It is important to remember to "initiate vocabulary development at the beginning of the instructional unit or lesson and continue to develop and reinforce word meanings throughout instruction" (Misulis, 1999, p. 4). This can be done by providing language-rich activities that teach new words in meaningful contexts, including what students already know, and helping students to understand the interrelationships among words (Rupley, Logan, & Nichols, 1999; Misulis, 1999). Brainstorming will tap students' prior knowledge, and questions, categorizing activities, graphic organizers, and semantic maps/webs will help students make associations among vocabulary words.

Furthermore, Stahl (1986) believes that vocabulary instruction has three levels of processing. Associating processing is where an association is learned such as a synonym or single context. Comprehension processing applies a learned association such as finding antonyms, fitting words into a sentence blank or classifying with other words. Generation processing takes comprehended association and generates a novel product, such as, a restatement of a definition, comparing a definition to personal experience, formulating a new sentence that clearly demonstrates the words meaning, and an oral (classroom discussion) or written product. These three processing levels should be kept in mind when planning activities.

Research has uncovered general guidelines and principles that offer guidance to educators as they seek to increase students' vocabulary. While there are spelling and vocabulary texts, often times these do not address the vocabulary pertinent to the units of study an educator teaches. Rupley, Logan, and Nichols (1999) have developed an active process vocabulary instruction that can assist teachers. First, select vocabulary words from the text. Second, base vocabulary instruction on language activities as a primary means of word learning. Use the new words in speaking, listening, reading, and writing activities. Third, build a conceptual base for learning the new words. And fourth, provide a variety of instructional strategies to store the word knowledge.

Selecting vocabulary words from a text can pose a problem. Misulis (1999) and Stahl (1986) have addressed this issue thoroughly and the following steps have been gleaned from their research. When reviewing material to generate a list of vocabulary words that may cause difficulty, consider these three basic criteria: content, students, and time. One, decide the importance of the word to the text. Will it contribute to the students understanding of the content? Two, will students run into or use the word again? If the answer to both questions is no the word should be eliminated from the prospective list. Three, how likely is the student to get the meaning from the context? If clear understanding of the word can be received in the context, eliminate the word from the list. Four, how thoroughly will the word need to be taught? Is the concept difficult or easy? Does time permit in-depth study? Five, consider the amount of time allotted for the unit and weigh teaching a large number of words lightly verses a few words in-depth. And six, what do the students already know? The word can be eliminated if the students are already familiar with the word.

Lastly, Laflamme (1997) lists seven principles of vocabulary development that will be especially helpful in planning and executing vocabulary instruction.

1. Teacher enthusiasm - teachers convey their belief in the effectiveness of learning strategies.

2. Direct instruction - techniques or procedures come from teacher initiative and direction.

3. Integration - new information connects to previous knowledge and experiences.

4. Intensive practice - frequent activities develop facility with words and understanding of how they are used. Give both context and definitions.

5. Repetition - there is frequent exposure to the same words through practice exercises or testing.

6. Learner involvement - the learner locates definitions, applies them to various situations appropriately and practices deep processing.

7. Long-term commitment - vocabulary development is an integral part of the curriculum.

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Keeping in mind the instruction strategies and necessary components, it is important to "develop and use vocabulary reinforcement activities in your content instruction" (Rupley, Logan & Nichols, 1999, p. 3). There are several well-known and established activities but "the extent and variety of vocabulary reinforcement activities is limited only by the imagination" (Misulis, 1999, p. 4). Included with rich activities should be a visual display of words in the room such as room content labeling (sink, door, etc.) and a word wall to name a couple. Additionally, Daniel (1996) stresses the importance of celebrating students' growth and achievements. This promotes self-esteem and confidence in learning abilities. Also, recognition should encourage students to continue learning. The celebration could be as simple as a sticker, certificate, or verbal recognition or as involved as lunch with the teacher or a class party.

Before and During Reading Activities

It is important to activate prior knowledge by "examining meanings of key words and clarifying misconceptions about major concepts" (Manning, 1999, p. 1). This can be done through students verbalizing what they know and want to know. Brainstorming and categorizing activities aid in this endeavor. Bryant et. al. (1999) suggest other activities that can activate prior knowledge as well as increase it. They include field trips or videos, developing prerequisite knowledge, and examining the physical features of the text (text preview).

With the pre-reading activities completed, the students are now prepared to begin reading the text. Additional activities are necessary to ensure that students learn and understand the material. Bryant et. al. (1999) and Manning (1999) suggest the following activities for the reading stage. Promote self-monitoring skills by setting a purpose for reading and providing questions to consider while reading. Also have students underline, if possible, or write words down that they do not understand. These unknown words could be handled in a variety of ways. Students could be required to look up the definitions in the dictionary, or group or classroom discussions could clarify the meanings. Once clarified the words could be added to a running dictionary for the text on a chart, blackboard, or personal journals.

