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How to Teach Vocabulary: Increasing Vocabulary Retention

Wondering how to teach vocabulary meaningfully and effectively? Consider the following scenario:

“So, who can tell me what the word surreptitious means?”

Cricket. Cricket.

“Hello? We learned it yesterday. Doesn’t anyone remember?”

Cricket. Nothing. More crickets.

Sound familiar? Have you ever wondered how to make vocabulary words meaningful? How to help students remember them for longer than five minutes? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if students would be excited about learning new words and if they would use them in their vernacular long after the quiz or test had passed?

The challenges of teaching vocabulary hit hard in the secondary ELA classroom. Our visions of how it should go are often rocked by the realities we face. Disinterest. Apathy. The tendency to memorize words last minute because it’s easier than studying.

The thing is, my vocabulary instruction started to become much more meaningful when I shifted my approach. Asking my students to study their words for homework was ineffective, so I decided to make sure they internalized the words while they were in close proximity. That’s when students started approaching me with comments like this: “I see our vocabulary words when I’m reading all the time! I don’t see any other words from other classes, but I always see YOUR words!”

When one of my students made that comment several years ago, I silently screamed with excitement. I was on to something with vocabulary retention. I’ve tried several different strategies over the years, and one system has proven the most effective. When I use it, students not only know the words for the test, but also remember the words AND USE THEM afterward.

These are my “secrets” for how to teach vocabulary:

Read about how to teach vocabulary effectively and meaningfully in middle and high school classrooms. #Vocabulary #HighSchoolELA

Gradually Introduce Words

Because I teach middle and high school, I like to use words from ACT/SAT word lists to teach vocabulary. Not only will students be more prepared for standardized tests, but also they will encounter the words in life. My favorite word list is from this book.

I have a presentation I use that lists each word along with the definition, part of speech, an example sentence, and a picture. When I introduce the word students take personalized notes. I like to have a brainstorming session where we come up with antonyms and synonyms together. Then, we practice writing sentences that have context clues. Immediately, I have students share their sentences, and we discuss how the word should properly be used in context. It’s an atmosphere that is full of acceptance for error…and students are not afraid to volunteer their sentence. In fact, they expect to receive some constructive feedback either from myself or from fellow students.

The key here is not to expect students to learn more than five new words a week for any one class. I had to start being realistic. When I first started teaching, I would hand students a list of twenty words. They would get homework assignments for those words. Then, two weeks later, they would be tested over them. It was just how vocabulary was taught in my department. I’m sure you will not be surprised to know that students cheated, copied, and failed the assignments and tests. The system didn’t work.

Review Words Daily

It’s an investment, but the reward is that the students learn the words instead of memorizing them. I set aside about five to ten minutes of class time for engaging review activities. Sometimes these strategies are quick, and other times they are built into learning stations. It’s about prioritizing. I had to ask myself, Do I really want students to learn these words? How important is it? If it really means that much, why am I not setting aside time every day for my kids to interact with them? 

Layer Practice Activities

Here’s where my students really started to have fun. I’m just going to list a few options for how I’ve allowed opportunities for students to practice writing and speaking their words. But there are more! Read my posts about brain-based vocabulary activities for more inspiration. If you have two weeks from the start of one vocabulary unit to the quiz or test, try a different technique each day, or provide a choice board and let students direct their own practice.

1. Use pictures.

Have students look at multiple pictures, like this, and select words they associate with those images. Then, have them explain their connection. Or, students can draw pictures or comic strips that relate to the word.

2. Embed the words in writing.

It’s important for students to write about their words and use their words in writing on a regular basis. This can be a bell-ringer or journaling activity.

3. Appeal to social media.

I’ve had students create Facebook pages for their words. They could pretend their word is starting its own blog and write an appropriate title for the blog. If the word could tweet, what would its message be, and to whom would it tweet? Instagram? Snapchat? YouTube? Students can use all of these social media forms and more to think about their words from creative, unique angles.

4. Use task cards and creative assignments. 

Create stations the day before the quiz using task cards and interactive assignments. Have students move between these different activities as a means of studying for their test during class.

5. Provide choice assignments. 

Students need to have choices regarding how they want to practice their words. I prepare a bank of vocabulary activities and, sometimes, give students the opportunities to choose the ones that will work best for them. When students don’t have choice in the activity itself, I occasionally allow them to select the word they feel they need to practice the most. Try this free activity. Your students can choose to complete it using the word on their list they understand the least.

6. Meet and greet a word.

Students can teach vocabulary to one another.

