3 Tools for Teaching Vocabulary

In a recent post (Words, words, words: Do’s and Don’ts of Vocabulary Tutoring), we outlined some do’s and don’ts for teaching vocabulary. These include:

  • Do teach words that matter.
  • Don’t teach too many words at a time.
  • Do teach some of the most common spelling patterns like the two mentioned above but also show students that there are exceptions they’ll have to learn over time.
  • Don’t teach vocabulary using only definitions.
  • Do give students time and many opportunities to learn new words.

Several of these are just good teaching and tutoring–for example, focusing on a few words at a time, words that matter, and giving multiple opportunities to learn them. When we take these steps, we have a far greater likelihood of helping students move beyond temporarily memorizing long lists of words and helping them permanently learn new words.

What about the fourth point–about not simply teaching definitions? Research by William Nagy, Lee Mountain and others has shown that approaches to teaching vocabulary that rely primarily on teaching definitions (“look up the word and use it in a sentence”) are among the least effective methods for teaching and learning new vocabulary. Despite the fact that this research has been around for several decades, definitional approaches are the most common ways for teaching vocabulary in and out of schools. Again, it’s just good teaching and tutoring to help students make other connections when learning new words. When we teach words we can help students connect them to other words with similar or opposite meanings, find examples of words, or help them visualize a word by connecting it to an image. The good news is that teaching vocabulary this way is more engaging and provides greater opportunities for learning (vs. temporarily memorizing) words.

Here’s three vocabulary learning strategies you can use to help do that. We provide a description of each and examples that you can view. We also share a handout, below, that you can save and print for use later.

Vocabulary Cards are cards (index cards work great) that have the word, a simple definition, an image and a connection between the word and image. The picture below shows how to divide the front of the index card into three parts–one for the word, a simple definition and an image or picture. On the back of the card you or the student learner can write a statement or sentence that describes the relationship between the word and the picture. Click the image below to enlarge it. Also, we’ve created a short how-to video in ShowMe (an iPad app) that provides some additional details about using Vocabulary Cards.


Vocabulary Cards ShowMe How-to Video

Vocabulary Self-Awareness Chart is both a vocabulary teaching tool and a form of self-assessment for tutors and learners. Tutors or their student learners identify a group of words to learn and write them on the Vocabulary Self-Awareness chart. There’s room for each word, a simple definition, and an example. The example can be written out or a can be a picture. If it is a math-related term, you might write out an example as an equation (see below). When the learner can create a simple definition and an example they put a “+” but if they can only do one of those (an example or definition), they put a check mark. If they cannot write either a definition or example they put a minus or dash. Tutors and learners then know which words to focus on (the checks and dashes). Click below to see a math and a science example of the Vocabulary Self-Awareness chart.

The Frayer Model is simple graphic organizer for vocabulary that is a great way to help learners make connections to words using synonyms, antonyms and other characteristics. As with other strategies, the tutor or learner writes the word and a definition but adds characteristics, examples (synonyms) or non-examples (antonyms). Below is an example of the Frayer Model featuring the word community. You can click to expand this example and see the synonyms, antonyms and characteristics as well as the definition.


All of these strategies offer different ways to teach vocabulary and concepts but all have in common that they go beyond simply teaching definitions. They add in pictures (images), examples and non-examples, and characteristics. Use the strategy that seems best suited to your learner’s needs and is a good fit to the words he or she is learning. You can also use them to complement each other. For example, you might use the Vocabulary Self-Awareness Chart to assess a learner’s knowledge of words and create Vocabulary Cards or use the Frayer Model to teach the words that are most challenging. We’ve provided a handout with copies of these strategies and others you might find useful in teaching and tutoring. You can click here to download: Vocabulary-1.

We’d love to hear your thoughts, questions and experiences in tutoring. Post your comments below and we’ll respond.


About bluegrassjb

I am an academic with a love for language, literacy and learning. The focus of my work is on student success at the K-12 and college levels. Outside of my professional interests I enjoy travel, photography and antiquing with my partner and wife. We like to hit the road in our travel trailer with the dogs and when at home party with the cats.
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