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How to Teach Vocabulary

Updated on February 7, 2011

Vocabulary-Learning Activities That Won't Frustrate

As an English grammar and writing teacher, the last thing I want to do to my students is to overwhelm, frustrate, or bore them with a list of words and definitions to memorize. I have found that these methods and supplemental activities for teaching vocabulary have given my students an excitement for words and meaning as well as a new ability to use words accurately and effectively.

Don't Memorize That List!

The key to teaching anything, especially something like vocabulary, is not to dish out unrelated facts for memorization and hope it sticks. Instead, teach your students how to learn for themselves by giving them the foundational principles behind what you want them to know, and then watch as their knowledge and ability to learn increases exponentially. The foundational knowledge you give them will begin to branch out into new and more specific knowledge, connected and arranged hierarchically according to importance. This is the foundation behind the liberal arts system of education, and it is also the system that works best for teaching vocabulary.

How? Let me explain with simpler and more practical advice, now that you have met the man behind the curtain.

Start with Vocabulary Roots

Each word in the English language is made up of one or more roots, mostly from Latin, Greek, and Anglo-Saxon. However, there are many English words that are derived from just one root word. This makes teaching vocabulary words from roots very simple because for every root you teach, your students will be able to accurately "interpret" two to twenty english words they had never heard of before merely because they knew the root. To start, give your students a short list of latin, greek, or anglo-saxon roots (ten to twenty at first) and the brief definitions of the roots. Do not given them the English words that come from the roots just yet, as that will be doing their job and spoiling their fun. Next, brainstorm together as a classroom or family about what words could possibly come from the roots you have given them. Keep a comprehensive list of the roots and their derivatives in front of you, only referring to it if the kids are stumped. When they correctly guess a word that comes from the root, spell the word out and write it in front of them where they can see it, then have them write the word underneath the root on their own copy of the list.

Younger grades can draw a picture representing each root next to the root on their paper. Middle school through high school grades should write their own definition of each English word on their papers. The definition can come from what definition you have given, but you should not have them write out a word-for-word definition that didn't require any mental procedure of their own.

The fun of this activity is that you can --and should-- go on bunny trails with your students. If you come across another root that needs defining (as there will often be more than two roots in a word) then have them apply their minds to that root as well. Then put the roots together in an addition equation (root + root = meaning?), and have them decipher what the answer to the equation should be by putting the meanings of the two roots together. The idea is that we are dealing with roots, and roots go places, branch out, extend fibery fingers out to the farthest corners of the soil to pick up rich nutrients. Your students will not feel drained by the end of this activity, but on the contrary they should feel like roots too: having gone to the farthest corners of their minds to find the rich nutrients embedded there, for you have worked with the knowledge they already have to easily and naturally grow into new knowledge.

Read, Write, and Draw Vocabulary Words

Teach Vocabulary Words in Context

Along with each word you introduce, try to include a funny or interesting quote that uses the vocabulary word you are discussing. Read the quote aloud and ask for volunteers to explain what they think the word means in the narrower context of the quote. Or you could ask for possible synonyms that could replace the word in question, having them shout out whatever comes to mind and only writing on the board the ones they suggested that are true synonyms. I have found that kids love a little competition and the chance to be noisy in the classroom. They will search their minds quickly for possible solutions for a substitute word and triumph when they hear their own suggestion praised and put on the board.

I also am a huge advocate of reading aloud to children. Choose a book that may be slightly challenging, but still interesting to the kids, and have them ready with pen in hand to look up and write down a new word here and there. By the time you have finished the book, the kids will have their own "glossary" of terms! 

A Sample List of Roots and Vocabulary Words

bio, bi, bios (Greek): life

  • biography
  • biology
  • bionic

aud, audit, aur (Latin): hear

  • audible
  • audio
  • auditory

cred (Latin): trust, believe

  • incredible, incredulous
  • credit

luc, lum, lust (Latin): light

  • translucent
  • luminescent
  • luster
  • illuminate

min (Latin): little, small

  • minor
  • minimum
  • minute

path (Greek): feel

  • sympathy
  • pathetic

phil (Greek): love

  • philosophy (soph: wisdom)
  • philanthropy
  • Philadelphia

scio (Latin): to know

  • conscious
  • science

uni (Latin): one

  • unite
  • union
  • unify

A Fun, Vocabulary-Building Activity

Once your students have a fairly good understanding of a few words and the roots they come from, it is time to make sure they really know how to use these words. Your goal is not necessarily to make sure they can select the correct answer in a multiple-choice question on each of these words in a test someday, but to make sure that they can actually use these words in writing, reading, and conversation. Vocabulary belongs to the art of conversation and communication. Let's teach it that way and it won't be dry.

