Effective Tips for Teaching Vocabulary in the English Classroom

Effective Tips for Teaching Vocabulary in the English Classroom

Vocabulary is our knowledge of words. Researcher and author Steven Stahl explains it well, "Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition, but also implies how that word fits into the world."

Because vocabulary is essential for reading, writing, critical thinking, speaking, and listening, it’s a key component of the English classroom. Unfortunately, many instructors are unsure how to teach it.  

The classic method of having students memorize lists of words simply isn’t effective. Most often, students cram the required words into their brains, regurgitate them onto the test paper, and promptly forget them.

So how should English teachers provide vocabulary instruction?

The National Reading Panel states that direct instruction of vocabulary and word-learning strategies is highly effective.

As you teach students vocabulary, be sure to teach it in context. Students should have multiple exposures to new vocabulary, and in a variety of authentic texts. Simply telling a student a word once or providing a list with no context does not promote real learning.

There are many research-based methods you can use to directly teach students both vocabulary and word-learning strategies. These include:

  • Creating a word-conscious classroom
  • Morphemic analysis
  • Contextual analysis
  • Graphic representations
  • Word games

Let’s take a closer look at each of these methods and how you can implement them in your classroom.

Creating a Word-Conscious Classroom

To get students engaged in learning new vocabulary, it’s important to create a word-conscious classroom. Word consciousness is defined as “awareness and interest in words and their meaning.” You might also think of it as “word appreciation.”

You can build word consciousness by filling your classroom with a variety of books, displaying a word wall, and demonstrating your own enthusiasm for words. You can require or encourage students to bring in new and interesting vocabulary for the word wall.

Consistently draw students’ attention to unknown words in class. Instead of immediately revealing the definition, discuss possible meanings based on context clues or word roots. Play word games and incorporate visuals to foster enthusiasm about learning vocabulary.

Help students make connections when you teach new words by asking them, “How have you heard this word used before?” or having them connect it to their life experiences and prior knowledge. Ask them about antonyms and synonyms. Model how you use the word in your own life.

Discuss connotation and tone, teaching your students the significance of word choice. For instance, ask your students to identify the tone of a passage and mark words or phrases that helped establish this tone. Then, have students edit the words they’ve marked in order to change the tone of the passage.

Once you’ve converted your students into curious logophiles (word lovers), implementing the other strategies described here will be much easier.

Morphemic Analysis

Morphemic analysis refers to the process of finding a word’s definition by analyzing its meaningful parts, or morphemes. These morphemes include roots, prefixes, and suffixes.

Instruct your students on common morphemes, and practice recognizing and interpreting them in context. When students don’t know a word, see if they can separate it into recognizable morphemes. Morphemic analysis won’t work every time, but it’s much more effective than trying to teach your students thousands of vocabulary words.

In fact, researchers estimate that up to 60% of the new words students will encounter are derived from Greek and Latin roots and affixes. Practicing morphemic analysis can help students decipher unfamiliar words, improving their reading comprehension and performance on major standardized tests.

Contextual Analysis

Contextual analysis is another valuable word-learning strategy to teach your students. Like morphemic analysis, contextual analysis can be easily practiced in class. Help students identify the meaning of unknown words using context clues.

You can also directly teach students about different types of context clues, such as antonym clues, synonym clues, definition clues, and example clues.

An antonym clue, for instance, contrasts the meaning of an unknown word with a more familiar term. Words such as “although,” “however,” and “but” can signal an antonym clue.

Given the sentence, “Tyler was talkative and lively, but his younger sister was taciturn,” students might not recognize the word “taciturn.” However, the word “but” signals that “taciturn” contrasts with “talkative and lively.” Using contextual analysis, students can infer that “taciturn” means reserved or quiet.

Similar to morphemic analysis, contextual analysis is a tool students can use to sharpen their comprehension skills.

Graphic Representation

Not only is graphic representation engaging, but it’s also one of the most effective ways for students to process and learn a word.

Education researchers Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock found that “one of the best ways to learn a new word is to associate an image with it.” And Dr. Ruby Payne, founder of aha! Process Inc., states that if students can’t draw a word, they don’t truly understand it.

Ask students to illustrate new vocabulary words (even students who aren’t the most talented artists). You may want to have students create Frayer Models, a classic graphic organizer used for vocabulary instruction.

There are several variations of the Frayer Model, but they all involve a square with quadrants. Students provide different information about a word in each quadrant, such as its definition, examples, non-examples, and an illustration.

Also called nonlinguistic representations, visual representations can be used to teach students about word nuances as well. Using a paint chip (available for free at most hardware stores), have students identify a continuum of words by writing them in the progression of colored sections.

For instance, one word continuum might progress from “annoyed,” to “aggravated,” to “infuriated,” to “enraged” or “livid.” This is a fun activity that helps students visualize and comprehend varying shades of meaning.

Even presenting visual representations of new words as you introduce them can immensely benefit your students. These visuals can be especially helpful for English language learners and struggling readers.

Word Games

Word play and word games are another fun way to actively engage students in learning vocabulary. This can include riddles, palindromes, puns, figurative language, idioms, and anagrams.

You can also use word games like Scattergories, Scrabble, Catchphrase, Pictionary, or even Charades. A wide variety of word games can be found online as well, often for free.

Other Effective Vocabulary Strategies

  • Ask students to classify words into related groups. For instance, print a list of vocabulary words and cut the individual words into pieces. Ask students to sort the words into groups. There’s no “right” answer here, but students are making connections between words and processing new vocabulary.
  • Give students a list of vocabulary words and ask them to write or act out a short story incorporating all of the words.
  • Encourage your students to use your vocabulary words in casual conversation. After introducing and explaining a word, try simply asking students to talk about the word with a partner.
  • Recommend books that will interest your students to get them reading. Assign independent reading time or projects that allow students to choose a preferred text. The more students read, the more vocabulary they’ll master.


Vocabulary is a pillar of reading comprehension and communication that can’t be ignored in the English classroom.

While the classic method of memorizing word lists is ineffective, there’s plenty English teachers can do to boost student vocabularies.

Foster an interest in words, teach strategies like morphemic and contextual analysis, and incorporate visual representations and word games into your classroom.

In no time, you’ll notice a profound difference in your students’ word knowledge!

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