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7 Effective Vocabulary-Building Activities

“I love the taste of words. They have a taste and a weight and a colour as well as a sound and a shape.”

—Philip Pullman

A 2008 article from The Washington Post showed how “Students Dig Deep for Words’ Origins.” The article noted that Phil Rosenthal was one of the few high-school instructors in the United States teaching an etymology course. According to Rosenthal, students take the class because they want to brush up on their vocabulary skills before taking the ACT or SAT, and/or because they have a genuine interest in the history of words. (It was also reported that a few students sign up for the course thinking they will be studying insects.)

This article brought to mind my failed attempt at introducing middle-school students to the study of words. I took too much ownership of the unit. If I had approached word study as a process of shared inquiry, my students and I would have had a much more meaningful experience.

Here’s what we know about vocabulary development: There is a strong connection between a student’s vocabulary and his or her reading ability. The same is true for a student’s ability to listen, speak, and write. In fact, we now recognize that each person actually has four vocabularies, one each for reading, listening, speaking, and writing (listed here from largest to smallest). Obviously, there is much overlap, but students will always be able to recognize more words than they can produce.

In addition, giving students long lists of vocabulary words with little or no context is not an effective way to teach vocabulary; students must be actively involved in word study for it to mean anything to them. Simply put, if students don’t use the words they are studying, those words will not become part of the students’ “producing” vocabulary. To develop an effective vocabulary program, consider the following types of student-friendly activities:

Vocabulary-Building Activities

Previewing in Context

  1. Select 5-6 words from a chapter or selection students are about to read.
  2. Have students turn to the page in which each word is located. Ask the students to read the word in context and try to figure out its meaning.
  3. Have students write down what they think each word means.
  4. Discuss possible meanings and arrive at a definition in this context.


  1. Have students collect interesting words from different sources, preferably non-school sources.
  2. Have students identify each word and the context in which it is used.
  3. Next, have them analyze the word using its context, word parts, and dictionary definitions.

Language Families

  1. Divide the class into eight groups, and have each group research one of the Indo-European language groups (Albanian, Armenian, Balto Slavic, and so on).
  2. Afterward, have each group present their findings to the class. (Let the groups choose how they want to present their findings.)

See minilesson for "Discovering Word Origins (Etymology)."

Prefix, Suffix, Root Study

  1. Assign students 3-4 word parts (prefixes, suffixes, roots) each week.
  2. Give students strategies for learning these word parts.
  3. Assign students one word part daily. As you take roll, have students write the word part, the definition, a sample word, and a sentence using the word.
  4. Then have them brainstorm for familiar words that will help them remember the meaning of each word part.
  5. Challenge them to combine the word parts they have studied into as many words as possible (perhaps in 5 minutes’ time or as a challenge assignment for the next day). Special cards can be used for this purpose.
  6. Also challenge them to create “new” words using the word parts they have learned. To qualify, a new word should make sense and might be actually used.
  7. Ask students to share their new words; partners should try to guess what each one means.
  8. Have students reserve a section of their notebooks for word parts they come across in newspapers, magazines, and their other classes.

    Special Note: Thoughtful Learning's writing handbooks contain extensive lists of prefixes, suffices, and roots.

Word Sleuthing I

  1. On a regular basis, present students with a list of five or six mostly familiar words that contain the same root, prefix, or suffix. (Make the last one or two more challenging than the other words.)
  2. Read the list of words out loud two or three times. Then have students define the word part that is common in all of the words. Ask them how they determined the meaning. Then, using the known word part, have the students define the challenge words. Again, ask them how they determined the meaning.

    Note: For extra credit, encourage students to provide some of these lists of words.

Word Sleuthing II

  1. Provide students, on their own or in pairs, a word to investigate on the Internet. They should try to find as much as they can about the word, starting with its etymology. Instruct them to find information about the word from at least _________ sources (you determine the number) in addition to online dictionaries.
  2. After their research, have students present their findings to the class. (Let students choose how they want to present their findings.)

Word Contest

  1. For an end-of-the-week activity, have students, on their own or in pairs, be ready with pen and paper. Then give them 3-5 minutes to list as many words as they can containing a particular prefix or root. (Suffixes may not work as well.)
  2. The winner is the individual or team listing the most words. (But make sure that each word is real.)

Reading is far and away the primary way for students to build their vocabularies, so encourage them to read all sorts of print and online materials. Along with that, employ a variety of activities (like the ones above) to help students appreciate the richness of the language. The combination should produce positive results.

Want more vocabulary-building activities? 

Teacher Support:

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Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.