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5 Brain-Based Vocabulary Activities for the Secondary Classroom

Trying to find some new practice activities for your existing vocabulary units? These brain-based vocabulary approaches are unique — perhaps just what you need. 

Do your students smile at you when you begin a vocabulary lesson? Do they act interested or ask questions? Are they willing to try using the words in their own speaking and writing? Over the years, I’ve noticed that when I’m “on” with my vocabulary instruction, my students are, too. They’re into it, learning, and motivated. In contrast, when I rush through vocabulary instruction because of time constraints, lack of preparation, or simply lack of enthusiasm, my students can read me like an open book.

Previously, I wrote about increasing vocabulary retention in the secondary classroom. Retention is ultimately the goal of vocabulary instruction, but in order to get there, teachers need to differentiate their instruction and practice activities to reach all types of learners, which includes adding variety through learning styles and critical thinking levels. While I provided a few ideas regarding how students can interact with vocabulary words in the last post, I’d like to get more specific and explore several unique and creative avenues that teachers can incorporate into their curriculums. I teach ELA, but these brain-based vocabulary ideas can apply to word lists from any content area.

5 high-interest brain-based vocabulary activities for middle and high school classrooms #VocabularyActivities #MiddleSchoolELA #HighSchoolELA


3 Truths and a Lie

Games are fun. If your classroom culture calls for games, engagement, and student-directed learning, try out 3 truths and a lie. The best part about this game (other than the fact that it’s enjoyable) is that students create it. Don’t get me wrong…I LOVE making games to use my classroom. Yet, vocabulary is a perfect vehicle for students to be in charge of their learning, to create something meaningful.

Put students in charge.

I simply ask them to select a word from their list and then to write down four statements about that word. I encourage them to think about the word’s part of speech, the definition, related and unrelated words, associations they may have, and the word’s personality. One of the statements they write should be a lie.

Here’s an example:


  1. Ubiquitous is kind of like the plague. Even if you don’t like it, you can’t get rid of it.
  2. Ubiquitous is an adverb.
  3. Ubiquitous is cousins with the words “pervasive” and “universal.”
  4. If cockroaches were ubiquitous, I’d move to Mars.

Your students can get as creative (or as simplistic) as they want with their sentences. After creating them, collect the statements, and put students in small groups. Have them discuss the words and statements to try to identify the lie (in the example above, the lie is #2). If you’re concerned about the accuracy of your students’ sentences and want to avoid unnecessary confusion, read through them first and have students work in groups to discuss them the next day.

Why this works: 

1. Students are doing the thinking.

2. It can be straightforward (recall) or higher-order thinking (analytical), so it’s differentiated by nature.

3. It’s engaging.

4. Students will remember many of the lies and the truths, so it will help them to retain the word meanings longer.

Bumper Words

Bumper words is a categorizing activity that helps students to learn the relationships between words on their list. If you plan to use a bumper words activity, keep that in mind when selecting your word list so that it’s easier to create the assignment. Here’s how it works. 


You (the teacher) group the words into categories. You can make this into a worksheet or a graphic organizer, or you can just write them on the board to use as a class activity. Another option is to create a manipulative for small groups or station use. When you put the words into groups (of 3 to 5 is best), all of the words should relate except for one. The students’ job is to figure out which word is not related, and they bump it to the next word group. It’s a chain effect. Here’s an example:

As you can see, in the first group of words, abase, demean, and humiliate can all be related, but extol does not fit. So, it gets bumped to group two, where students look for another ill-fitting word that is then bumped to group 3, and so on. When creating this activity, you can use words that are not on your vocabulary list to complement the ones that are.


Again, if you want to ask your students to think more critically about their words, you can ask them to create a bumper words chain using all or some of the words on their list. This works well as a group assignment. Students could create their bumper words combinations on a piece of easel paper or large poster board, and then groups can rotate around the room to try to solve each other’s puzzles. If you choose to have students create their own examples, it would be beneficial to show them how to make one by modeling it together or analyzing an existing example first.

Why this works: 

1. Students are thinking about the words and how they relate to other words, thereby making associations – great for brain-based vocabulary learning!

2. Once again, this activity can be differentiated by ability level.

3. It engages students in meaningful interaction with their words.

4. It’s unique…your students probably haven’t heard of this one before. Ride the novelty wave. 

Personify a Word Using Social Media

Because social media is such a pervasive aspect of twenty-first century learning, I’m always looking for healthy ways to incorporate it in my classroom. One of the things I love about teaching vocabulary is that it can be creative. Words can be given personalities based on their meaning. I often ask students to personify a word in order to get them to think about it differently.

