Vocabulary Strategies - Mindsteps Inc.

Vocabulary Strategies

By: Shauna Brown Leung

teaching strategiesOne of the challenges common to all teachers focused on increasing rigor in the classroom is getting students to master the vocabulary of the content. Teachers throughout the country tackle this feat by giving students lists of “key terms” to define for each unit. Some require flash cards, others ask students to use the word in a sentence, still others use Frayer models to encourage critical thinking about vocabulary words. We do this because we want our students to speak and write with precision, a hallmark of rigor. Yet sometimes, despite our good intentions, we get stuck on the lowest level of bloom’s taxonomy when it comes to vocabulary instruction; and we struggle to coax our students to climb higher.

With that in mind, I offer five things to ask students to do with vocabulary words – other than define them. These are tasks students can do in groups both in and out of class. They inspire discussion, require critical thinking, and most of all, challenge students to wrestle with the nuances of language found in what they often call “trick questions.” These assignments are great warm-ups, homework assignments, review activities and enrichment/acceleration challenges for students at all levels as they challenge students to get beyond the definitions of words and consider their use.

1. Create Taboo Cards
For each vocabulary word, list five words that would most likely be used to explain the word to others. For example, if the word is Simile, the taboo words might be like, as, figurative, metaphor, speech. This helps students identify the words they would use in writing about the key term. Students can trade taboo cards, and actually play the game.

2. Connect Words to Essential Questions or Objectives
Many teachers give students vocabulary lists and learning objectives. Have the students identify which words are related to specific essential questions. Then have them explain the connection between the words and the question/objective. If the objective of the lesson is to describe the key functions of a political party, the corresponding vocabulary words could include: electioneering, campaigning, candidates, advertising; primary elections.

3. Categorize Words
Do you remember the $25,000 pyramid, where contestants chose a topic and then had to guess a group of words? Well invite your students to design the game. Have them create a category and list 5 words that fit into that category. For example, in a biology class, the topic could be “roles of proteins in living cells.” The terms would be cell motion; cell structure; materials transport; receptors; transcription factors. This is another game that students can play, with one team choosing the category and describing the key terms to the guesser.

4. Rank Words
In a history class, one might ask students which of these words represents the most powerful idea of a particular century. In a math class, students might determine which concept would be most important to know when tackling a particular problem. In an English class, students might determine which word best captures a specific tone. All of these tasks require critical thinking, and their power lies in students’ justification of their choice.

5. Predict Key Words in Test Question Prompts
As students become familiar with the course structure and format, encourage them to predict the terms that test makers will emphasize when assessing their knowledge of the content. This helps them understand that all terms aren’t equal, and it engages them in thinking like the test maker. Testing their prediction makes a good warm-up or review from a lesson. For example, in an AP English language class, tone, rhetorical strategies, antithesis and antecedent are commonly used in question prompts.

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