Effective Vocabulary Practices & 10 Ways We Fake It

Words Words WordsDespite all that we know about effective vocabulary instruction, vocabulary practices are often sorely outdated. Principals, coaches, and teachers need to be aware of and recognize effective vocabulary practices.

The only problem is that sometimes what looks effective really isn’t. At all. In fact, some practices can be downright harmful for word learning.

I’ve put together a list of 10 ways to spot fake vocabulary practices. I’ve added my thoughts following each practice. I’d love to hear your own.

1. Dictionaries are King

Students regularly copy a list of 10, 15, or 20 (any number will do) words displayed on a whiteboard or Smart Board. Then they independently look up said list of words in dictionaries and copy down a definition.

Better yet, words are posted on a class blog or class website. Process above is mimicked simply using online dictionaries and recording definitions in an online journal. That improves the outcome. A lot.

Thoughts: Dictionaries serve a purpose which can’t be argued; however, this type of (dreadfully dull) activity is certain to turn students off to word learning. And, quite frequently, because of the nature of how definitions are written, dictionaries don’t always help students understand a word’s meaning. As described above, this activity is much more about copying – not word learning.

Instructional practices in which a target word is read in context, defined, and then translated into kid-friendly terms is much more effective. Students can even record their personalized definitions in a print or online journal as Bob Marzano suggests.

2. Weekly Vocabulary Quizzes

Students are quizzed over the newest {insert # here} words every {insert day here}. Then words mysteriously disappear. Poof. Never to be seen again.

Thoughts: This type of appear/disappear word activity is one of the reasons why students don’t move words from short- to long-term memory. “Disappearing act” practices fly in the face of effective word learning. Key to meaningful instruction is providing multiple exposures to words. Word learning is largely shaped through many exposures to words in varied contexts.

3. Extensive Word Lists 

Since learning academic vocabulary is so important, extensive word lists accompany every content unit or chapter in a novel study. You know, in the range of 30 – 50 words.

Thoughts: Building academic vocabulary is important and should be a part of a comprehensive literacy framework. However, requiring that students learn long lists of technical, academic vocabulary for each unit isn’t necessary or prudent.

Rather, divide words into three tiers – an organizational framework for categorizing words developed by Isabel Beck and Margaret McKeown.

Tier One words are basic, everyday words that are a part of most students’ vocabulary. (Examples: house, mother, fun, sit) While most students will be familiar with these words, they are especially important for English language learners who may not be familiar with them.

Tier Two words are high-frequency words that appear in various contexts and all types of texts. (Examples: justify, explain, expand, predict, summarize) They appear more frequently in written texts than in everyday speech. Beck suggests focusing instruction on Tier Two vocabulary.

Tier Three words are low frequency, domain-specific vocabulary. (Examples: isotope, carcinogens, mitosis, lithosphere)  Tier Three includes specialized words that appear in specific fields or content areas. Front-loading vocabulary and creating glossaries of terms are appropriate strategies for Tier Three words.

4. Matching Sections on every Assessment

Most assessments include a matching section made up of vocabulary terms and their definitions. If students become aware that matching sections are the only way they’ll be assessed on word knowledge, they won’t become engaged in word learning or take it seriously. Waiting until the last minute to memorize {insert any # here} words just long enough to match them with a definition will be good enough.

And good enough is not really good enough.

Thoughts: If the goal is for students to have a cursory knowledge of words and memorize definitions that last approximately the length of the test, then matching sections are definitely the way to go. If the goal is anything other than memorization (as well it should be), then vocabulary “seek-and-find-the-best-match” needs to disappear.

5. Word Searches

Students complete word searches in the guise of reinforcing word learning and vocabulary. Every week. They’re so useful – a way to practice new vocabulary and reinforce spelling all in one. Kids love them (ask any ADHD kid how much they love them).

Thoughts: Stop Word Searches. Right now. Really.

Word Searches don’t serve any productive purpose. Finding words backward, forward, upside down, or diagonally does not reinforce word learning or spelling. And word searches are downright frustrating for many students. There are many ways to provide multiple exposures to words. Word searches just don’t happen to be one of them.

(Singular exception to ban: If your great Aunt Martha really loves them, go buy her a giant book of large-print Word Searches at the Dollar Store. They have a great selection.)

6. Word WallsWord Wall

Word walls abound. Displayed on one word wall are the top 100 high frequency words for 3rd grade students. In another classroom, Science vocabulary – organized by topics – is prominently displayed.