One fun and always-welcome activity that helps to solidify what your students have learned involves a pass-around story that each student contributes to. To start, assign each student two vocabulary roots from your recent lesson and make sure he has notes, English words, and definitions for each of those roots. Next, have each student start with a separate piece of paper, unattached from a notebook, and put his name at the top. During this activity, each student must write one sentence on his page that includes one or more of the vocabulary words originating from the root word(s) assigned to him. The sentence is going to be the beginning of a story, so have him keep that in mind as he comes up with what to say.

For example, if I were assigned the root "scio," I could start my story, "The scientist lost consciousness when he realized he had just discovered a germ in his petri dish." The goal is to use the word correctly and in context.

The fun begins in this next step. Each student must pass their paper to the person on their right, and then, taking the paper received from the person on their left, read the previous sentence and add another sentence onto that story-- using one of their own vocabulary roots again, only this time in a new sentence. Continue passing and adding onto the stories until each story reaches it's originator. This activity will not only support their knowledge of the vocabulary words that were assigned to them, but they will also learn about the other students' words, as they see new sentences being formed with the same roots showing up again and again. The final stories are usually hilariously sprinkled with complex vocabulary words, and often make unique twists in plot to accommodate the necessary words. I have had students take their stories home declaring that they were going to publish them on their blogs, read them to their family, or work on the stories longer on their own time-- just for fun.

Vocabulary Learned, Remembered, Applied

Figuring out how to teach anything, including vocabulary, can be a daunting task. I hope my suggestions have triggered your creativity and that you will now be able to teach vocabulary with lasting impact and enjoyable results.

© 2009 Jane Grey

Please leave comments, ideas, or discussion!

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    • profile image

      Michel Richard 4 years ago

      I really enjoy how to teach vocabularies by some way, these are, listen to music, play a game, look at picture

    • profile image

      Homa 6 years ago

      I really enjoyed this article.You are a wonderful teacher.I wish your success in your job.Best wishes

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 6 years ago from Oregon

      That sounds like a great plan! It also helps to keep the child from boredom.

      Thanks for all your book recommendations-- I am a strong believer in cultivating a love of learning through a love of reading. It sounds like that is ingrained in your teaching as well.

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 6 years ago from California

      Rotation is exactly what I do for nonfiction. My kids are young, so I choose books in multiple different areas and then read those on a regular basis, so I can cover different things at a time. Right now for my 6 year old, the focus is world history, early humans, plants, the Earth and geography. I'm almost done with world history and early humans, so I will move onto the human body and the elements. With my younger child, I'm focusing on seasons and expanding that into related areas like animal survival in Winter. I can really see their understanding, knowledge and vocabulary grow when we spend time on related topics.

      For younger kids, I find the various Usborne and Kingfisher books to be really good. The Basher books are really good for science.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 6 years ago from Oregon

      Learn Things,

      That does sound like a good idea for learning one topic very thoroughly, though that may not give as much of a well-rounded word base as reading in several different areas would. Perhaps a rotation program would be best, with three months reading biology, three months reading romantic-era literature, three months on theology.... etc. What do you think?

    • Learn Things Web profile image

      Learn Things Web 6 years ago from California

      These are good ideas. Another way to build vocabulary is to stick to one reading topic over a period of time, so children are exposed to the same words and ideas repeatedly.

    • profile image

      Adriane 7 years ago

      Great post ! Thanks I really Appreciate It

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 7 years ago from Oregon

      Great to hear from another teacher who has made this method work! Thanks for writing, Arizonataylor.

    • arizonataylor profile image

      arizonataylor 7 years ago from Arizona

      You get it. I totally agree with teaching roots and using the words in context. This is absolutely great advice. It works for my students! Great hub. Thumbs up.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 7 years ago from Oregon

      Shelly, it sounds like you really understand the value of the total education of real life experience, not just education for the classroom! I'm thrilled to hear this technique applied in a practical way. I'm sure you are a teacher that students will reap from for years to come.

    • shellyakins profile image

      shellyakins 7 years ago from Illinois

      I agree with you that vocabulary needs to be taught in context to "stick." Too often students are given a list to memorize and after the test, those new words are lost. With my students, I gave extra credit to students who discovered any of our vocabulary words in the real world. They also received extra credit for using the words correctly in their own writing and in speaking in the classroom. I noticed some of the words showing up in their "hallway speak" a true sign that they had integrated the words into their own vocabulary.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon


      That was the nicest thing anybody could have said to me. Really, your comment uncovered a deep dream of mine and gave me energy to reach for making that dream a reality! Thank you, thank you.

