The wide world of the internet has gifted us many vocabulary programs, such as Quizlet, Memrise, and Vocabulary.com. They’re a great starting point for the initial stages of learning new words. These programs provide repetition and interleaved practice of word and definition knowledge to help learners be comfortable with new words.
However, learning words and their definitions is only the beginning of mastering vocabulary. Learners also need to be able to understand the nuances of a word’s connotation, the situations where a word is likely and not likely to be used, how a word may be used within figurative language. Most of all, students need to integrate those words within their own writing, using the words appropriately in context and adjusting affixes as needed.
I divide my vocabulary units into three different phases of word knowledge so that students can move from basic word and definition knowledge to a higher mastery of the word:
- Level 1: Learning the meaning. Although this may be the lowest DOK level, familiarity with definitions provides fluency in thought. It’s easier to help students make connections between words when they already have a sense of the meaning.
- Level 2: Creating deeper connections. Students need to understand the different connotations of words and how certain words are more appropriate in certain situations. For example, consider the pair of words “harbinger” and “omen.” They have similar definitions, but “omen” is certainly darker. To appropriately use these two words in their own communication, students need to understand these differences of connotations.
- Level 3: Using new words orally and in writing. If students can use vocabulary words appropriately in their own writing and speaking, the likelihood of retention is far greater.
Practical examples of using edtech to successfully teach vocabulary
In each level, I use playful activities that make vocabulary learning more engaging for my students. Below are a couple of activities that I use for each of these levels.
Level 1 Activities
The internet abounds with programs that teach level 1 knowledge of vocabulary words, but here are some ways you can help students rise to higher echelons of vocabulary mastery.
PearDeck’s Flashcard Factory: Available in the FREE version of PearDeck, the Flashcard Factory pairs up students to create flashcards for vocabulary words assigned by the teacher. One student writes a definition or example of the word, and the other student draws an image to correlate. At the end of the activity, the teacher reveals the completed flashcards to the entire class. With the class input, teachers can approve or delete flashcards. Finally, the flashcards can be exported to Quizlet for students to study on their own. Not only are students learning the definitions, but they’re talking through the meanings with a partner and using drawing to cement their knowledge.
Quizlet Live: In this popular activity from Quizlet, students are divided into groups of three or four. Each student on the team then sees 3-4 vocabulary words on their screen — words that they alone are responsible for since no one else on the team has these words. The entire team is then presented with a definition, and the team needs to communicate to decide who has the correct word. If they miss, the team score resets to zero. Quizlet Live emphasizes conversation and collaboration while it helps students learn definitions to vocabulary words.
Level 2 Activities
Once students have some knowledge of the basic definitions, it’s time to guide them to a deeper understanding of the words. Students make connections with images and identify the connotations related to words. Consider using or modifying these activities:
Padlet Vocab Gallery: Students find real life images and gifs to represent vocabulary words in a Padlet Vocab Gallery. I set up a Padlet page by making a column for each vocabulary word; I follow this up by adding a few examples to demonstrate what I want students to do: 1) find an image that demonstrates that word and 2) explain it using the vocabulary word. Not only does this help students make connections with the word, but it’s a great formative assessment for spotting where students aren’t fully grasping the subtle meanings of words or where they’re struggling with correct usage.
|Word type||Noun||Noun||Verb||Verb||Noun & verb||Adjective|
|Short definition||A short true story||A hardship||A compliment||To imitate; to be like someone||To try hard to achieve a goal||Hard working & detailed|
|Related to PE class||A humorous story the coach told||Trying to run a mile without stopping||Coach telling you good work in weight lifting||Adopting the training routine of a top runner||Striving to run a mile under six minutes||Tracking your speed improvements in the mile|
|Related to Thoreau’s Walden||Thoreau writes anecdotes about ants||Thoreau must often deal with adversity of weather||Walden should be commended for surviving in the forest alone||Some people emulate Thoreau and live off the grid today||Thoreau endeavored to raise his own food||Thoreau was diligent about writing regularly|
Vocab Matrix: Matrices can be powerful tools to show connections between words or encourage critical thinking. I usually provide students an empty matrix with only the labels, and I allow them to work alone or with a small group to complete the matrix. This activity encourages students to connect the words to a single topic, such as PE class or Thoreau’s Walden, to not only reinforce meanings but also developing flexibility of word usage.
Level 3 Activities
In the final days of a vocabulary unit, I focus on using the word appropriately in writing. Here are two more ways to integrate technology when working on this higher-level skill.
Refrigerator Poetry: Google Slides is one of my favorite tools, and it’s a brilliant way to create virtual magnetic poetry. I use several text boxes to create nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, and of course, vocabulary words. (At this stage, I focus on vocabulary words that students have struggled with most in prior activities). Then, I copy and paste the slide so there is one for each student. (Another alternative is using Google Classroom to make a copy of the Slides file for each student). I ask students to use each of the vocabulary words correctly in a sentence; for higher ability students, I challenge them to use multiple vocabulary words correctly in a sentence. This playful activity is a fun alternative to traditional sentence writing and allows teachers to check student work in progress and assist on-the-spot if students aren’t using the words correctly or need subtle adjustments.
Musical Chair Writing: This is a collaborative writing activity based on the Musical Chairs game — except that no one is ever out. Using the writing app of your choice (I used Padlet above, but a basic Google Doc can work as well), students begin a short story. To help them, I provide one or two images for inspiration. After 90 seconds, students then select a vocabulary word at random (I write the words on index cards, move to a classmate’s computer, and then continue the story on that computer, including using the vocabulary word selected. After a few cycles, students return to their original story and add a conclusion. To conclude, students can read their stories aloud. If using an app such as Padlet or Google Slides, where all the stories are available, students can peruse other stories as well.
While learning the definitions of words is important, what is more important is for students to develop a deeper understanding of the connotations and usages of vocabulary words. Lucky for us, edtech provides us fun and easy ways for students to make real-world connections to words and opportunities to practice using the words. Take any of these activities, modify them to your needs, or with a little creativity, generate your own new activities that will deepen your students’ word knowledge.
Melissa teaches 11-12 English/Language Arts in Nebraska, including dual credit classes in composition. She’s an advocate for game-based, blended, and experiential learning, and she consistently works to create authentic and engaging learning experiences. As an ELA teacher, she’s also passionate about improving reading, writing, and vocabulary practices in the classroom. Follow her on Twitter @mpilakow and join her on Thursday nights as she moderates the #games4ed chat. You can also check out her blog at technologypursuit.edublogs.org