Large font – check. Readable – check. Words matched to the standards – check. Color coded. Check. Check. Check. You get the idea.

And the same well-constructed word walls look EXACTLY the same on September 1st as  June 1st.

“Houston, we have a problem.”

Thoughts: Make no mistake. I’m a huge fan of word walls. They’re an integral part of a literacy-rich environment and can support word learning for early literacy learners as well as students in advanced biology. On the other hand, word walls can also be giant foolers. For example, word walls can be constructed meeting all the best-practice guidelines and serve a useful purpose. However, if the words never change or aren’t updated frequently, they simply become part of the landscape. Students look right past them and they cease to serve any educational purpose.

On the other hand, there are many ways to construct content-rich, interactive words walls and you can check out the 28 tips and 7 pictures in Top Tips for Word Walls.

7. Sticky Notes Stuck Everywhere

When engaging in independent reading, students place sticky-notes on each page where they find new, unknown words. Then, students follow a specific process which includes looking up new words, writing the definition, a synonym, antonym, and so on and on and on….

Thoughts: While this strategy seems harmless, it can quickly turn into a great way to kill the love of reading and vocabulary all in one. Prescribing that students always perform a specific task when reading is cumbersome, unnatural, and can get in the way of comprehension and reading enjoyment.

8. Writing Sentences with New Vocabulary

Every week students write sentences using new vocabulary words within each sentence. Correct spelling. Correct punctuation. New words used correctly (of course).

As a bonus, students can work with a partner. Great – two students working together to write sentences that make no sense.

Thoughts:  Language and word knowledge grow from oral competence to written competence. Until students “own” a word and it becomes a part of their expressive vocabulary, they typically can’t use those words correctly when they speak and write. Gaining proficiency comes through hearing words multiple times in many different contexts. Reading aloud, exploring word associations, and playing games with words help students gain familiarity with new words.

In short, requiring students to use words in sentences before they really understand a word’s meaning and the nuances associated with it is an exercise in futility.

9. Worksheets

Use Vocabulary Tools Like These Sparingly

Use Vocabulary Tools Like These Sparingly

Teachers use a wide repertoire of linguistic-based vocabulary strategies to teach vocabulary. Synonyms. Antonyms. Personalized definition. Check. Check. Check.

Similar to the worksheet pictured here, students then complete worksheets to help them learn new words.

Thoughts: While this isn’t really a “fake” practice, it’s simply limited. Both linguistic and nonlinguistic strategies should be part of a balanced approach to vocabulary instruction.

Marzano’s research clearly shows that nonlinguistic strategies have a sticky factor. Nonlinguistic strategies include drawing pictograms, pantomimes, skits, small bodily images representing words, and such. When students create nonlinguistic representations of words, not only do they become engaged in word learning, they also remember words better.

And, while the type of worksheet shown here can help students think about words in a deeper sense, too much of a good thing can quickly become a bad thing.

10. Digital Vocabulary Tools

Math Dictionary

Math Dictionary for Kids

Since there is a wide assortment of online vocabulary tools that are both engaging and support word learning, all vocabulary activities are now online, independent activities.

Thoughts: While there are many excellent digital tools that support literacy and word learning, direct instruction is still necessary. The key to effective vocabulary instruction lies in multiple exposures to words. Digital tools should be part of a balanced vocabulary framework and can be especially useful as quick reference tools, games for reviewing words, and playing with words through tools such as Wordle and Tagxedo.

Final Thoughts

Another title of this post could be Vocabulary Practices that Kill the Love of Words. Helping students build a broad vocabulary is one of the most important tasks we can do. A rich vocabulary allows students to become more fluent, comprehend text at higher levels, and impacts overall student achievement.

Effective vocabulary instruction calls for teachers who love words and engage in practices that are varied and emerge from best practices for word learning.

Let’s make certain we help teachers build a toolkit of vocabulary strategies and resources so that they can effectively teach vocabulary and their content area.

What do you think? Add to the discussion in the comments.

Vocab Button





Tweet this post or Pin It to your favorite board.


Recent Vocabulary Posts:


The following two tabs change content below.


Kimberly has been a teacher, administrator, and literacy consultant who worked in districts across the country to improve student literacy achievement. She currently serves as an Educational Specialist with Solution Tree and project manager for large-scale PLC implementations. Her new book, Blended Vocabulary: Harnessing the Power of Digital Tools and Effective Instruction, was recently released in February, 2017.