Mrs. Toller Teaches Vocabulary

One of the things I complained about teaching the most in America was vocabulary. While I agree it’s important to have a big and high-level vocabulary, I never had to go through much effort to learn the words myself. I was “blessed” with a mother who consistently uses “High Vocab” or “Tier 2” words, even when simple words would easily suffice. (I even wrote an essay about this phenomenon.)

The most important facet of her vocabulary instruction was the fact that she used the words in context, and over time I was able to learn what those words meant. (Even if it took years to learn nonplussed and I still hate the word).

The main problem with my American vocabulary instruction was that we were forced to teach lists of words that had absolutely nothing to do with what we were learning and also were in no way connected to each other. These lists contained words like Adverse and Agile or Retrogress and Tepid. In an effort to seek to make them relevant and not just have them learn lists of words–which is no doubt easier, even though I strongly believe it’s less meaningful–I made my students incorporate the words into their journal entries on a topic related to what we were learning. It was an idea I developed based on my experiences writing.

For example, a typical journal entry looked like this:

The students did far better on the journal entries than they did on the traditional vocab test I first employed, but I still felt as if vocabulary instruction was lacking. They didn’t get quite enough practice or interactions with the words.

Coming to New Zealand, I did not expect to find vocabulary waiting for me. But, as most things with New Zealand have turned out to be, vocabulary instruction here is, in my humble opinion way better, and not just because it’s Kiwi.

The thing about the vocabulary instruction here is that students are involved in all aspects of learning high vocabulary words. The strategy was pulled from these two books:


While I still am learning exactly what this vocabulary instruction entails (I really have to read the book), this is what I have gathered so far.

First of all, students are heavily involved in selecting words that they believe should be labeled as high vocabulary words that they would like to learn. Not only are they pulling this from previews of what they are about to read and articles they come across in class or that the teacher gives them, but they even bring in words that they have come across at home. While this last part may be difficult to get the average or below average student to engage it, setting the practice for students to acknowledge words they don’t know instead of practicing the age-old “If you don’t know it, skip over it and just use context clues to fill in the holes,” is definitely worthwhile to build a bigger and better vocabulary.

Students are also tasked with making the words more meaningful. Not only are these words inherently meaningful because the students pulled them out of texts they need to understand or conversations they have had in life, but one of the standards for students’ writing is to incorporate high-level vocabulary words. So, in each piece a student writes, they must include some of their ever-growing selection of high-vocab words. The more they use correctly, the higher they score, so students generally try to get practicing using these vocabulary words in order to score better, and after all, isn’t the point of teaching vocabulary to have students use the words?

Additionally, vocabulary instruction isn’t simply seen as running through a PowerPoint of vocabulary words with the definition and what not. While that has its place, the teachers here aren’t afraid of playing games. It’s not seen as a waste of time because when the students are actively playing the game, they are learning without even knowing it, and while it may seem “easy” they are engaged with their learning rather than being unengaged by not paying attention or not doing the vocab work assigned to them.

Some examples of activities teachers use to reinforce vocabulary instruction are:

  • Playing “Would You Rather” using the vocabulary words. (i.e. Would you rather be seen a furtive or merciless?) And having students explain their choices.
  • Playing the game where you put a vocabulary word on your head and walk around the classroom, and other classmates can give you three hints about what the word means.
  • Playing the game where someone treats you like the word on your forehead (assuming all of the words are nouns and adjectives).
  • Playing fishbowl with the vocabulary words.
  • Building a Kahoot! where students must ask questions to which the answer is the vocabulary word. (And it’s not just definition questions.)
  • Looking up newspaper articles where the vocabulary word could have come into play or could be used to describe some aspect of the story. (i.e. Find a news story where sabotage comes into play.)

Are these activities fun? Yes. Would you expect to play them in school? No. Do they engage students in learning the meanings and connotations of vocabulary words and not simply zoning out of class? Yes.


Should I be forced to teach vocabulary in the future–because as cool as this is, I still hate the idea of teaching vocabulary, so yes, I would have to be forced–I think I will definitely employ some of these techniques.


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