Learn what works

Actively Engaging Students with Words

Reading widely and often is the single most powerful activity for vocabulary growth. Exposing children to rich oral language experiences is another. However, when a word needs to be taught, there are effective methods that can and should be employed. Research has shown that active student engagement with a word using a variety of methods is best. For this reason, we must use myriad ways to engage students with words and their meanings.

Using Multiple Contexts

Keep in mind that to truly “know” a word is to understand its subtle variations and forms, and to be able to use it in both oral and written language with ease. Vocabulary instruction always begins with the context from the story because it provides a situation that is already familiar to children and provides a rich example of the word’s use. However, it is important to move beyond the context by providing and eliciting multiple examples of the word’s uses. This is important for two reasons, one because multiple contexts are needed for learners to construct a meaningful representation of the word and secondly, without multiple contexts, students have a tendency to limit a word’s use to the context in which it was initially presented.

See how it works




Question Connections
Ask students questions to think more deeply about the word.
  • Have you ever guzzled something? Explain.
  • Which words often go with dingy? Why?
  • To what degree would you relish a pizza? a steak? a lobster?
Ask students to respond by saying the target word if you give an example of it, and to say nothing if you give a non-example.

Variation: Ask student to select between examples / non-examples. Ask why.

Say “frigid” if I say something that is frigid. Say nothing if I say a place that is not frigid.

  • An ice cube
  • Florida
  • Antarctica
  • Snow
  • Popcorn

Which would be more tedious?

  • Sewing buttons on a shirt or tie-dying a shirt? Why?
  • Picking up sticks from the yard after a storm or using sticks to build a bonfire? Why?
  • Writing your spelling words three times or writing a story? Why?
Idea Completion
Provide a sentence stem requiring students to understand the word in order to complete or explain a situation. I need to tauten the … because…

He was agog because…

Return to Story Text
Have students use target words to talk about the story. In the story, who else might have been ravenous?

How could Mr. Small show he was ambitious?

Use two words that are similar, and ask students to choose the  best one for a given situation. If you had a good dinner would you be happy or joyous?

If you won an Olympic medal would you be happy or joyous?

Questions, Reasons, & Examples
Students are asked a question and must supply a reason or example. Why would a typhoon be dangerous?

Could you swirl a crayon?

Relationships Among Words
Students are asked to consider how two target words relate to answer questions. Why would a factory use a windmill?

Would you pay homage to something intolerable?

Concept Circles
Provide a circle with items, and students will title the circle with a concept word.

Provide a circle with items, and the students will decide which item does not belong, or fill an empty space with another example. Students will then title the circle with a concept word.

Items: bulldozer, large tools, tent, pots and pans, puppy.

Students would remove the puppy and title it equipment.

Students show examples of the word. Show me a face that is amazed.

Show me how you gallop.

Show me a clenched fist.

Rate Own Word Knowledge
Students use rubric to rate how well they know a word. This serves as a good reminder of their need for deep, flexible understanding of new vocabulary.

Do what works

Planning Template (Actively working with vocabulary words)
Rate your word knowledge


  • Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing Words to Life. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2008). Creating Robust Vocabulary: Frequently Asked Questions & Extended Examples. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Stahl, S. (1999). Vocabulary Development. Cambridge, MA: Brookline Books.
  • Stahl, S. & Kapinus, B. (2001). Word Power: What Every Educator Needs to Know About Teaching Vocabulary. National Education Association of the United States.