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Chapter 11     Building a Second Language Vocabulary

Henry Ward Beecher said, "All words are pegs to hang ideas on." If words are  pegs, does it follow that the more words  we know, the more ideas we may have? True or not, it is hard to argue the fact that a good vocabulary is an asset in life. What greater service can teachers perform than to help students foster their understanding of words?

There are different schools of thought as to whether vocabulary should be taught as a separate subject or built into reading, writing and grammar lessons.  The author believes that English is such an interesting and colourful language that it is easy to construct a separate 'vocabulary-building' course that does not overlap too much with regular grammar lessons.

Teaching a list of new words will prove boring to your students unless you can make what you are teaching meaningful and relevant to their world.  If they are not going to use the new words, the words will be quickly forgotten.

At the younger ages, vocabulary-building activities may be combined with spelling. Here are some points to ponder in developing activities for young learners. The main thing, as with all lessons for young children is to keep the activities challenging and fun.

Vocabulary learning activities:
       Repeating the word
       Recognition/matching activities
          pairing the word with its native language equivalent
          pairing the word with its target language synonym
          pairing the word with its target language antonym
          finding the related word in a list
          pairing the word with a picture
          pairing a word with a video
          listening to the word being pronounced and finding it in a list

Production activities
          giving the target language equivalent for a native language word
          finding the right word to describe a picture
          finding a target language synonym for a word
          finding a target language antonym for a word
          putting a word in the appropriate semantic group
          producing derivationally related words (e.g., noun from a verb)
          using the word in a sentence

Activities should relate new vocabulary to vocabulary previously introduced.

Vocabulary And Spelling Skill Builders

Although not a complete solution to teaching students about new words, the Web has several super activities, on-line games, puzzles, and ideas to help classroom teachers build students' vocabulary and spelling skills. Consider these suggestions for energizing your vocabulary activities!

A Word a Day
Many teachers share a new word each day with their students, and the Web offers many excellent resources for creating a word-a-day calendar. Visit the Daily Buzzword from WordCentral for a word, its pronunciation, its definition, and how to use it. In addition, the site offers information about the derivation of the word, asks a related thought-provoking question, and explains the correct answer. Another site that provides a new word each day is A.Word.A.Day. Sign up for the mailing list to have a word delivered to your inbox each day! One more site that offers a word with its definition each day is What Does It Mean? On this site and on A. Word. A. Day, your students can listen to the correct pronunciation of the word as well as read its meaning!

Vocabulary-Building Puzzles is full of fun puzzles for all ages. Share some of these on-line interactive puzzles with your students. Students fill in root words, and the definitions are explained to help students solve the questions. The students also receive immediate feedback about their performance. Even teachers will be challenged by the upper-level games! To encourage your students to engage in these puzzles, keep track of their achievement on a board in your classroom.

Mystery Word
At the Mystery Word page of The Wacky World of Words, you will find five different suggestions to help you use these mystery-word clues with your students. Take it from there by having your students create clues for words they select.

More Vocabulary Puzzles offers Grade Level Puzzles that allow students to practice their root word, synonym, and antonym skills. After they have experimented with the examples, instruct students to choose a few opposites and create puzzles for the class. You may use the puzzles as filler activities writing them on the board. Find more Rootonyms at Root Specific Vocabulary Puzzles.

Pyramid Power
Do you remember the game show $10,000 Pyramid? A Lively Vocabulary Game is based on that show. Students guess words within categories or the titles of larger categories suggested by the words. Students play rapid-fire rounds of this game, which requires little preparation once the game starts. This resource comes from The Language Teacher Online. Try the game with words from your science or social studies curriculum.

Dictionary Game
Are you familiar with the word game Balderdash? Students who play The Dictionary Game create definitions for words they don't know. Only the teacher knows the real meanings. Then students vote for the definitions they believe are correct and score points, either in teams or individually. The game can become hilarious. See the Columbia Education Center Language Arts Lesson Plans for a host of ideas.

Categorizing Words
If your students have ever played the game Tetris, they will have no trouble following the instructions of Word Drop. Use this game to help your students see the relationships between words. You could complement this activity with a word web to clearly illustrate the connections between these words.

Englishtown also sponsors two other games: Quiz Wiz and Crossword Puzzle.

Interactive Grammar/Vocabulary Activities

These activities can be adapted for students at various ages or instructional levels. They are useful for review of material previously studied, or as short end-of-class activities.

Lists and categories: Groupís make lists as timed competition or on wall charts. (Examples: Things that fit in a matchbox. Things people do in a car. Things that require electricity. Objects found in a student backpack. What you could do with $10.00? ).  Limitless possibilities; adaptable for any age.

Rebus stories: Students write stories, which include pictures in place of some words. Then exchange stories and read your partnerís story aloud.  (Fun for young students. )

Rejoinder Jeopardy: List colloquial rejoinders. (Terrific! No kidding?  Yuck! No way! Tough luck! NOT! I could care less. I hope so/not. Ow!  Super!) Student pairs write statements, which could have preceded the exclamation. Read statements to the class; class members guess the appropriate rejoinder.

