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Weird and Fun Ways to Teach Vocabulary Words to Students

Updated on May 5, 2014

Teaching Words is Unnatural

Well, I have your attention now. In a sense, the formal teaching of vocabulary is unnatural; as regular education English teachers, we're attempting to hurry the acquisition of knowledge that hasn't happened naturally. Of course, this is like most of what we teach. A typical ninth grader wouldn't naturally pick up facts about the Mongols or the Periodic Table without some intervention. Most teenagers would not be able to describe the socioeconomic status of Nepal without some guidance (or at least a Google search). The difference with vocabulary, however, is that kids are talking all the time. Unlike Mongols, there is nothing particularly specialized or exotic about vocabulary . It's part of kids' everyday experience. We're just trying to "boost" what students are already doing, which is part of why the teaching of vocabulary is tough. Students' resistance to the teaching of high school vocabulary is understandable: they have been communicating with others for years and most of them have made due just fine.

Students Are Right

Because most students having been making out just fine without our help with vocabulary, it's hard for them to see the merit in learning new, strange words. As teachers, too often we fall back on the "cocktail party" rationale: we suggest to students that they might need these words at some point in the future (like during conversation at some dinner party ages from now). This is the worst reason for the teaching of vocabulary. It reassures kids that the new words really aren't necessary or relevant to their lives now, and there's no urgency to investing in the acquisition of material that isn't relevant. Students assume that they'll pick up the words down the road, and they're mostly right. Let's face it, the majority of adults don't want to learn anything they can't use or relate to on an everyday level. Expecting a teenager to be any different is living in a fairy tale.

Whose Context Is It?

All right, so vocabulary needs to be relevant to our students. While this isn't exactly earth-shattering news, sometimes vocabulary simply isn't relevant. Perhaps we have required lists or mandatory textbooks or simply obscure groups of words that our grade-level team has developed, and we find ourselves trying to force relevance. One common solution to this problem is to teach words in context, rather than as an independent study. This sounds like a good idea, but usually we go right ahead and teach words in "our" context. Teaching a word because it appears in Of Mice and Men doesn't make it more relevant to a high school student; providing a fill-in-the-blank sentence like "Olivia saw herself as a(n) _________ when she realized that Monet's paintings made her cry" doesn't tap into a teenager's psyche. There are a few areas, however, that most teenagers regard as their own.  The following lists are attempts at tying our vocabulary instruction into these instructional "goldmine" topics: technology, conversation, and entertainment.  Hopefully, these lists will inspire you to come up with your own.

The Technological Context

Here are some ideas for associating vocabulary instruction with students' fondness for technology:

* Screen Names: Have students combine two or three words on your vocabulary list as fictional screen names. Each student must explain why they have chosen the name, and in so doing, will review the words' definitions. (Ex: InfiniteEquinox)

* Texting: Have students use at least five vocabulary words in a fake text message to a friend. A fun variation on this is to have students write text messages to a friend as that friend's parent (which makes the vocabulary seem more natural); another variation is to have students write a text message using at least five words that suggest vocabulary words from your list (which makes the message more authentic).

* Website Address: Have students come up with and draw website homepages that use addresses made up of combinations of vocabulary words (Ex: They must then discuss/draw what is on the site itself (which can be a catalogue of things related to the meaning of the words).

* Video Game: Have students outline a fictional video game based on your vocabulary. The name of the game, main characters, the game world, and the publishing studio should all be words from the list. Students should explain how these elements interact and make sense.

* Program:  If the vocab word were the name of a software program, what would it be?  A game?  A utility?  Have students explain what the piece of software is, by utilizing the word's meaning.  Including an examination of a word's origins would be perfect for this, too.

The Conversational Context

Here are a few ideas for associating vocabulary instruction with students love for conversation:

Classroom Discussion:  As simple as this sounds, teachers rarely do it.  Have each student use one vocabulary word during classroom discussion. Using the word in discussion that is unrelated to the vocabulary instruction lends itself towards retention.

