Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Fun Way to Build Vocabulary

I have to share another fabulous technique I’ve learned in the brilliant BrainSMART program. This technique revolves around vocabulary building. 

Why Vocabulary Matters

Vocabulary is a skill that frequently does not get the attention it deserves.  However, its importance cannot be overstated.  As students learn, their brains are always looking for ways to tie new information to pre-existing knowledge.  In this way, the brain is able to chunk information into existing neural networks, thus making retention and retrieval more likely.  With this in mind, consider two students reading a new text.  The first student did not come from an enriched background, and has a limited vocabulary.  Even though his decoding ability is at an adequate level, he is not familiar with several of the words in his text.  His comprehension is therefore limited.  The next student was exposed to an enriched vocabulary from an early age.  As this student reads his new text, he is able to understand all the words.  When he comes across an unknown word, he is able to figure it out through context clues.  Decoding skills being equal, vocabulary made the difference.  The playing field needs to be leveled!

Level the Playing Field

A teacher can level the playing field through explicit vocabulary instruction.  This does NOT mean copying definitions from the dictionary!  Instead, one option is to try what I call Word Tallies.  I gave my second graders three new words last Monday:  peculiar, quaint, and stupendous.  After introducing the words and discussing meanings, I gave students the option of dramatizing the words (which is another strategy in itself).  One pair dramatized a phone conversation about something they found peculiar.  The next acted out a quaint tea party.  The last pair had a discussion about how stupendous their teacher is!  Finally, I put the words on the wall.  Every time someone in the classroom (even me) used one of the words, the word earned a tally mark.  Students could even earn tally marks by using the words at home (even other family members could add to the points).  I emailed parents to give them a heads up.  By the end of the second day ‘peculiar’ was used 40 times, ‘quaint’ was used 35, and ‘stupendous’ was used 45 times!  It was stupendous!  We kept our count with tally marks, and then moved the data to a chart to analyze our results. 


It was clear by the end of the second day that students had a firm grasp of the meaning of all three words.  Would they have gotten the same understanding by copying definitions from the dictionary?  I don’t think so.  The icing on the cake came in an email from an ESL parent.  She said her son came home and taught HER the words and definitions!  Wow.  The sprinkles on top of the icing… students were able to read the words.  This is now a weekly activity for my class.

I’m learning many other vocabulary building strategies as well.  This idea came from one of my BrainSMART class books, Classrooms That Work: They Can All Read and Write, by Cunningham & Allington.


  1. Fantastic idea! Thank you for the regular tips on better teaching English. I will be implementing them in my classes.

  2. You are such an inspirational teacher! Your posts paint a picture of students joyfully learning much and provide a great contribution to our field in many ways. When you write you speak to the importance of student engagement in core content areas and strategy rich graduate study experience for teachers, as well as the power an effective teacher has to create successful classroom learning experiences!

  3. Thank you for sharing these ideas Diane, I love them!

    My students use spelling 'chunk' books where they write in the spelling chunk they are learning and add to it whenever they read or think of another word with the same chunk. I love seeing their eyes light up when they think of a new word to add and share with everyone. I can imagine hearing people say these new vocab words or thinking of ways to include them in dialogue will bring about the same excitement! Another tally mark earned! Yay!

  4. This sounds like a stupendous strategy for building vocabulary. I love the idea of integrating math. Teaching second grade is so much fun!!

  5. I love the idea of 'chunk' books Jessica. I'm going to try that.
    And another tally mark, yay! ;)

  6. I really amazed to read this article. Keep posting