Vocabulary Instruction Activity Ideas

Effective vocabulary instruction needs to be structured in such a way that students can connect definitions to their existing knowledge.  Students also need to learn word roots, prefixes and suffixes to help them figure out new words they encounter as well as be exposed to different definitions, synonyms and antonyms.  Instruction should also occur regularly and students should encounter words frequently.  The teacher should model good thinking strategies about a new word as well.  Classifying and grouping objects is also a good strategy for helping students build vocabulary.  Further, students should understand how words relate to each other and go together.  Finally, there needs to be a lot of reading and writing in an effective vocabulary instruction program.


  1. “Which word doesn’t fit.” This is an activity that you can do when students have learned enough words because it can be done as a review activity.  It requires them to remember the definitions, but it also makes them think about how the words go together to find out which one doesn’t belong, and students have to explain their thinking.  This activity can be varied among age groups and ability levels.  I have done this successfully with high school students with significant reading disabilities (and emotional disabilities).  This activity requires some important pre-planning (you can make it as easy or as difficult as you want), but it can encourage some really creative thinking as students try to eliminate words.  Finally, you should never make spelling the thing which eliminates a word–always make it relate to the definition.  Here’s an example:
  2. thwart         censure           impede            disdain
  3. woe            disdain             arbitrary           anxiety

This activity exposes students to words and requires them to figure out how they relate to each other.

  1. “True or False.” Here is an example of an activity where students need to remember the definitions (or they might even have the definitions in front of them) then they have to apply what they know to answer whether the question is true or false.   To make this a little more difficult you could even have students correct the statement if it is false (using another vocabulary word or synonym you’ve discussed already).  I like to use this activity in conjunction with a book or story we are reading to help students relate the words to something meaningful.  The following  examples come from a test I gave on the stories “Dragonsong” and “The Iliad.”

When Menolly lacerated her hand it caused her to grimace in pain.

Menolly was apprehensive about leaving the sea-hold because of the Thread, but she was audacious enough to do it anyway.

The arrival of the new harper at the sea-hold caused a lot of fervor among the girls, even though Elgion was extremely belligerent.

Mavi does a pristine job of dressing Menolly’s wound and Menolly was gratified for it.

Achilles was seething when Agamemnon took away Briseis from him.

Troy was besieged for 12 long years before the cunning Odysseus thought of the Trojan Horse.

In an impetuous act, Achilles dragged Hector’s body around the city which caused Hector’s wife to become implacable.

This activity requires students to relate their knowledge of the words to their unit of study and to decide whether or not the usage is correct.  It also exposes them to the words again in a meaningful way.

  1. “Category” This activity is for when students are first becoming familiar with some new words (and after you’ve already done something like a Frayer Model with them).  You can use any set up which allows students to physically manipulate the words and move them into categories (such as a Smartboard, index cards or post-it notes).  This activity will require you to do some preparation and pre-planning to make the cards and the categories ahead of time.  Each student or small group will have a stack of cards or post-its, and each card will have on it a vocab word or a synonym of that word.  I like to have about 20-25 cards for students to use.  Depending on your unit of study, you could relate the categories to that or you could just give categories that seem to go with the words you’re working on.  Then you name the category and students place the cards into that category; you could even do this part in multiple ways: (post-it notes placed on posters around the room for students who need to move around, place cards in baskets, simply take the index cards out of the pile and make it a separate pile.  But I like to have students pick their cards before going around the room so they aren’t picking all the same cards as other people and avoiding thinking–you could also give every group or student different words so that doesn’t happen).  Here’s an example:  A stack of cards contains the words:  defiant, demure, anxious, elegant, enormous, populous, imaginative, secretive, besiege, impetuous, cunning, apprehensive, implacable, gratified, disdain, arbitrary,  impede, thwart, woe.    For the first category I might say, “Ways you might feel if you had money stolen.”  Students pick their cards and then explain their thinking to their small group or to you.  If those words were in, say, The Tell-tale Heart by Poe, then I might give a category like, “Words that relate to the setting.”  Students will come up with some pretty creative ways to defend their choices.  This activity requires students to think creatively and to see how words relate to each other.