When I was teaching middle school English in Texas, I built up quite a collection of teaching books (you might call it hoarding?). My books have long been my babies–especially my teaching books, since they’re not as easy to get as fiction or general nonfiction–but I have recently begun actually reading the ones I brought with me to Bangkok in an effort to get rid of (some of) them. I just finished Vocabulary Unplugged: 30 Lessons That Will Revolutionize How You Teach Vocabulary K-12 by Alana Morris, which was given to me by a Texas colleague, and came away with some great vocabulary strategies.

When I started reading this book, I noticed that I had already started reading it and got to page 4 (this is where the underlining ends). This time, I skipped through all the theory behind the strategies (after 12 years of teaching, I just want the strategy!), so I can’t comment on those parts of the book.

The author was smart to put a number in the title and 30 is a pretty good one! I liked a lot of the strategies she included, but have narrowed them down to my top 7. Here we go!

1 Word Storm

This one is really simple. Morris introduces this strategy as a way for students to retrieve words they already know. Within a set amount of time, students brainstorm and write down words with 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or 6 syllables. Initially, Morris says to have students write down any words, but then after that, have students write down specific words, like math words, geography words, adjectives or verbs. I’m planning to use this with my 6 3rd grade students as a fun, 10-minute activity every few weeks or so.

1 Syllable2 Syllables3 Syllables4 Syllables5 Syllables6 Syllables

2 Word Spins

Morris uses word spins to allow students to examine patterns including syllables, affixes, sound patterns, parts of speech, rhyming words, etc. This strategy requires some simple prep: just create a spinner with 8 sections. Morris lists 2 ways to use this strategy:

  • Syllable word spin: Write one word in each of the 8 sections of the spinner. The students must say how many syllables the word the spinner stops on has.
  • Alphabet word spin: Write a letter in each of the 8 sections. First, have the students roll a die and then have them spin the spinner. If the die lands on 4 and the spinner on “N,” the student has to name a four-syllable word that starts with n.
Fraction Pie Divided into Eighths | ClipArt ETC

I could use this strategy with my 5 1st graders to practice letter sounds and word roots with my 5th and 6th graders. Also, I will make my own spinner using a pencil and a paper clip.

3 Last Word

This strategy reminds me of Scattergories. Like the word spin, it also allows students to explore patterns and also requires a die, though you have to make this one. Morris gives this example: Students, working in partners, are working on r-blends. If a student rolls “br,” he/she gives a word that begins with “br,” then the partner gives a word that begins with “br.” The students go back and forth until one of them gives the last word.

Students can also write down their words on index cards and then play their cards until the winner plays the last card. The students should write down unusual words if they can, because if the two students have the same word written down, those cards must be discarded.

4 Concept Attainment

This is one of my favorite teaching strategies. Like the previous two strategies, this strategy explores patterns (I guess I like patterns), but this one must first be modeled by the teacher.

Here’s the example: The pattern is homophones. The teacher explains to the students that they will be using a pattern to determine the language concept. The teacher gives students examples and nonexamples, like this: “The first example is there. A nonexample is table.” Once students have been given several of both, the teacher asks students for more examples and nonexamples, and then for the concept. Students will then choose their own concept and list examples and nonexamples.

I used this strategy when teaching vowel teams, though I didn’t use nonexamples. I showed students three pictures: rain, train and paint. They had to write down the words and circle what they had in common (ai). Then they had to add more “ai” words to the list. (These vowel team PowerPoints are in my Teachers Pay Teachers shop.)

5 Title Quest

For this strategy, the teacher preselects a poem that contains words that would give students clues that would allow them to guess the title of the poem. Morris suggests reading the poem to the students twice: the first time for students to get the general idea of the text and the second time for words to serve as supporting evidence for their guess.

I think this strategy would work with news articles as well.

6 Prediction Pops

This strategy gives students the chance to guess words that might appear in a nonfiction text. Morris writes that the teacher should choose any nonfiction text and show the students the title and the cover before asking them what words they think will appear in the book. The student then writes down 7 words they think will appear on a flower-shaped piece of bubble wrap (7 circles). As the teacher reads the book, the students will listen for their words and after reading, they get to pop the bubbles of the words they thought might be in the text.

I don’t think I will use bubble wrap when I use this strategy — have you ever tried to cut bubble wrap? — but I like that the bubble wrap gives the students something to do if any of the words they thought would be in the text are actually in the text. Since I’m currently teaching ELLs, I would have to read a pretty basic text so the students would be able to correctly predict words in the text.

Honorable Mention: Word Passports

One of my favorite things about English is the words we’ve adopted from other languages. I love to tell my students that words they thought are English are actually not. This strategy has students make a passport for a word that has come into English from another language. The passports would include all of the information passports include.

I don’t think I’ll use this strategy because I don’t think it’s the best way for exploring words English has imported from other languages (I think it’s too much work for one word), but I appreciate how it brings these words to the students’ attention. To introduce the idea of these imported words, I like to use an activity I once saw in Reader’s Digest that requires matching 30 words to the various languages they belong to. Many of the words are unfamiliar to students, but when I show them a picture of the word, they’re often able to correctly guess the language the word belongs to.

What I like most about all the strategies is that they allow students to explore language and have some fun with it and remind us teachers that learning should be fun!

What are some engaging vocabulary strategies you’ve used? Please share your favorites in the comments.

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