Audio and Oral Activities

Ediger (1999) and Misulis (1999) have cited activities that would encourage vocabulary development through listening and speaking. Videos are one avenue. After viewing a video teachers engage the students in discussion. Specifically, students can use a single word or phrase that is reflective of what they learned. Once a list is generated, students can then combine the concepts together and categorize them.

Another avenue is listening-centers. Students could engage in group discussions following listening to a book. Results could then be recorded in journals or class charts for all to see. Along the same lines would be story time where the teacher reads to the students and leads class discussions.

Other listening and speaking activities include interest centers, oral reports, story telling, guest speakers, and computers.

Reading and Writing Activities

The following reading and writing activities have been gleaned from the research of Ediger (1999), Misulis (1999), and Rupley et. al. (1999). Reading and writing are at the core of learning, along with students engaging regularly in activities. The key is to develop a variety of activities that promote vocabulary development and maintain a maximum of interest.

A quality spelling program is a must. As pupils practice correct spelling they become involved in vocabulary development and reading. Ample emphasis should be placed upon students doing as much writing as possible. Activities include journals, diaries, logs, book reports, outlines, poems, developing a dictionary, proofreading, editing, and subject reports. Reinforcement activities may consist of matching exercises, multiple-choice exercises, word puzzles, writing activities, classification or categorizing activities, analogies, games, demonstrations or performance-types of activities, and projects that require use of vocabulary words. For a more detailed explanation of vocabulary activities refer to the appendix.

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While some vocabulary expansion can take place without direct instruction, "teachers should engage in direct teaching or modeling, talking explicitly about word meaning and structure" (Ediger, 1999, p. 7) to ensure maximum vocabulary development. Since "vocabulary expands when children have numerous opportunities to encounter new words" (Rupley, Logan, & Nichols, 1999, p. 3), vocabulary instruction needs to take place across the curriculum. In depth learning is preferable over casual introduction. Therefore, for words "to be used and committed to long term memory, they must be reinforced many times in meaningful ways" (Misulis, 1999, p. 1). To accomplish this "the teacher needs to select worthwhile activities for pupils" (Ediger, 1999, p. 2).

Vocabulary is a door behind which lies a wealth of knowledge and educators hold the key. It is imperative that educators use the key to open the door not only to the wealth of knowledge but also to strategies that will serve children throughout their lifetime.

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Bryant, Diane Pedrotty, Ugel, Nicole, Thompson, Sylvia, & Hamff, Allison. (1999). Instructional strategies for content-area reading instructions. Intervention in School and Clinic, 34(5), p293, 12p, 2c, 1d.

Daniel, Patricia L., (1996). A celebration of literacy: Nine reluctant students and one determined teacher. Language Arts, 73(6), 420-428.

Ediger, Marlow. (1999). Reading and vocabulary development. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 26(1), p7, 9p.

Flood, James, Jensen, Julie M., Lapp, Diane, & Squire, James R. (Eds.). (1991). Handbook of Research on Teaching the English Language Arts. New York, New York: MacMillian Publishing Company.

Gairns, Ruth, & Redman, Stuart. (1986). Working with Words: A guide to Teaching and Learning Vocabulary. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press.

Higgins, Norman & Hess, Laura. (1999). Using electronic books to promote vocabulary development. Journal of Research on Computing in Education, 31(4), p425, 6p, 2c.

Jensen, Sharon J., & Duffelmeyer, Frederick A. (1996). Enhancing possible sentences through cooperative learning. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 39(8), 658-659.

Laflamme, John G. (1997). The effect of the multiple exposure vocabulary method and the target reading/writing strategy on test scores. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 40(5), p372, 10p, 6c, 1d.

Manning, Maryann. (1999). Uncovering meaning in content reading. Teaching Pre K-8, 29(6), p93, 2p.

Misulis, Katherine. (1999). Making vocabulary development manageable in content instruction. Contemporary Education, 70(2), p25, 5p.

Robb, Laura. (1997). Stretch your students' reading vocabulary. Instructor, 106(8), p34, 1d, 1bw.

Rupley, William H., Logan, John W., & Nichols, William D. (1999). Vocabulary instruction in a balanced reading program. Reading Teacher, 52(4), p336, 11p, 5d.

Stahl, Steven A. (1985). To teach a word well: A framework for vocabulary instruction. Reading World, 24(3), 16-27.