    • hebron profile image

      hebron 8 years ago from West Coast of USA

      Awesome method. If you haven't written your book yet, you should start soon.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, gnrao! There is always more to teaching language than meets the eye, so it's fun to be able to share what I've found works best.

    • gnrao profile image

      gnrao 8 years ago from 37,west periasamy road,r.s.puram coimbatore 641002 tamil nadu india

      I like the way you handled that subject.congrats.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

      Lamalipmim, I'm glad it helped! I have never taught English as a second language, so my tips were designed for English speakers. However, I am sure the methods will still work, especially if you can give them the words in as many contexts as possible (lists, games, roots, books, writing). I'm impressed by your high level of English in your comment, above! You'll do great teaching the kids, I'm sure. You've already learned a second language fluently, and that's an achievement all it's own! Thanks for your delightful comment. I can learn a lot from people like you as well.

    • lamalipmim profile image

      lamalipmim 8 years ago from Malaysia

      thanks for sharing your tips. English is my second language, and I am in the process of becoming an English teacher, teaching children aged between 7-12 years old. I had gone through the process of acquiring English, something that I have enjoyed, because I like the language. I am looking forward to teaching the language to our local children, something that is certainly challenging.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

      I'm glad this helped you, prasetio. This is also an effective way to learn vocabulary as well, even if you don't have a teacher to go through the words with you. As much as you can, read, read, and read English and you will start to absorb more vocabulary without even trying.

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 8 years ago from malang-indonesia

      As a teacher I really appreciate this hub. For now I still learn and learn about English. Because English is not main language but for me English is important in our life. As an international language, I have care about this. Two thumbs up for you.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

      Hi gramarye!

      I'm grateful you are visiting my pages, and I hope I can give you a good read!

      About the beginners you are working with-- are you teaching ESL classes or children who are just beginning to speak? I have no experience teaching ESL, but I have found that this method has worked well with third graders on through highschool if English is their first language.

      Thanks for leaving your comment! I really appreciate your feedback.


    • gramarye profile image

      gramarye 8 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

      I looked at your list of hubs, and my intention is to read more of them. I did like this approach to vocabulary although it doesn't work very well with the beginners I work with. You do have lots of interesting looking hubs, and I shall gradually work my way thought. I'll post comments to give you feedback as I go, but might not be until next weekend now.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

      I appreciate your comment, gramarye! Any particular requests or areas you're interested in knowing more about?

    • gramarye profile image

      gramarye 8 years ago from Adelaide - Australia

      Great approach. I'm interested in more of your ideas.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

      Why thank you, RTalloni! I am always learning right along with my students, so I know that if I'm enjoying it then they probably will too. Thanks for stopping by!

    • RTalloni profile image

      RTalloni 8 years ago from the short journey

      Excellent stuff. Your students must enjoy your classes very much!

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

      Nan, thank you for your input! I highly value comments from other teachers, as I am always learning and always trying to figure out what the really effective methods are.

    • Nan Mynatt profile image

      Nan Mynatt 8 years ago from Illinois

      I enjoyed your article, as a teacher myself.

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

      Why thank you, Kendall! I had my share of stumping family members as well, though it was usually in pronouncing the word wrong so they didn't recognize it. That's what comes with reading more of the words I learn than hearing them!

    • Kendall H. profile image

      Kendall H. 8 years ago from Northern CA

      I wish the English linguistics professor I had in college explained things as well as you did. Thanks for the hub! The best part I remember about vocabulary was learning a four to five syllable word and stumping family members when I used it in the wrong context. Oops!

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you for the grade, kims! Ha ha-- I like your humor.

    • profile image

      kims3003 8 years ago

      Great article! A+

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

      You're welcome, Rose! Thanks for your kind comment.

    • Rose West profile image

      Rose West 8 years ago from Michigan

      You have such great ideas! I love your method of teaching, and how it concentrates on using knowledge for life and not just for a test. Thanks so much for sharing your teaching's so helpful!

    • Jane Grey profile image

      Ann Leavitt 8 years ago from Oregon

      Thank you, E. Nicolson! I'm glad you approve. I hope to home educate my own children someday and I know that I'm going to have to keep learning and improving my methods in order to teach them well.

    • E. Nicolson profile image

      E. Nicolson 8 years ago

      What a wonderful way to teach! I don't remember it being that interesting when I was a child. I wish I had had these methods when my two boys were struggling in grade school.


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