How to Teach Vocabulary to Your Students: Ditch the Traditional Methods

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Building vocabulary is probably the most essential prerequisite for reading comprehension. Because at the end of the day, a student needs to know the meaning of the words to fully understand the meanings and the gist of a written text.

However, the traditional method of “20 or 30 new words per week” isn’t very effective as students only memorize the words for the weekly spelling tests.

After a week or so, students forget most of the words. This is the major flaw of the method.

Teachers should focus on building a sustainable vocabulary for the students.

Today, we’ll look directly into this issue – how to teach vocabulary effectively.

The article will help you with –

  • A step-by-step strategy to develop the vocabulary of your students
  • Tips and tricks to help out the students who lag behind
  • Tools that can help you and your students


Step-by-Step Strategy to Teach Vocabulary

Let’s face it, students don’t enjoy going through the list of new words every week. They feel forced as they are bound to memorize the set of words to do well in the weekly tests.

The result of such practice is catastrophic!

First of all, they will forget the words soon within a week or two as they are not even remotely interested in learning new words. Second, students will hate partaking in vocabulary practices.

So, you need to adopt a strategy where students themselves will love to learn new words. As a teacher, your main goal should be making them interested in learning and show them the path to seek that knowledge. If your students are interested enough, they will spontaneously educate themselves.

It’s better if you can become the facilitator, not the source of knowledge!

Okay, so here’s the plan!

First, you’ll create a strong base for your students by making them interested in building vocabulary. In this phase, you’ll NOT teach them a single new word!

After that, you’ll create a strategic plan for every student so that they can learn at their individual pace.

So, the aim of this step-by-step strategy is to accomplish these two steps.

This is how you start –


Make Them Fall in Love with Reading First

Why do we need to develop our vocabulary? What’s the main purpose?

To read properly!

Of course, there are many other objectives, and a strong vocabulary serves a person in many other ways. But the main purpose remains the ability to read properly.

However, we’ll start from the opposite end.

If your students love to read, they’ll encounter new words while gobbling down their favorite books.

Even if they don’t know the meaning of a particular word, they can assume the meaning based on the context. Also, they’ll hit the dictionary to find the meanings of the words.

As long as they love reading books, they will happily go through all the hassles to find the meaning of the words. Thus, learning new words becomes an involuntary process.

There’s another positive side to this step.

When you are giving them a list of 20 words every week, they are only learning those 20 words. But as they are reading books, there’s no limit to that number. They might learn 100 or 200 new words in a week! You can even encourage them to learn about phonological awareness through inventive spelling. 

Curious to learn more about vocabulary building examples and strategies? Here’s a guide to help you with this issue!


“My Students Don’t Love to Read! What Should I Do?”

It’s a sad reality. We, as a society, are moving further away from reading books. Even two to three decades ago, everyone had a book in their hands during the subway rides. But the smartphones have replaced the books now!

Students are more prone to such behavior.

You shouldn’t look down upon such behavior in your students. It’s the NEW NORMAL. Our culture and behavior are changing with time.

The issue is that students are not reading much; they are more into YouTube, Instagram, or Tik Tok. Even Facebook is an outdated social media platform to them!

What should you do in this context?

Go with the flow and make the best of the situation!

I suggested you to encourage them to read books in the first step. The purpose was to make them discover new words themselves.

You can do the same with smartphones too!

Actually, now you have multiple options and roads to reach the same destination! Your students can learn new words by –

  • Reading comics and manga
  • Reading novels and e-books
  • Watching movies and TV-shows
  • Using educational apps

So, rather than sulking about it, befriend the technological shift. Your students can now learn new words with multi-dimensional practices.

You can try implementing these fun and interactive classroom vocabulary activities to motivate your students to read more.

Start with Sight Words

Now that your students are interested in reading, they need a substantial level of vocabulary. Otherwise, they can’t enjoy reading that much.

This is where your role as a teacher becomes vital.

You’ll have to show them the path to develop vocabulary. Before you start with any other strategy, you should teach or let them know about the sight words. These are the common and high-frequency words, and about 50% of the texts are made up of these words.

If you’re teaching the kindergarteners, teaching them sight words is a must!

Follow these steps to teach them the sight words –

  • Create or collect a list of sight words
  • Divide the sight words into categories according to the difficulty level
  • Help them memorize (with proper usage) all the words in the individual categories.
  • Create short texts where students can find out all the sight words that they’ve learned
  • Review the lessons again after two weeks or a month

Are you looking for a good resource? Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered!

Here you can find a complete list of all the sight words in one place for free!


Time for an Assessment

Now that your students have completed the basic step, it’s time to start their advanced spelling training.

As you’ll be teaching them longer and less frequent words in this stage, you’ll have to conduct an assessment test.


The logic is pretty simple.

Not every single of your students has the same caliber; some of them are getting A’s in all the tests while some are struggling to pass the tests.

As a teacher, it’s your responsibility to help each of your students. So, you can’t follow the one-shoe-fits-all strategy.

I’m talking about a vocabulary assessment test that determines the current state of the vocabulary collection of the students. Now, you can create such assessment tests by yourself, or you can seek help online.