Stahl, Steven A. (1986). Three principles of effective vocabulary instruction. Journal of Reading, 29(7), 662-668.

Ur, Penny, & Wright, Andrew. (1992). Five-minute activities, a resource book of short activities. New York, New York: Cambridge University Press.

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Definition Blackboard Bingo

Write 10 to 15 words from the your most current vocabulary lists on the board. Tell the students to choose any five of the words and write them down. Now read the word definitions in random order and have the children cross off the words on their list that match the given definition. The first one to cross off all their words calls bingo and wins. Variations of this activity include calling synonyms or antonyms (Ur, 1992, p. 4).

Brainstorm Round a Word

Take a word the class has recently learned and write it on the board. Have the students call out all the words that they associate with it and record these words around the original word in a sunray fashion. This activity can also be done as individuals, in pairs, or groups.

Variations include:

Central word

Associated words





A theme




Root word

Prefixes or suffixes

Root word (part)

Build words (partition)

To follow up, erase everything but the central word and have the class individually recall as many brainstormed words as possible and record their efforts on paper (Ur, 1992, p. 4-5).


Divide the board in half. In one half write vocabulary words. Now have the students suggest a word that defines or reminds them of the vocabulary word. Record this on the other half of the board opposite the proper word. When all the vocabulary words have been defined, erase the vocabulary words and have the students recall the words and refill them back in the correct spots. This activity may also be done in pairs or small groups (Ur, 1992, p. 50).

Word (Semantic) Mapping

This activity builds vocabulary by categorizing thematically recalled words. It also helps students to make connections between new vocabulary and prior knowledge and to see relationships among conceptual ideas. Before reading a text or studying a subject, build a word map. Creativity is a must to maintain interest and aid with rememberability. As children generate words about the topic, they demonstrate their knowledge of the subject and they expand it by others' knowledge, and what the teacher adds. Next, categorize the generated words to make sense of them. Have children explain their reasoning for their categorization (Robb, 1997, p. 34; Bryant et. al., 1999, p. 6).

Odd One Out

Write six words on the board from one broad lexical set. For example;

chair            table            window            cupboard            desk            shelf

Ask the students which word doesn't belong to the others and why it doesn't. In the above example window could be argued odd because it is both inside and outside the building, or because it is not a piece of furniture, etc. Continue the procedure until there are only two words left and have the class suggest ten ways in which these two words are different (Ur, 1992, p. 58).

Possible Sentences

Display a list of key words or terms critical to the meaning of the text. Now have the students use at least two words to construct sentences. Record these on the board. Next, read the text paying particular attention to the key words. On the basis of the reading, evaluate the accuracy of the generated sentences. Retain, modify or discard the sentences as warranted and generate additional sentences. This is also a good think-pair-share activity (Jensen & Dufflemeyer, 1996, p. 658-659).

Concept of Definition

This activity provides a framework for organizing information in order to define new vocabulary words. Using a hierarchical structure to conceptualize the definition of a new term, the students can clarify the meaning of unknown terms. Brainstormed words are organized into the following:

1. Categories - What is it?

2. Properties - What is it like?

3. Illustrations -What are some examples?

4. Comparisons - How are examples the same or different?

This provides students with a clear understanding of the new term. Following the exercise the students should supply an oral or written definition for the given concept (Rupley, Logan, & Nichols, 1999, p. 8).

Figuring Out Big Words

The purpose of this activity is to help students pronounce and understand unfamiliar, multisyllabic words. Create a transparency of the Stuck on a Word sheet (a text version follows, or click here for a .gif version of the worksheet). Project the strategies and read them aloud, modeling each one. Ask students to review their reading and write down two multisyllabic words that stumped them, making sure they record where they are located. Working in pairs, instruct the students to follow the strategies. Make sure the students not only learn to pronounce the word but understand its meaning. Before they check a dictionary, students should formulate their own definition from the context clues and write a definition. The final step would be to check their understanding of a word with the dictionary definition. If time permits, have the students share their findings with the class (Robb, 1997, p. 35).

Strategies to Use When You’re

Instead of guessing, reread the sentence containing the word you don't know, as well as the sentences that come before and after it.

Try to find clues in those sentences to help you figure out the word.


Look closely at the word.

If the word has a prefix, try to say it, then take it off.

If the word has a suffix, try to say it, then take it off.

Look at the base or root word that's left. Does it resemble another word you know? For example, the base felon resembles melon.

Try saying the base word, then blend all the word parts together.

Reread the sentence and see if the word makes sense.


Ask a classmate or adult for help.

Look the word up in the dictionary.

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© Renee L. Donohue