Vocabulary Acquisition Strategies: What Will Work in Your Classroom

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One of the biggest struggles in every classroom is making sure students have the appropriate vocabulary skills to succeed with both general and content-specific tasks. If a child knows and understands the concepts of mass, gravity, and acceleration, but doesn't understand what the words "compare" or "contrast" mean, they won't be able to tackle questions that gauge their understanding of these topics.

Vocabulary acquisition strategies are useful across content areas, and help students build deep, meaningful learning structures whereby they can learn, utilize, and even play with new terms. An LMS can be a vital tool in your classroom for executing these vocabulary strategies, which are presented here based on Robert Marzano and Julia Simms' Vocabulary for the Common Core text.

The Path to Vocabulary Acquisition and Retention

Handing students a list of vocabulary words and definitions is the start of their journey to vocabulary acquisition. However, the path includes several more steps in order to ensure that the vocabulary word is embedded into the student's long-term, working memory. It can take up to seventeen exposures to a new word for automaticity to be built in the student's brain for quick definition retrieval. Providing definitions and examples of the new term is just the start.

Use Categories to Separate Types of Words

A dictionary definition alone is not enough for most students to remember what a word means, or how exactly it is used in the context of a sentence. Our brains are wired to naturally divide things into categories for ease of memorization, so why not do the same with vocabulary terms? Here are some common categories that you could use to categorize new vocabulary words based on their definition:

  • people (narrator, protagonist, author)
  • events (War of 1812, Invasion of Normandy)
  • artistic or intellectual products (collage, thesis statement)
  • shapes/directions/position (coordinates, plane, x and y axis)
  • quantities/amounts/measurements (grams, temperature)

If a school used an LMS to codify and distribute a set template of categories, then teachers would be able to use the same terminology when teaching new terms. Even better, a set vocabulary template or vocabulary notebook could be created to be used and shared among an entire staff. Imagine if students knew how to define new words in the same manner across all subject areas? This allows staff to work smarter, not harder.

Have Students Restate the Definition or Example Using Their Own Words

When students are able to process a definition, part of the long-term coding in their brains happens when they are able to take ownership of new words. By using a vocabulary notebook or vocabulary template, students can see the category of the new term and the dictionary definition, and then also have room to put the definition or example in their own words. By using an LMS, these templates can be created and shared across content areas, adding and deleting sections as needed for the set of terms.

Create, Create, Create!

An additional building block in language acquisition is to create an image in the brain of the term. Even if students are not budding artists, they can still draw a symbol or image that reminds them of the unfamiliar term. For example, if the new vocabulary term is "protagonist," a vocabulary template or notebook could look like this:

CATEGORY: PEOPLE

  1. protagonist

dictionary definition: lead character in a play, movie, novel, or text

in my own words: the most important person in the story

picture: (picture of main character from novel being read in class)

For students that feel like they are "artistically challenged" and can't think of a drawing to create, this is a great opportunity to employ a cooperative learning strategy where students can show their classmates what they've created—which can often ignite a creative spark!

Use the Terms in Class

Vocabulary does not exist in a vacuum—it needs to be used often, both verbally and in written form, for students to make these new connections. If you give a vocabulary assignment, check that it's finished, and then move on, students will likely forget the terms. Make it a point to keep the terms current in your instruction, re-visiting the terms from time to time to check for understanding.

Then, Have Students Use the Terms in Class

A quick think/pair/share activity that will get a lot of bang for your buck is to have students discuss a topic or concept, making sure that they use X amount of their new vocabulary words in their conversation. This requires careful monitoring by the instructor, who needs to see if students are using the terms in the correct manner and not just peppering them into the conversation to check off the requirements. A quick modeling activity by the instructor is useful for this strategy.

Play Games!

Playing games in class as review helps keep vocabulary instruction fun! It's a great review tool that can often be used as a fun, cooperative learning activity as well. Using an online "live" vocabulary template, you can have teams compete in real time to remember the new definitions and race against the clock. Even older students get lost in the spirit of competition, and look forward to the break in instruction, even though they are still learning and reviewing!

Often, vocabulary instruction is seen as the ELA teacher's responsibility, but every teacher will see student gains when they are able to incorporate vocabulary strategies into their classroom.


Alexis R.

Alexis R.

Buffalo, New York, United States

Alexis is a high school English teacher with 17 years experience, has several "Teacher of the Year" awards at both the local and state level, and is currently department chair in her district. She is also an avid traveler, and runs an international travel group within her dist...

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