exercise by clicking on the link below. I use a plethora of different vocabulary activities to keep students excited about learning new words. You can find other brain-based, differentiated ideas here.

vocabulary picture associations #highschoolteacher #middleschoolteacher