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Teaching vocabulary: 12 activity ideas and the benefits it brings to pupils

Vocabulary is one place where we never stop learning. Interacting with the world, speaking to people and enjoying new experiences often brings new words that broaden our vocabulary.

While children will pick up the majority of their vocabulary implicitly from their everyday experiences, explicitly teaching them some new vocabulary can have a range of benefits that will influence the whole of their education.

In this article we’ll offer a range of vocabulary activity ideas, plus list some of the benefits of using them in schools.


1. Vocabulary photo album

This cute idea sees each child given a photo album and encouraged to fill it with pictures and other images that relate to new words they’ve learned. It’ll be like their own glossary, but much more colourful, creative and personal to their expanding vocabulary.


2. Root word map

This is a great way to teach children how words to relate to one another. Take a root word, or some other common component across many words. Create a word map or tree, with the root at the centre, before branching out with other words that use the same root. Take “act”, which can soon become actor, acting and then re-enact.


3. Word wheel

To us teachers, the ‘word wheel’ will look a little like a Wheel of Fortune style vocabulary game. Divide a wheel of card into different sections and label them with a different activity. Examples include “Act it out”, “Draw it” and “Say a synonym”.

Pick a word and have a pupil spin the wheel. They then have to do whatever it lands on in relation to the chosen word.


4. Use context clues

In this activity, the teacher reads out a sentence or group of sentences with new words hidden within them. Pupils are then tasked with going away, possibly in pairs or groups, to decipher the meaning of those new words based on the context of the entire sentence.

This is a great activity for reinforcing the meaning of new words, rather than just its makeup. That way, they’re more likely to remember it in the long-term.


5. Word square

Create a small square and add two related word pairings. One pair sit on opposite sides of the square (say big and small) and the other sit on opposite each other at the top and bottom (e.g. thin and wide). Make sure the words are on the outside of the box.

Take a word that’s related to all the chosen terms (in our example it could be hefty) and task your pupils with placing it depending on how strongly it relates to those words. In our example, hefty would be placed in the corner where big and wide meet.


6. Stop the bus

This fun, fast activity will get the competitive juices flowing in your pupils. Split them into small groups and hand each group a worksheet with a letter and several categories. Shout out a letter and each team must write a word under each category that begins with that word.


Examples include:

  • An animal
  • A colour
  • A sport

Or for higher learners

  • Something you’d find in school
  • An emotion
  • A country


Once a team has filled out every category, they shout “stop the bus!”.


7. Heads up

You might have played this one with your smartphone at Christmas with the family or your friends accompanied by a bottle of wine at games night.

Write out a word onto a piece of card. Ask a pupil to dip their hand into a hat full of cards and pick one out, being careful not to look at what it is. The pupil then holds the card on their forehead so the rest of the class can see the word. The class then have to describe what it means (without saying it directly!) and the player has to guess what it is.

With this game, it’s all about reinforcing existing vocabulary and making sure your pupils know the meaning of new words they are learning.


8. Snake

Ask for some volunteers to the front and give each of them a different coloured pen. Write a letter on the board and the game begins. Whoever goes first must write a word on the board beginning with that letter. The next player than writes a word next to it that begins with the last letter of the previous word.

The game continues until someone hesitates or repeats a word, when that player is then replaced by someone else on their team. By the end you should have long, colourful word snake.


9. Suggest some school D.E.A.R time

This one requires some buy in from across the school, but the use D.E.A.R time could the key to enhancing vocabulary across the school. Standing for Drop Everything A Read, D.E.A.R time means that literally everyone across the school does exactly that.

It’s a big commitment but considering the value and importance of reading to children, it could be a big step to developing vocabularies across the board.


10. Share experiences from reading

It’s not enough to just do it, though. After those reading sessions, take the time to discuss any new vocabulary that pupils came across. Do they know what it means? Could they name any synonyms?

Reading is important for children to be exposed to new vocabulary or grammatical structures, and they could take what they’ve learned and teach the rest of the class too.


11. Image analysis

Take a word and do a simple Google image search. Take a few of the images and show them to the class – what connects these three images? What words would you use to describe them?

For example, if you were to Google “sweltering”, you’d no doubt find images of people looking especially hot. It might also lead the class to discover other new related words like “scorching” or “stifling”.


12. Traditional word games

Aside from Heads up in point 8, there are plenty of other traditional word-related games that can be used in the classroom. Examples include Taboo and Balderdash – or you could go for a spin on the classic game of Bingo.

Give each child a sheet filled with words in the style of a traditional Bingo card. Call out the meaning of one of the words, and pupils must cross it off if they have it on their card. First to cross off all their words shouts – Bingo!


The three tiers of vocabulary

Now you’ve got plenty of ideas of teaching vocabulary in the classroom – what words should you choose? As a teacher, you know the level of your class the best, but it’s always useful to consider the three established tiers of vocabulary.


Tier 1

Tier two words are the most basic level of vocabulary we use. Simple terms like “book”, “dog” and “phone”. They are the names of things and will almost certainly be picked up in everyday life without the need to explicitly teach them. Broadly speaking, you won’t need to incorporate tier 1 words into your vocabulary activities.


Tier 2

Tier 2 words are used to express ideas, contain multiple meanings or apply across many different environments. They’re a great way of judging a child’s language progression, as words in this tier will often be used in adult conversation – meaning you might wish to add them into your vocabulary-based activities.

Tier 2 examples include “formulate”, “hypothesis”, “measure” and “masterpiece”.


Tier 3

Tier 3 words are domain specific, applying to only one area and therefore used much less frequently than tier 1 or 2 words. Domains might include school subjects, technology, weather etc. Examples include “etymology” or “psychology”.

Some of these terms might also apply to tier 2, if they have other contexts they apply to. For example, substitute is a mathematical term (tier 3) but also has an alternative meaning (tier 2).


Benefits of teaching vocabulary in school

If pupils are picking up new vocabulary all the time from their everyday experiences – what is the use of teaching them more in school? Here are just a few of the benefits to taking the time to teach vocabulary in the classroom.


More success in class

The 2018 Oxford Language Report details not only the widening word gap in schools, but also the negative impacts of not focusing on vocabulary growth in schools. When surveyed on the issue, secondary school teachers believe a pupil’s academic achievement is impacted in the following ways by the word gap:


  • Difficulty working independently – 75%
  • Difficulty following what is going on in class – 77%
  • Worse results in National Tests – 79%
  • Slower than expected progress in English – 91%
  • Slower than expected progress in other subjects – 85%


You can find plenty more information, including case studies and other results from the survey in the Oxford Language Report.


Deeper understanding

The relationship between vocabulary and comprehension is well established. The more words your pupils know, and the deeper understanding they have of them, the better understanding they will have of the subjects being taught to them.

That’s why it’s so important to consider vocabulary teaching to be more than just memorising words. Understanding their meaning breeds comprehension when used in class.


Better expression

Nothing is more expressive than the English language. Get a handle of the many thousands of words that make up our lexicon, and you’ll be better equipped to express your thoughts, feelings, emotions and intentions. Unlock a child’s imagination and empower them by broadening their vocabulary.

<a href="" target="_self">William Hinch</a>

William Hinch

Hope Education writer

Will has been writing for Hope Education since July 2020, helping provide teachers with tips, advice and insight that helps them educate the next generation. Away from his educational writing, Will is a typical Yorkshireman; a lover of ale, cricket and tea!

13 October 2020

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