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Strategy Toolbox: Vocabulary


Vocabulary building is integral to most content areas. Oftentimes when students say, “I don’t get it” what they “don’t get” is the vocabulary. Content area teachers are experts in their field, and the specialized vocabulary has become second nature to them. Any time spent on vocabulary will enhance comprehension. This site will offer some good ideas for teaching vocabulary:
Vocabulary Ideas

Meaning Before / Meaning After

The first step in this strategy is to identify the words necessary to learn for the section. The students fold a paper in thirds lengthwise. The first column is the" words to learn"; the second column is labeled “meaning before” followed by “meaning after.” Students may work alone, or in pairs or small groups to try to figure out the meaning of the new words prior to reading the section. Once they’ve read the section they fill out the last column. This alerts them to new vocabulary and they have more of a stake in the learning than with the traditional worksheet where they just do the “meaning after.”

Word Webs

This is a type of graphic organizer. I wouldn’t use it with every new word; however, I would use it with words that are very important to the learning with which students struggle . It is okay to be creative with this one! The student draws a circle and writes the word inside it. From here it is up to the teacher (and students) to decide what to add:

  • what it reminds you of
  • how you could use it
  • the book's definition
  • your own definition
  • a picture

Predict the Definition

Taking time prior to reading to predict the definition, even orally is time well spent. The teacher can run through the list of words and ask students to predict what they think the word will mean. Students are alert to the words and their brains are more engaged when reading. If you want to be more thorough, you could use the strategy “Meaning Before Meaning After.”

Categories Card Game

The card game “Spoons” is basically the game behind this strategy. This is very effective when students have a large number of new vocabulary words to master and the words fall into identified categories.

Preparation: Students create 3x5 cards of the vocabulary words. The cards are combined in a deck. Some item (e.g., spoons, chips, dice, stones) are set in the center of the playing table. Be sure to set out one less than the number of players.

Play: The deck is shuffled and all the cards are dealt. The first player passes a card to the player on his/her left, that player takes the card and passes a card to his /her left; play continues in this way. Players are keeping cards trying to collect all the cards in one category. Once a player has all of the items in a category, he/she quietly picks up a spoon. As soon as players see a spoon picked up, they do the same. The player without a spoon is out. Notes: It works best if each category has the same number of words.

Crossword Puzzles

There are a number of web sites supporting puzzle creation. Crossword puzzles are only one type of many available! Many teachers will say they don’t have time to create puzzles. If that is the case for you, either assign it to students, or give them extra credit for creating puzzles. You could have a contest with the winning puzzle challenging the other students. Here are a couple of good sites to get you started:
Puzzle Maker
Vocabulary Games

Vocabulary Games

This strategy may involve some preparation; however, once a teacher creates the game, it is usually fairly flexible and reusable. The students really get involved with games and even more exciting, the learning stays with them! Think of television games and see if there is a way to bring it in to your classroom. “Jeopardy” is a classic. “Family Feud” and the “Pyramid” can also be adapted for classroom use. Use your imagination. If this isn’t your style, try giving it as an optional assignment and give students credit for creating the game for you! They learn and you get a great new tool!


One way to get new vocabulary to “stick” with students is to encourage them to create analogies with the new words. This seems to be most effective in small or large groups. They complete this together and have a good time filling in the blanks. ______ is to _____ as ______ is to _____ because_______. If they do the activity in small groups, it may be effective to have them share their analogies in the large group. The important part of analogies is getting them to identify the relationships.

Frayer Model

This is good for more complex vocabulary (Frayer, Frederick, & Klausmeier, 1969). Using this model, students will need to identify not only what the word IS, but what it ISN’T as well. This clarifies their thinking. The characteristics area is important as it helps students identify key indicators or characteristics of the word. This area then becomes the "assessment filter" for the example and non-example areas.

This web site will give a good example of this strategy, along with a printable worksheet:
Frayer Model

Vocabulary | Before Reading |During Reading | After Reading | Combinations | Internet | Promote Reading