I have students line up shoulder to shoulder in two lines, facing one another. I’ll tell them they are going to have a conversation about the word deft, for instance, and they will then carry on a conversation about that word for thirty seconds. Then, they rotate a spot or two and converse with someone else about a different word. Sometimes I give them a prompt (like Pretend you are applying for a job and you are explaining to your employer why your deftness will increase your employability), and other times it’s just a freestyle. It’s chaotic, but it’s amazing. And it gets them talking about the words. My administration loves it.

If you want a more formal version of this activity to try in your classroom, try this resource.

7. Use Charades and Pictionary.

One of my favorite ways to teach vocabulary is to get students involved creatively and kinesthetically.

I use white boards and chalkboards and sometimes even notebook paper and set a certain amount of time for students to practice their words in this unconventional way. In order to make sure all words are covered, write them on slips of paper, and have each student draw a slip on his or her turn.

8. Use jokes.

Memes and jokes are my go-to sources, but students can also create their own humor using their vocabulary words. Who can forget the word emaciated after they’ve heard the joke “Yo momma is so emaciated she can hula hoop through a fruit loop!”? It makes students smile.

9. Have students make their own quizzes.

Teach vocabulary by making ordinary activities a little more unconventional. Sometimes, we do this on white boards to increase engagement. Then, have students trade with a partner. Who doesn’t like playing teacher?

Differentiate Homework Practice

While the majority of students’ practice with their words happens during class, I do ask students to complete a vocabulary activity outside of class once or twice a week. I try to differentiate those assignments based on learning style and interest.

Sometimes I’ll ask students to select the words (out of those we have discussed) they feel least familiar with and provide choices for how to review them. They might use them in a writing assignment. Or, they might choose to make a collage that represents the word (digitally or traditionally). Students could fill out a graphic organizer that prompts them to think about examples, non-examples, analogies, roots, and derivatives of the words. Other times, they might choose to teach one of their parents or siblings about the word, and a guardian signs off on the assignment to let me know it’s completed.

I try to make vocabulary homework student-directed because if they are making the decisions about how to study their words, students will be more invested in the process and the end result.

Reward Real-World Recognition

I like to tell my students that they will receive one point of extra credit for every time they find one of our vocabulary words in a book we are reading or in any other text outside of class. They can also share how they heard the word on television as well as in what context it was used. If you don’t like to give extra credit, try rewarding them in other ways – candy, leaving a minute early from class, helper for the day, etcetera. If the incentive is motivating enough, students will go out of their way to make sure they find the words…and in my book, there’s nothing wrong with that!

Make Assessments Meaningful

It’s really easy to make a quiz multiple choice because of how simple it is to run a Scantron through a machine. Especially at the secondary level, time is precious. However, vocabulary quizzes and tests should be authentic to how we expect students to use the words in life. They should also reflect the way we teach vocabulary and practice the words in class. Lastly, they should not be easy to pass for students who have given little to no thought to the words (by providing a choice of three easy definition options for a multiple choice question, for example).

So what should they look like? I like to chunk my quizzes.

I’ll make one section fill-in-the-blank. Students need to choose the correct word based on the context clues in the sentence, and they often need to change the word ending in order to make the word fit. This tells me they understand how to use the word, not just what it means.

In another section, I’ll have the students list an example and a non-example of the word, or provide a synonym and antonym that wasn’t discussed in class. I sometimes have students write their own analogies of the words to show they understand the relationships.

Other times, I’ll do a verbal test where I conference with each student (maybe during silent reading time, center time, or writing workshop time), and I’ll ask the students to tell me about each word.

The Takeaways…

When I started making vocabulary a fun, interactive, social process that was driven by time provided in the classroom on a daily basis, I noticed a difference in students’ investment. Choosing words that they will see outside of class upped the ante, and making assessments more meaningful sealed the deal. Meaningful vocabulary instruction is an investment of time and energy, but the rewards are well worth it.



You can find the differentiated vocabulary activities I like to use by clicking on the link below.

Brain-based vocabulary activities for middle and high school students - increase learning and engage students! #VocabularyActivities #HighSchoolELA


  1. Would you be willing to share your powerpoint with SAT words and definitions with images?

    1. Hi, Nicole. There are so many different resources I use to make this vocabulary unit successful. I can’t get to it right now, but as soon as I have some time to work on it, I’ll tweak them so that they aren’t specifically catered to my class, put them together into a unit, and load them to my store. Thanks so much for asking!

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