Meaningful Word Work and Purposeful Practice--Six Ideas for Fun and Effective Vocabulary Instruction

Welcome (or welcome back) to another installment of my series on teaching vocabulary to gifted students. In previous posts, I wrote about steps to take before staring vocabulary instruction, including assessing what students already know using a quick and easy self-ratings scale. Next, I wrote about strategies for introducing new words and putting a gifted twist on vocabulary instruction.

The whole reason I started researching best practices in vocabulary started when I realized a few things.

  • One, I had gifted students to teach and it was obvious that the regular, run-of-the-mill vocabulary materials handed to me by the district would not be sufficient. 
  • Two, had the curriculum been challenging enough for my students, I found it dreadfully boring. If I found it boring, my students would have positively died. And I'm not into creating that kind of emergency in my classroom. 
  • And three, I knew the importance of vocabulary instruction and it's far-reaching effects, so it was something I felt I couldn't afford to get wrong. Thus began my own journey into deeper learning so that I could really make an impact in our classroom, while also injecting some FUN!

This post goes into a little more depth on the components of quality vocabulary instruction, as well as some of the activities that I used with students to engage them in meaningful word learning and purposeful practice. Just as a quick reminder, a child's vocabulary is a huuuuuuge predictor of academic success in ALL areas.

What the Research Says

One of the best-known researchers in the field of vocabulary instruction is Robert Marzano. In his studies, he found six key steps were the key to better vocabulary instruction. The first three steps are done with the help of the teacher:

  1. Teachers should give students an example, description, and/or explanation of the new term. 
  2. Students need to restate the explanation, description, or example using their own language.
  3. Students should construct a picture, pictograph, or symbolic representation of the term.

(If you hop back to my previous blog post, you will find a free download of a graphic organizer on which students can engage in steps two and three). 

 4.   Periodically, students should engage in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms in their vocabulary notebooks.

 5.   Students should be asked to discuss the terms with one another sometimes.

 6.   Students are periodically involved in playing games that enable them to play with terms.

In studies conducted with classrooms using these strategies, it became clear that when teachers engaged their students in alllll of these six practices, students usually showed significant gains in vocabulary learning. 

Other well-known vocabulary researchers, Dr. Kate Kinsella and Dr. Kevin Feldman, point out three things that don't work in their article, Narrowing the Language Gap: The Case for Explicit Vocabulary Instruction: "looking up words in the dictionary, using written context to determine word meaning, unplanned, extemporaneous vocabulary teaching."

Instead,  teachers should focus on four important ideas: wide reading, direct teaching of important individual words, teaching word learning strategies, and fostering word conscientiousness through various activities that encourage language play, and choice in writing (Graves, 2000) and (Nagy and Scott, 2000).

My General Flow of Vocabulary Instruction and Assessment 

Now that I've shown you some research, and told you a little about how I preassess and introduce the words, as well as how I accommodate gifted learners, I'm thinking you might be curious about how it all fit together for me.

A typical vocabulary cycle flows like this for me:

  1. Pre-test students on new words by having students complete a self-ratings-scale prior to starting a new list 
  2. Introduction of new words. If they already know any of the words well enough to define and use in a sentence, they don’t have to study those words. You can find more about how I pre-assess for vocabulary in this blog post.
  3. Students add their words to our  “Map It Out” cards. We discuss the definitions of the vocabulary words together. Students continue to work on these throughout the entire cycle, starting with the synonyms and antonyms (you can even do this part together) and reserving the sentence writing portion until near the end. The “Map It Out” cards are great for students to keep with them when they are working on the other learning activities throughout the cycle, too!  They can always go back to the cards and add to or revise them as they learn more about their words. You can read more about introducing the words and find a free download of the Map It Out cards here.
  4. Students add their words to a catalog or make word wall cards for each root or affix. The “Map It Out” cards themselves are sized to fit on a 5 x 7 notecard or in a composition notebook. I like students to keep a record of all of their words for the year to use for reference and as evidence of all the learning they’ve accomplished! 
  5. Students choose one to three (or more) learning activities (like the ones outlined below) to complete. *The number of activities chosen should be a reflection of how much time students have and the number of activities you think each student needs. Gifted students may require much less repetition than “typical” peers or students with other learning differences so the activities that go more in-depth may be a better fit for them!* 
  6. Use a quick-check strategy every couple of days to measure progress on learning. I do not use this as a graded quiz. It is meant to be a low-stakes, low-risk tool that students can use to quiz themselves as they are progressing toward mastery. This is a research-based strategy that has been shown to increase retention. 
  7. Assess student learning following the completion of the activities.

This cycle is flexible, but I found it generally took about 7 school days to get everything accomplished. Yours might take more or less time, depending on how much class time you can dedicate to it, and of course, on your students' needs. 

How I Encouraged Word Play in My Classroom

While I definitely engaged students in the super important pre-assessment and direct instruction activities, my FAVORITE part of the vocabulary learning process was definitely allowing students to engage in different activities that helped students achieve deep learning and understanding of their words. This was definitely the part my students enjoyed the most, too.

I'll outline a few of my favorite activities here, and maybe even provide a *free* download for you at the end.  


This activity is a play on the popular YouTube website. Students write each assigned vocabulary word and draw a picture of it on a “WordTube” screen. Then they use the “Up Next” boxes to write the part of speech, identify the roots/affixes contained in the word or the origin if the word does not appear to have Greek or Latin roots or any affixes,  and define the word. Students should paraphrase the definition, as this strategy requires more critical thinking and will ultimately help them remember the meaning of the words better. 

