5 Easy Ways to Build Students’ Vocabularies

5 Easy Ways to Build Students’ Vocabularies

“The ball is in your court!” The words and phrases spoken to our students by the adults interacting with them can be a predictor of their long-term expressive vocabulary. Although we use less than 4,000 words on a regular basis in everyday conversation, we know about 20,000 words that consist of words we use less often, but articulate specific nuances, as well as topic-specific words that we use in business communication. As teachers, this puts the ball in our court to find ways to expose our students to words they will encounter in their future by using them in the context of everyday conversations.

Here are 5 easy ways to stimulate vocabulary development in our students:

1.   Tell Stories

Students will authentically be engaged when listening to stories. Use words and phrases in your story that expose them to new words in context. Whether you stop to explain these new words or not, students will absorb them within the meaning of the story. “My dad had a paper route when he was young, and he always challenged us be independent and earn our own money as we matured.”

2.   Use Idioms

Idioms and proverbs are a part of our culture, and will help our students understand language, conversation, and text better when they have a strong understanding of these. Use these in context with students then take just a minute to explain to students what they mean figuratively! “You have all been waiting to hear where we are going on our field trip, and I’m about to let the cat out of the bag!”

3.   Read Aloud

When students struggle with reading and are only independently exposed to the text they can read on level, they are missing opportunities to be exposed to higher level words and phrases. Reading aloud as a daily event improves vocabulary in the same way that independent reading does for our stronger readers! Students like intriguing words, and when they are embedded in text with common language, they begin to absorb these into their receptive and expressive vocabulary.

4.   Think Aloud

Whenever you process or think about something, make that thinking transparent to your students. Whenever you talk about what it is you are thinking, you are not only improving critical thinking for your students, you are also teaching them about how good thinkers think! The words and phrases you use will be at your own level of thinking, exposing them to great vocabulary. “When the author talks about how the character feels, I can see the author wants us to know that the character feels satisfied with winning the race because she talks about the smirk on her face and folding her arms across her chest in triumph.”

5.   Talk Straight

Don’t “dumb down” the conversation! Use words and phrases that best fit the situation you are explaining to expose students to rich vocabulary. Students will instinctively use context to put the pieces together to make sense of the conversation. Look for opportunities to define the word in context, repeat the word several times, or encourage students to ask when they don’t understand so they are aware of their own understanding. “The 0s at the end of a decimal point are superfluous. Let’s look at the number when we make it with our base ten blocks to see why we don’t need these 0s on the end, which makes them superfluous!”

So… converse… dialogue… discuss… have discourse… communicate… engage in chitchat… have a “heart-to-heart!” Find your own ways to increase student vocabulary through everyday conversation! 


Author bio

Melissa Cheesman Smith

Melissa Cheesman Smith

Melissa Cheesman Smith, M.Ed., holds a master's degree in curriculum and instruction and has been teaching for 10 years. She teaches literacy classes for a university, presents at literacy conferences, and facilitates professional development workshops.