Alphabet game: "Iím going to [Alaska] and Iím planning to take  [apricots]." (Can be adapted to any level or topic.)

Alliteration game: Make sentences using as many words as possible beginning with each letter in the alphabet. (My name is Ann. I live in Alabama; I sell angry alligators. My name is Bob. I live in Brazil. I sell bright blue bandanas.)

Survey charts: Put charts around the classroom using any subject or grammatical form; students add to the charts. (e.g.: What are you fond of doing? - afraid of doing? What do you put off doing? - hate doing?) -OR - Students make predictions, then survey classmates and rank results on survey charts. (e.g., What did you do last weekend? What would you change about your school? Rank orders the top-10 list.)

What am I?: Put a word on each studentís back. The student must ask yes-no questions of classmates to identify the word. (Use any vocabulary. Example: Essential words to know if you are going to study in the U.S., e.g., ATM card, shopping mall, TGIF party, student discount, No Smoking sign, 911, photo I.D.)

Cartoons:(a) Cut cartoons into sections; students find group partners by matching pieces. (b) Practice reported speech or c) paraphrasing. (d) Learn idioms.

Picture Story: Each student in a group of 4 has a different picture in a 4-picture sequence. Each student describes his/her scene to the others. The group reconstructs the sequence by adding information or asking questions, but without looking at each otherís pictures. After establishing the sequence, students invent a story (logical or imaginative) which they present to the class.

 List, Lump and Label

You can use this as a pre-reading activity with a general list of words from the entire book or as a vocabulary activity for a chapter or two. Mix the words up-don't have them in the order you found them. Discuss the meanings of the words.

Materials: word list (see above), paper and pencil, poster paper in strips and markers (optional)

Activity: Give each group a word list (or write them on the board.) Tell each group that they are to 'lump' the words into categories. There must be at least 3 words in a category and words may be used in multiple categories. Accept any grouping-remember, they haven't read the book yet. Make sure that they label the category, such as words that have to do with water or words that describe a birthday. After the class has had enough time to sort the words into categories, they need to write sentences using the words. The sentences should show a prediction about the story (no nonsense sentences.) Allow enough time for the groups to share some of their word groupings and sentences.

Example: Word list from 3 Little Pigs-straw, huff, pig, puff, blow, chin, afraid, sticks, chimney, brick, boiling, wolf,

A possible grouping could be huff, puff and blow. All these words have something to do with breathing or air. A prediction sentence could be, "We think that in the story 3 Little Pigs there will be a big storm and the wind will huff, puff and blow."

Another grouping could be wolf, chin, blow and afraid. The category is fighting. The sentence could be, "In the story 3 Little Pigs the character Wolf is going to get into a fight and get a blow on the chin. This will make him afraid and he will run home."

Obviously, both of these are incorrect-but the point of the activity is to get the kids using the vocabulary words and predicting the story.


1.Save each groups' papers. Go back over the predictions after the story has been read. Rewrite the sentences so they are correct or discuss which predictions were right and which were way off (and sometimes humorous!)

2. Have each group pick one or two sentences and write them on large strips of poster paper. Display the sentences in the room and have students refer to them from time to time during the course of the novel to see if they were correct or not.

Graffiti Wall

Start with a large sheet of brown paper (or tape a number of poster-sized sheet together to form your Graffiti Wall.  Have a box or basket full of coloured markers.
(Be sure the paper is thick enough that the marker ink won't go through to the wall).

Let students who are finished reading put up their favorite word from the vocabulary lists or a word they found while reading. They can illustrate the word with a picture or write it with a graffiti look.

Extensions: Have the kids use as many words from the graffiti wall as they can to write a summary or sentences about the book.

Spider Webs

Have students find 3 descriptive words for each vocabulary word (doesn't work well with every list, of course) or 1 antonym, 1 synonym and a word of the student's choice or free association-as many words as the student can think of. For primary grades you can reduce the number of words they need to web (3 or under) and for intermediate grades you can increase the number (up to 6.) Use a page that has spider web graphics on it and a circle for each word with lines radiating off the circle.  That page comes from A Novel Approach, a teacher's resource book with tons of great ideas to use with any novel. You could decorate a page of your own with spider webs or another graphic or have the students use their own paper.

Materials: Spider web page handout or student paper, pencil, vocabulary list

Grouping: Individual

Activity: Discuss the word meanings or have the class look them up in a dictionary or glossary. Do an example of a word web on the board if the students haven't done this before. Have the students make their own word webs on the handout or on their own paper.

Flashcard activities.

Drill is still the fastest way to program learners with new vocabulary.

Automaticity, the brainís ability to automatically recall information, occurs when students speak new language 65 to 70 times an hour.