Word Analogies

Students create their own analogies for vocabulary words. Creating and using analogies when learning new material is a research-based strategy that requires students to have a deeper understanding of vocabulary words, activates prior knowledge, and helps students bridge the gap between their schema and new learning. There are two ways students can use this strategy-- students can create their own analogies for vocabulary words and complete the entire analogy. Or,  students can create partial analogies that they can trade with a partner to solve. For this option, they must also make up an answer key (I suggest they create the answer key first). You'll want to be sure to teach children the different kinds of relationships you can create with analogies--for example, analogies can show part to whole relationships, the can reflect synonyms, antonyms, time sequences, increasing or decreasing intensity, etc. 

Shades of Meaning

For this activity, students generate semantic gradients for their vocabulary words. This requires them to think of or find words that are semantically similar to their vocabulary words and then to arrange the words in order. This activity helps students make meaningful connections between words they already know and their new term. There are, again, two variations of this activity that are fun and useful. For one variation, students would either think of, find (or be provided with) a list of synonyms that align with the original vocabulary word. They would then arrange the terms in order from the strongest expression of the term to words that express the term to a lesser degree.  

For the second variation of the activity, students think of or look up 5 synonyms and 5 antonyms for the vocabulary word. They place the vocabulary term in the center of the continuum and then arrange the synonyms and antonyms so that they get stronger as they move away from the center. When students are finished, they should discuss with someone why they chose to put their words in order. They could write their rationale instead if no-one is available to discuss. 

I like to allow students access to both options because some terms don’t really have opposites. Further, I always allow some flexibility with the number of synonyms and antonyms students have to find, as some wordsparticularly words from content area studiesdon’t have many synonyms or antonyms. Also, since these are fairly subjective and there is lots of “grey” area in terms of how the words are arranged, grading these should either be avoided, aside from completion, or rely heavily on the child’s explanations. I highly suggest this activity be completed with pairs or small groups of children to encourage the rich conversations that can occur as they are determining the order in which to place the words. 

Making Connections

Making connections between words really encourages students to think deeply about the meaning of words, and how they relate to other words. This activity is well-suited for small groups of students, as well as the entire class at once if you’re all studying the same words at the same time. 

Students are each assigned one or two unique words, and then they spend time interacting with others in an effort to find a word that they feel connects with their words. Eventually, students settle on a connection or match. Then, students explain either in writing, to the class, or just to the rest of their group members how their terms are connected. 

You will want to spend some time with your students discussing the difference between surface-level and deeper connections. For example, students need to look past words having the same number of letters, starting or ending with the same letters or sounds, being in the same chapter in their science book, etc. The activity (and related research) suggest that making deeper connections between words and concepts are really what will help cement the vocabulary into children’s learning, creating long-lasting, authentic learning experiences. 

Interview a Word

This activity is great for helping deepen students’ understanding of words and their possible connotations. One student “becomes” one of the words, and the other student is the interviewer. It
is fun to encourage the “words” to show their personality and act as though they were truly embodying their word. My students really enjoy acting things out like this! I suggest doing this activity in pairs or small groups, however, if a child is working independently, he or she can just write down the answers to the interview questions on paper instead of posing the questions for someone else to answer.

For this activity, you may find it useful to allow students access to websites such as and so they can research some possible answers to the interview questions.

As a fun aside, having students make and wear nametags for this activity is a fun way to boost engagement!

Create a Menu

Students get full creative license over designing a menu for a new restaurant and using their vocabulary words in the descriptions. Students start by deciding on a theme and name for the restaurant. Then they decide the names of dishes to include on the menu, all fitting in with the designated theme.  Next, students use all of their vocabulary words to create a restaurant menu. 

In my opinion, it is not necessary that each menu item use a vocabulary word, as long as they have managed to include all of their words on the menu somehow, using them properly in context. 

Creating a themed restaurant and sticking to only including dishes that fit the theme definitely requires higher level thinking skills. If you find this to be too challenging for some of your students, you could allow them to include dishes on the menu that do not fit into a particular theme, as long as they are still using their vocabulary words to write the descriptions.  If you want to take this to the next level, you could do something like have students design and create an actual (miniature) restaurant storefront, or allow students time to visit each other’s restaurants and “order” something off of the menu. 

Sound like fun? 

There are SO many other great ideas for helping your students engage independently with their vocabulary word study. I put three of the above ideas together for you in a free exclusive download if you're ready to give them a try. This freebie is available ONLY to my subscribers and can be found among many other free resources in my free resource library.  Click the image below to gain access to your free copy! *Just to be clear, by clicking to get these freebies (and instant access to the growing collection of free resources in my library of subscriber exclusives), you're also agreeing to be added to my email list, where I'll send occasional messages with fresh ideas, tips, and other resources straight to your inbox. You can unsubscribe at any time.*

If you're ready to save TONS of time, you can find these three activities and many more in my store by clicking on the images below.

So far, I have FIVE separate volumes of nine activities created and ready to download and print. Each volume includes a table of contents and full-page student-friendly directions for each of the activities. They also include a choice menu for each volume, which allows students to make choices about which activities they work on to learn their vocabulary words each week. It is also a good tool to track completion of menu options depending on how long or how many options you allow students to complete. All three volumes also include a rubric, the "Map It Out" graphic organizer and nine vocabulary activities that can be used with any of your own vocabulary lists. Each volume of my Word Study Activities also has one or two FREE bonuses, from a formative assessment tool to a student activity proposal form to a pre-assessment and self-ratings scale. 



I also bundled these activities together for big savings. You'll get all five volumes (45 activities!) and the corresponding bonus resources for the price of four volumes!  If students complete one different activity a week, there are enough activities in the pack to last the entire year (or longer)! You can access the bundle by clicking the picture below.

Let me know if you have any questions! I love hearing from my readers! 


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