Teaching vocabulary—integrated into a text or isolation can be tricky when it comes to thinking of engaging ways to create meaning.  We fall back on the old “write a sentence that shows the meaning of the word” assignment. But we all know that when students are developing an understanding of a word, they often fail to show the meaning of the word or use it as the wrong part of speech. This only strengthens an incorrect understanding of the word’s use.  Here are three ways to have the students create meaning for themselves that develops lasting memory aids for them: 


  1. One of these things is not like the other: Many of us know the song with this title from Sesame Street where children are presented with four things and they have to determine which “doesn’t belong.” Here is an example from the show in case you or your students don’t know this game. In the context of vocabulary acquisition, you present the students with a group of four or five vocabulary words. They have to determine which word doesn’t belong as well as provide a detailed example of why it is the outlier using knowledge of the definitions and parts of speech.
  2. Six degrees of separation (otherwise known as the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon): Using the idea that all people are six or fewer social connections away from each other, students will have to create connections and provide explanations for getting from the first word to the final word. You present the student with a beginning vocabulary word and an ending word.  They have to use the other vocabulary words to create those connections to link the first word to the final word in fewer than six vocabulary words. Students could use parts of speech, categories based on definition, language of origin, or anything else they see as a pattern. 
  3. Shared Characteristics: I think of this as creating mini-Venn diagrams for word pairs. Students would partner words and then in the middle of the paper, create a mini-Venn Diagram, in which they list shared characteristics between the two words and then in the outer parts list how the words differ. If you want to increase the difficulty, students could have to then link a “differences” part of the Venn diagram to another word, making a Venn diagram chain, if you will. 


The reason I love these activities is because the students ALWAYS think of ways to connect words that I never did. There is no “right” answer. It all depends on relationships between words that each student sees, which then makes it meaningful to them. When sharing their ideas, these activities spark really intelligent conversations among the students that require them to be able to defend their choices. This past year, I used the first activity on a cumulative, 100-word vocabulary test and was blown away by the students’ understanding of the words. I do not doubt that these activities created memorable ways for students to not just recall words for a test or quiz, but plant them in their long-term memory which is what we as teachers of language want.