5 Better Ways to Teach Vocabulary


How you teach vocabulary can determine how much your student retains. Try these five strategies to improve their retention!

5 Better Ways to Teach Vocabulary

Most of us are probably familiar with the traditional vocabulary instruction procedure that entails copying definitions for a weekly list of words, worksheet-type activities to demonstrate learning the words, and taking a test. We’re also familiar with the big downside to traditional vocabulary instruction, which is to say that after that weekly test, the words are quickly forgotten.

There are better ways to approach vocabulary instruction. In fact, I’ve got five approaches to share with you to teach vocabulary in your homeschool, and each of these methods is rooted in the science of learning, so learners will experience better retention of new words.

Teach Vocabulary in a Way They’ll Understand

1 – Draw a picture of the vocabulary word.

As students are learning a new word, have them draw a picture that illustrates the word’s meaning. Drawing is a powerful memory tool because it engages the brain in many ways.

A learner who draws a picture has to build enough understanding of the concept to organize it, engage with it visually and spatially, and then use motor skills in a deliberate way to make a vision of the concept appear on paper. That’s so much more meaningful for the brain than simply copying definitions out of a dictionary.

2 – Teach word parts.

Instead of teaching a list of words just because they all appear in a novel that’s going to be read or because they’re the next 20 words on a list, it makes a lot of sense to teach a word part – a root, suffix, or affix.

A majority of the vocabulary in our language comes from Latin, Greek, and French, and word parts from those languages have consistent meanings. A child who knows that hydro means “water” and that pathy can mean “treatment for disease” can get very close to knowing that hydropathy means “a treatment for disease using large amounts of water” without needing to access a dictionary.

3 – Teach synonyms and connotation.

It’s easy to have kids copy definitions from the dictionary, but there’s so much more to words than denotation.

Giddy is a synonym for happy, but would it really be the right word to describe an old man with a tough exterior who is opening a Christmas card from his faraway family?

Bereaved is a synonym for sad, but is it really the right word to describe a child who just misspelled a word in the class spelling bee?

It’s worth teaching word lists built around synonyms and having conversations about the intricacies of words. 

4 – Teach vocabulary before reading.

Comprehension relies on background knowledge. If a non-fiction passage kids will encounter during history or science reading contains terminology that kids haven’t encountered yet, get ahead of helping their comprehension by building up their knowledge of unfamiliar words and ideas beforehand.

5 – Use analogies.

Analogies are such a great mental workout, and they’re useful for helping us see the relationships between words. When kids are getting started with analogies, it can be useful to keep a list of types of analogies close by to use as a reference. Talk through the answers to analogies and encourage kids to look up any words they encounter that they don’t know.

Maggie Martin

About the author

Hi, I’m Maggie. In a former life, I was a high school English teacher, and now I’m a homeschooling mama to my twins. I love sharing my insights about helping kids become excellent readers and writers, what’s working in our homeschool, and the joys and challenges of a homeschooling lifestyle.

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