Word Personalities

Here are four of my favorite assignments that include word personalities using social media:

  1. Facebook: Have students create a Facebook poster based on one of the words on their list.
  2. Twitter: Ask students to create a Twitter profile and feed for a word.
  3. Instagram: Students can create a scrapbook or Instagram posts for their word.
  4. Pinterest: Give students the task of creating a Pinterest profile for a word, including a list of boards and pins that would relate to that word.

When I give students assignments like these, I find it’s beneficial to allow them to choose a word they want to learn after discussing what they will do with it. I always encourage students to select a new word…one they either have never heard of, or one they have heard of but cannot explain. By discussing the task before selecting the word, students will be able to choose a word they want to use to complete the assignment, and ownership is key when it comes to creativity.

Some struggling readers and writers might be overwhelmed if we ask them to select any word they want, so it’s a great differentiation / scaffolding option to have a list of suggestions prepared.

Why this works:

1. In order to do any of these assignments WELL, students must think deeply and meaningfully about the word.

2. Students will take it upon themselves to analyze the social media outlet more closely than they have in the past. What text structures does it have? What is the common language and culture of the site? These questions must be studied and answered before creating a product.

3. It hooks students by allowing them to utilize their creativity and social natures to learn about vocabulary.

4. It is easy to incorporate technology. While students can create a poster like the one above, they could also use digital platforms to complete the assignment. 

Pictures, Short Films, & Music

A fun way to incorporate writing into your brain-based vocabulary instruction is through the use of pictures, short films, and music. They can all be used similarly for this assignment. Although numerous options exist, these three ideas are a good place to start:

Student Research

1. Simply ask students to do some research and find a certain number of pictures, short films, or songs that relate to words on their vocabulary list. You could have them focus specifically on one word and find a picture, a short film, and a song that relates to it, or you could ask them to choose ten words off the list and find one connection for each word. Either way, students are building onto existing knowledge about a word and using critical thinking skills to make meaningful connections. I like to have my students write a short paragraph (3-5 sentences) explaining their connections to the word.

Bell Ringers

Another way to use these elements is to incorporate them as bell ringers. Each day, begin the class by projecting an image, showing a short film, or playing a song for students. After watching or listening, ask students to make connections between the artwork and words on their vocabulary list. To elicit more participation, I have my students write their thoughts first, then talk with a partner, and finally share with the class.


Give your students a sheet of small images (I like to using small pictures they can color), and tell them to match each picture to a word on their vocabulary list. They can then explain in a few short sentences why each picture and word relate. Simple but effective. Here is a resource you can use for any list.

Why this works: 

1. Music, movies, and pictures are embedded in our culture. Students appreciate learning opportunities that incorporate media relevant to their lives.

2. This assignment is a simple way to differentiate by learning styles. It appeals to students who are musical and visual by nature.

3. Once again, forming connections to vocabulary words will help students remember them longer.

4. It can be scaffolded for students on various scales of the literacy ladder. 

Mind Maps

I use mind maps as choice assignments throughout the year with various aspects of my curriculum. Mind maps are excellent brain-based vocabulary . activities that help students retain the definition of a word instead of memorizing it for a quiz and forgetting it.

When I assign mind maps in relation to vocabulary words, I generally have students select one word from our list instead of several because the connections will be more meaningful for them.


A good tip is to first ask students to circle any words on their vocabulary list that they cannot define on the spot — in that moment. Afterward, have them choose one word they want to study more intentionally, and then introduce the mind map assignment. If you give them the specifics of the assignment first, they might be more likely to select an “easy” word from the list.

I like to project example mind maps (you can easily find some by googling the term “vocabulary mind maps”). Together, we analyze the structure, design, and content of the example maps to determine students’ options. We also talk about my expectations (what’s acceptable and what’s not). In this way, we essentially develop a student-generated rubric on the spot. Bonus.

What can students incorporate in their mind maps? I encourage mine to use the basics (relate it to synonyms, antonyms, and examples), but I also ask them to stretch their imaginations to incorporate visual components, categories related to the word, colors that symbolize the word, and other symbolic elements.

Why this works: 

1. Research shows that mind maps are brain-based learning activities.

2. Thinking symbolically about a word helps students to deepen their understanding of it.

3. Mind maps require students to engage with a word meaningfully from different angles for an extended period of time.

4. It combines right-brain creative style learning with left-brain logic style learning, resulting in a powerful and memorable experience. 

Inspired and wanting more vocabulary ideas? Read this sister post in which I discuss five more of my favorite, brain-based vocabulary practice activities for the secondary classroom.

Grab a Free Template!

You might find this free, editable vocabulary template to be helpful in getting started.

Before using any of these brain-based vocabulary strategies in your classroom, you will need to establish a solid list of words. For some inspiration regarding how to strategically and effectively select word lists, click on over to Lauralee at Language Arts Classroom. She has some insights to share with you!


This vocabulary bundle contains numerous resources to engage students in meaningful brain-based vocabulary practice with any word list.

Differentiated Vocabulary Activities