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Choosing a Vocabulary Program for Secondary

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 some possibilities that I have tried with success in my own classroom.

1. Flocabulary

Flocabulary is at the top of my favorites list  for vocabulary programs. The videos they create are engaging for students and appeal to the digital generation.

Flocabulary’s website features vocabulary cards that prompt students to write meaningful sentences and draw connections on the computer. Students can also read short passages to read and select the correct vocabulary word. Practices quizzes are structured in a similar manner. The best part is the lyric lab, in which students can select a beat and write their own Flocabulary rhyme using the words.

Basically, Flocabulary provides a brain-based layering experience to help differentiate the learning experience. Because Flocabulary has extensive, research-based word lists for many grade levels, it’s easy to differentiate for various readiness levels.

The downside? Flocabulary comes with a good price tag, which is worth it, in my opinion, if your district can afford it.

2. Storytelling Vocabulary

The Mrs. Wordsmith vocabulary program is unique because it focuses specifically on helping students grow their narrative vocabularies.

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.

The program centers around helping students understand the relationships between the vocabulary word and its collocates (other words that are most likely to appear in language with that word). For example, the word contented can be related to a sigh, a cat, a customer, a smile, and so on.

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.

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.

Like Flocabulary, 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.

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. Usually, we do something different every day. I vary the structure from year-to-year, but here is an example:

  • Mondays are when we learn the new words and roots and jot 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.

Recently, however, I came across  an idea in Gallagher’s Deeper Reading. It totally made sense. The basic concept is to have students memorize the meanings of the most common prefixes, roots, and suffixes in order to be able to attack unfamiliar words skillfully. He calls it the 30-15-10 list (thirty prefixes, fifteen roots, and ten suffixes).

Choosing a vocabulary program for middle or high school English Language Arts? These four programs are worth consideration. #vocabularyprogram #secondaryELA

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 usea variety of engaging vocabulary teaching approaches to help words stick.

5. Vocabulary.com

Vocabulary.com is another program teachers could consider using. In my opinion, its greatest strength is that teachers can paste excerpts from course texts into the program. It will then scrub the text for difficult words and help generate a list. Like No Red Ink, Vocabulary.com has practice exercises and games as well as online quizzes for students to complete, which cut down on creating and grading.

Still, I wouldn’t recommend using vocabulary.com as the only means of word instruction. Students need more than a website to retain new word meanings and use them skillfully in writing.

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, course requirements, student needs, 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. 


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  1. Melissa,

    Do you mix and match different strategies throughout the year, or do you like to stick with one overall? I usually have a “dictionary” students fill out with any word they encounter during the day that they don’t know, and these can come from any language, but it’s a haphazard strategy. It helps students built break the bad habit of ignoring unfamiliar words, but it also doesn’t target any specific group of words. How do you like to use these strategies?

    Also, you have a beautiful site and brand marking with your teacher products. I really anjoy your aesthetic.

    Sara Barrett
    (eighth grade English)

    1. Hi Sara!

      Thanks so much. You pose some good questions. I have experimented with these programs over the past decade. Each of them has its own advantages and drawbacks. I’ve had students study words they encounter in their own reading, but not as my main vocabulary list. I generally stick to test prep words that are also common in literature and speaking. It’s the strategy with which I’ve had the most success. I have four other posts about how I implement vocabulary instruction in my classroom. Just search “vocabulary” in the search bar on my blog, and they will pop up. Feel free to email me through my contact form with any other questions (“Get in Touch”)! I love to chat about vocabulary.

      Happy teaching,

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