Young children are naturally attracted to chanting and rhythm, so respond very well if the drills are presented in an enjoyable way.  The trick is to make the drills fast-paced, frequent and fun.  Little and often!  The teacher must be energetic, enthusiastic, fast, dramatic, rythmic, musical, and enjoy the activity themselves.

Flashcards are an invaluable tool for presenting games and activities which achieve these objectives.  Look for games that encourage the multiple speaking of the target vocab.
Some examples are:

Red Hot Words
Sit in a circle. Pass the ďhotĀEflashcards quickly round the circle, saying the words  as you pass them on.  Finger blowing etc helps the fun.

Race variation:  Children line up in their teams, sitting side by side.  Place a pile of flashcards face down in front of the leader of each team.  The leader picks up the first card, says the word, passes it on to the next person (who does the same) and picks up another card.The player at the end of the line collects the cards.

Fat Hat Game
An all-time, simple, hands-down favorite.
Put two hats (or other receptacles) at the far end of the class. Have six to ten vocab flashcards placed in two piles in front of you.  Hold up the first two cards for all to see. The first two competitors stand by their hats ready to run.  When you say ďGo,ĀEthey run to the front, say the word and take the first card to put in their hat. The first child to put all their cards in the hat and bring the hat to you is the winner.   Encourage the spectators to join in by cheering or chanting the words to help their player.

The Mummy
Give each child a photocopy of  the flashcard pictures for the target vocab (or language structure).  Drape a piece of see-through muslin or scarf over your head as an instant Mummy costume. Ooze around the classroom catching children.  When a child is caught, they must freeze, and can only be unfrozen by having another child hold, up a picture (or asking a question) for them to name or answer.  It is important in small spaces to retain some control over the boisterousness of this game by reserving the role of ďMummyĀEfor the teacher alone.  In this way you can hopefully avoid having screaming children crashing through plate glass windows.

A small soft base-ball sized ball that doesnít bounce too easily is a very useful prop, great for introducing fun into drills.  I make my own out of balled up newspaper wrapped in cellotape.  Use for call / response type vocab items such as opposites or categories, or for sequences such as numbers and alphabet. The teacher throws and calls ďyesĀE the catcher throws back and responds ďnoĀE donít/do, is/isnít, can/canít etc.  For young children, adapt the game by having the class sitting in a circle with legs spread wide to intercept the rolled ball.

The scope for game playing is limited only by your (and your internet websitesĀE teacherís booksĀEand colleaguesĀE imaginative ideas.

I'd (We'd) Rather

This activity is designed for middle grades but can be adapted for younger learners.  Just make the sentences or phrases simpler. Discuss the vocabulary words or have the class look them up prior to this activity. You will need to make a handout (or write on the board and have the class copy-warning this takes a lot of time away from the activity) with the vocabulary words in sentences or phrases.

Materials: vocabulary words written in sentences or phrases, piece of construction paper for each student or group, glue, scissors

Grouping: Individual, pairs, or groups

Activity: Have the kids cut the sentences into strips. Then they need to rank the strips from best to worst (or makes you happy to makes you sad, or painful to least painful-you will have to decide on the category.) Once they have decided on the order, have them glue the strips onto the construction paper. If time have them share their top choice and bottom choice and state why they put them in that order. (You can have them read the whole list-but usually there's not enough time for that.)

Example: Vocabulary list-evergreen, boulder, frozen, and comfortable. The sentences or phrases are as follows:

1. crushed by a huge evergreen

2. sit on top of a boulder

3. eat a frozen dessert

4. relax in a comfortable chair

Now you need to rank the phrases from something you really would like to do to something you wouldn't want to do at all.  Consider the phrases 2 at a time like this...Would you rather be crushed by an evergreen or eat a frozen dessert? Would
you rather sit on top of a boulder or relax in a comfortable chair? Keep comparing the phrases until you get them into the order you feel is best.

Reinforcement and review ideas:

1. Have your students creat a Personal Dictionary in which they put new words and pictures. (Suitable for elementary levels and older)

2. Alphabetize the list of words.

3. Divide the words into syllables.

4. Make a 4-page booklet. Each page should be labeled nouns, verbs adjectives, adverbs. Write the words on the appropriate pages.

5. Look up the words in a dictionary. This is especially fun for children who have access to a computer dictionary. Write the definitions.

6. Enter the words in a computer spelling program and play the spelling games.

7. Use the definitions to make a crossword puzzle with the words.

8. Make a picture dictionary of the words.

9. Make a word search using the words.

10. Write a paragraph using as many of the words as you can.

11. In the chapter, find sentences with the words. Copy them neatly, leaving a blank where the vocabulary word would be.  Have a partner fill in the blanks.

Book Publisher Houghton Mifflin has a series of great vocabulary activities online for all levels that you can download and use in your classroom. Go to this website:

Assignment 2
Chapter 12
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