Teaching Vocab to Struggling High School Students

Ideas on how to teach vocabulary to secondary students who struggle. How to pace instruction, engage students, and increase retention. Perfect for standard and special education classes.

The absolute best way for people to learn vocabulary is through natural and repeated exposure: both in conversation and reading. However, I know many of my students are not hearing higher-level vocabulary with their friends or at home, and I also sadly know their reading is often limited to emojis and Facebook posts.

So we really do need to teach vocabulary in the classroom. For my struggling learners I’ve come up with a few strategies that have returned some positive results. What I’m detailing below will work for just about any level, but it’s most appropriate for standard and special-needs classrooms.

Using Context Clues

I first give out this worksheet for the ten words we’re working on for the week. Each word is given along with the part of speech. I provide a sentence with the word along with an accompanying picture. The picture is not of the word, per-se, but it does go with the sentence. The visual helps the student better identify the context clues in the sentence so they can more easily guess the definition of the word. I’ve found my students more accurately guess at least the connotation if not the definition of the word when I add visuals. Here’s an example:

Vocabulary worksheet from Engagingandeffective.com

Slowly Work Through Each Word Together

The picture above looks a bit small. That’s okay because I’m also projecting it up front. I go over each word with the students together, as a class. We read the word and the sentence, and then I give them a few minutes to guess the definition.

Vocabulary lesson from Engagingandeffective.com

This way students have an opportunity to ask questions about the word, the sentence, or even the picture. Going word by word also helps to keep them engaged. If you give struggling students a worksheet to complete on their own, they sometimes struggle with the first or second one and then decide to give up. This strategy helps prevent that.

Give Students the Definition

I used to have students look up the definitions themselves. I thought it was helping them to become independent. Over the years I’ve encountered multiple problems with this strategy. The biggest one being that students frequently found and wrote down definitions containing words they did not understand. Even when I directed them to a learning dictionary, there were sometimes multiple definitions so half the class found the right one, and the other half did not. Everyone was frustrated and it just wasn’t worth the hassle.

Now, I give the definition right after they attempt the word. We can immediately address any confusion or misunderstanding. Students enjoy the immediate feedback on whether or not their definition guess was correct or not. You can even make it a game and keep track of how many each student gets right. I make sure the definitions I give are simplified and that everyone has the same one. I can also make sure the same definitions, word for word, are on the test.

Here is an example of a slide I put on the front board to give the definitions.
Vocabulary lesson from engagingandeffective.com

Write Original Sentences Together

Right after I give them the definition to write down, I tell them to write out their original sentence. Some begin immediately, some ask for clarification on the word, some ask for help creating a situation where the word would be used. Almost everyone writes out an original sentence with context clues. If I just give the worksheets and allow students to work at their own pace, most don’t finish and some don’t even start. When we do it together I can walk around and talk as they write, point out quick corrections or suggestions, and address the entire class if I see the same mistakes on multiple student papers.

An added advantage to this technique – students openly share about themselves with me and the class. They usually write what they know, so they’ll ask questions about if they can write about this family member, life event, sports team they love, and so on. It’s a great way to connect with the students and build rapport.

Create Quizlets for the Students

I’m all for having students take ownership of their learning, but I’ve found that my struggling students will not study without this little push. Since I’ve included QR codes to pre-made Quizlet word sets on their worksheets, I’ve seen an improvement in study habits. I also really like that if a student finishes something else early, I can always have them quickly open up Quizlet to study their words for the week.

If you have not tried Quizlet yet, you need to. Immediately. The basic version is free. Here’s the link to the set I made for unit one of my vocabulary words for my standard and special education sophomores.

Include a Kahoot Prior to the Test

My students love playing Kahoot. They know we will play each week on Thursday as part of review for the test, and that alone is enough to motivate my competitive students. Kahoot also helps the students do a bit of studying while they are playing. I even let them play a few rounds sometimes since it is only 10 questions. Want to try it out? Click here for the Kahoot I created for this unit.

Reinforce with Word Walls

If I had a nickel for every time I saw a student’s eyes wonder from me to, well, anywhere else in the room, I would have a giant bag of nickels. So post your words on a word wall somewhere in the room. Sure, maybe they’ve checked out of the lesson for a few minutes. But this way they’ll still be learning even if it’s not exactly what you want them to be focused on at the moment.

Vocabulary lesson from engagingandeffective.com

I also use this as a way to encourage students to use the words in class. The perfect opportunity will come up during discussion and I’ll prompt the students by asking which vocab word applies to what we’re discussing. A quick glance at the wall and someone usually comes up with the word. Vocabulary is reinforced and we’re right back to what we were originally discussing.

The example above is printed out on a sheet of paper and hung on a door, wall, board, or where ever I happen to have room. I take them down and replace them each week. If I keep it simple I’m much more likely to keep it up for the year.

Keep the Tests Simple

I’ve seen some fancy vocabulary tests out there and I’ve read the reasoning behind them. I haven’t had much luck with fancy tests with my struggling students, so I’m back to basics.

  1. Matching words to definitions. I do not ask my students to know how to spell the vocabulary words or be able to write out the definitions. Usually the real world won’t anyway. Spell check will help with my poor spellers and in real life situations unfamiliar vocabulary almost always comes with context clues. This is a little bit of multiple-guess, but with ten words students very rarely correctly guess more than one or two correct answers.
  2. Write an original sentence for each word. I don’t even mind if they use the same sentences from their worksheets. If they can remember them, then they have memorized what the word means as well. In fact, it’s awesome if they can memorize their original sentences because then they have likely internalized the word.

That’s it. No surprises. I include fill-in-the-blanks for practice, but I don’t like to use them in tests. It doesn’t seem natural to what they will encounter in the real world. Fill-in-the-blank can also test reading comprehension and background knowledge more than it tests the students’ knowledge of the vocabulary words.

Want to give it a try? Click here for a free sample of Unit One.

Click here for my vocabulary products at Teachers Pay Teachers.

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