*   Lunchtime Chat:  If you think it will work with your class, a fun idea is to have students use vocabulary words over the course of a day and then report on the results.  Clearly, this will only work with a very agreeable class.

Skit:  Have student partnerships write short dialogues, without using specific vocabulary words.  Instead, the students should present short exchanges and the class should guess which vocabulary word is being suggested by the brief skit.

Vocabulary-Related Questions

As a teacher, which question do you hear the most?

See results

The Entertainment Context

Here are some ideas for associating vocabulary instruction with students' love for entertainment:

* Song: Have students write new songs for their favorite musical artists. The title should be a phrase which includes one of the vocabulary words. It could be particularly fun to play around with genre (imagine a country song, for instance, titled "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Agoraphobics"). Include a set number of vocabulary words in each verse, or at least a set number of words that suggest the vocabulary words.

* Graphic Novel: Have students draw short graphic novels, focused on an edgy superhero and titled after one of the vocabulary words. Each pane should be headed with another single word from the list, and the action in the novel should be centered around each idea.

* Awards Show: Have students describe a new awards show, in which 10 fictional awards are given out. Naturally, these ten awards will be named after vocabulary words (ex: The Resignation Award). To add to students' investment, see how many actual celebrities they can name to receive these odd awards.

* Movie Trailer: Have students write scripts for a short film or a movie trailer. In the trailer, characters discuss a dramatic event while using some of the vocabulary words from the list.

* Commercial/Infomercial: Have students pretend that one of the vocabulary words is for sale. The rest of the written commercial delves into the meaning, origin, and importance of this product. This is a great platform for expanding what exactly students should know about each word.

* TV Guide: Have students create a page from a fictional TV Guide. The title of each show includes a vocabulary word, while the description of each episode should suggest the meaning of the word.


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    • tlbarabasz profile image

      Tamara Barabasz 

      5 years ago from Durham, Nc

      I enjoyed these strategies. One of mine was to have students compete in a gross out contest where students would create meaningful sentences using the vocab of the week. Then they would share these with the group and I could say things like, "you guys are so disgusting! Great job!"

    • shogan profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New England

      Geez, shea duane, I sure hope so! :)

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 

      7 years ago from new jersey

      great ideas! I've used the word a day, but i'll have to try the others. you must be a terrific teacher.

    • shogan profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New England

      I'm glad you liked it, Truckstop Sally. If it's helpful to anyone, I feel like I've done a good thing by posting it.

    • Truckstop Sally profile image

      Truckstop Sally 

      7 years ago

      Great ideas! I like the graphic novel approach. Sometimes just a quick pictograph can make an abstract word more meaningful.

    • shogan profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New England

      Thanks, Barraoc. I need to get moving on writing more teaching hubs!

    • Barraoc profile image

      B.C. Hollywood 

      7 years ago from Co. Meath, Ireland

      Great hub shogan. These ideas are useful for parents as well as teachers.

    • shogan profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New England

      Thanks, ambersagen. Yes, you're right, especially for students who may be unmotivated to try. I appreciate your response!

    • ambersagen profile image


      7 years ago from Provo, Utah

      Nice tips! I am taking science classes in college and the most difficult part is learning a whole new vocabulary set for each class. It really is like learning a new language.

    • shogan profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New England

      Thank you, quuenieproac! I'm going to edit out the "secondary education" part, since it seems like these ideas could work for older elementary schoolchildren, too.

    • quuenieproac profile image


      7 years ago from Malaysia

      Practical and useful tips to teach English.The students young and old will enjoy these action oriented classes.

      There is fun, participation and socializing. Facilitation and feedback on grammar, intonation, presentation etc will also enhance the lessons. Great ideas.

    • shogan profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New England

      Thanks, Golden Fins! I figure I'll update the lists periodically, but it's a good start, I think.

    • Golden Fins profile image

      Golden Fins 

      7 years ago from California

      Great vocabulary ideas! Thanks for sharing. I think my students would really enjoy most of the entertainment activities.


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