Here’s a perfect tool for vocabulary assessment that can help you with the process.

How should you act based on the results of the test?


Suppose you’re responsible for a class of sixth graders. According to different researchers, a sixth-grader should have a vocabulary of 12,000 words approximately. Obviously, each of the students will have a different level of vocabulary competency. Some would outshine others with 15,000 words, while some will only have a collection of 7,000 words.  


What Should You Do with the Vocabulary Assessment?

Based on the above scenario, you should encourage the brighter ones to read more advanced literature so that they can push their vocabulary collection even further. You can introduce them to the classics like The Great Gatsby, To Kill a Mockingbird, or even Moby Dick.

On the other hand, you need to create practice sessions for the weaker students too. You can use –

  • Comic books
  • Manga and anime
  • Movies and TV shows
  • Word games

Why did I suggest these options?

Well, if you ask your students to go through the boring flashcards or word lists, they will not enjoy and might even feel forced. As a result, they might impress you by memorizing the word lists, but they will soon forget those words.

You need to work with their spontaneity.

After a while, maybe after two-three months, you should do a reevaluation of their vocabulary or English skill.

Hopefully, you’ll see some positive changes.


Focus on Long Words

Students don’t struggle to memorize the shorter or even medium words. I’ve rarely seen students struggling with the spelling or meaning of words like – good, bad, thing, fact, act, sing, dance, etc.

If you look closely, all of these words have four to five letters in them. Young students don’t even bother memorizing six- to seven-letter-words. As they age, they tend to see more complex and longer words.

This is where the problem starts!

If you ask a student to spell out words like spontaneity, hereditary, amalgamation, asphyxiation, they will struggle.

There two distinctive features of these four words –

  • They are long words (10 to 12 letters long)
  • It’s hard to break them into syllables based on the sound

Now, here’s the important part, these are not the longest words in the English language. Also, the number of long words in English is not that low either.

So, sooner or later, the students will have to learn the long words. Otherwise, they will not have the proper comprehension skill.

There are many creative ways to master the common long words.


Becoming a Writer!

This is one of the most unorthodox methods of teaching vocabulary and requires some explanation.

One can learn about a new word by reading or listening. That’s why you need to ask them to read, listen to songs, and watch movies. Even having conversations help us to discover new words.

But our brain will soon forget those newly learned words.

Exposure and usage are the two key elements of building vocabulary.

While reading and listening do the job of the exposure to the words, without regular usage, we’ll forget them.

So, what’s the best way to use a fairly uncommon word?


Yes, while we are writing something, we’re basically expressing our thoughts. You might argue that we’re also expressing thoughts while having a conversation.

True, but we don’t use intricate words while having a casual conversation. Typically, we stick with the common words so that the other person can understand.

However, writing is a bit different activity. We tend to showcase our intelligence and use the words that justify our thoughts most accurately.

Although I would strongly suggest not to follow typical roads here. Writing assignments are boring, and students will rarely discover their creative sides.

Rather inspire them to become writers, storytellers, or bloggers.

You’ll notice dramatic changes.


Practice, Practice, and Practice!

No matter how creative you are with teaching vocabulary strategies, at the end of the day, everything comes down to one vital thing – practice.

I still remember my English teacher’s words in the tenth-grade, “You’ll ace a math exam if you can master all the theorems, formulas, and have a keen eye for logic. Want to ace a geography exam? Create a mental map of the whole world! But if you’re looking to score a good result in an English exam, there’s no shortcut, you need to practice, every day!”

And, boy, he couldn’t be truer!

You can’t follow a hard and fast strategy and expect every one of your students has a remarkable vocabulary.

This is why everyone has a variable vocabulary level and takes years to have a decent one.

So, motivate your students to do the following –

  • Read lots of books (Could be physical books or digital copies)
  • Watch movies while turning the subtitle on
  • Read blogs
  • Write stories

At the same time, you should focus on teaching the basic spelling rules for kids

Taking Online Helps: The Modern Approach

The methods that I’ve discussed so far are more traditional. In case you haven’t noticed, our world changed drastically in the last two decades!

Tabs and laptops are assuming the roles of pen and paper! Kids are on their tabs and watching YouTube videos even before learning to write.

So, what should you do as a teacher considering the changing scenario?

Adapt and improvise!

Now, let’s take a look at how to teach vocabulary online?

First of all, I’ve suggested you to encourage your students to read first. With the rise of e-books and blogs, kids can easily entertain them by reading online.

So, that’s pretty simple!

What’s next?

Yes, the vocabulary level testing. Although you can make your own testing method, there are plenty of online vocabulary testers out there. You can always depend on the vocabulary testing tool from SpellQuiz as it’s much superior.

Finally, you can ask your students to sharpen their vocabulary skills with spelling practices and tests. SpellQuiz uses a combination of listening and typing (writing) skills in this case. In fact, SpellQuiz is considered to be the best English vocabulary app by many. 

Also, your students can take part in the fun activity of online spelling bee!

So, from any perspective, teaching vocabulary activities are getting easier and more convenient with the help of online platforms. 

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