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This topic will include the following:

  1. Making Vocabulary a Priority in Your Course
  2. Physically Organizing Vocabulary Words: Lists and Flashcards
  3. Developing Vocabulary/Concept Understanding: Word Sort, Categorization, Concept Circle, Semantic Map, Concept Ladder
  4. Activies for Practicing/Using Vocabulary: Quizzes, Practice Worksheets, Puzzle Activities, Student Created
  1. Making Vocabulary a Priority in Your Course

    If vocabulary is an important component in your course, consider making it a part of the overall grade of your course, if it is not already. Even if it is only worth 5% of the students' grades, it communicates to the students that you are serious about wanting them to learn and understand your courses' words and concepts. Some ways you could do this may include:
      • giving vocabulary quizzes (in class or online)
      • assigning exercises such as definition sheets, concept ladders, crossword puzzles, etc.
      • checking off vocabulary lists or flashcards
(All of which can be done as frequently or infrequently as necessary. In addition, there are many online programs available that make the process of writing/administering quizzes, puzzles, etc. very quick and easy - see "explore" section for links.)
  1. Physically Organizing Vocabulary Words: Lists and Flashcards

    Many students do not know how to make lists or to create flashcards for their important vocabulary words. I have been surprised to find that about a quarter of my students each semester do not necessarily know how to study with flashcards, either. A brief demonstration or a handout with sample flashcards and suggestions for how to study them goes a long way for the students who may never have been taught these types of skills before.

    The SBCC Bookstore sells several ready-made products that make creating flashcard lists very easy for your students. You might consider including one of them on your list of required materials on your course syllabus. Once students have purchased them, they should be inspired to use them! (Each costs about $1-2.)

    1. spiral bound sets of index cards (perforated):
      Students can get sets of these for different categores of vocabulary (example: composers, musical terminology, compositions) or tear the cards out and organize the words into categories

    2. colored flashcard sets on metal rings:
      "flashlites" : sets of 100 (2"x1") or 60 (3"x2")
      These small cards that come on a ring (that opens) make it very easy for students to write words and definitions (concepts, dates, etc.), categorize them (sorting and organizing them) and study their words.

While you are taking attendance, collecting or passing back papers, or performing any other type of business in your class, (or while students are waiting for class to begin) they can be reviewing and practicing their words on their cards. Just a few moments of working with their flashcards on a regular basis will increase their word recall.

  1. Developing Vocabulary/Concept

Since we want our students to "know" a word or concept rather than simply to repeat a memorized definition, here are some activities that can be done in class or assigned as homework that will help reinforce understanding of difficult words, concepts and terminology.

  1. "Word Sort"
    The "word sort" activity allows students to develop and demonstrate their understanding of words' meanings and concepts. The words can be given on strips of paper to be physically manipulated or worked with pencil and paper. Word sorts can be an individual, paired or group activity in class or a homework or follow-up assignment.

    The following description and theory behind word sorts is taken from Content Area Reading, 3rd Edition, Vacca & Vacca, Harper Collins, 1989 (305-306):

    "...there are two types of word sorts - the 'open' sort and the 'closed' sort. Both are easily adapted to any content area. In the closed sort, students know in advance of sorting what the main categories are. In other words, the criterion that the words in a group must share is stated. The closed sort reinforces and extends the ability to classify words and fosters convergent and deductive thinking.

    Open sorts, on the other hand, prompt divergent and inductive reasoning. No category or criterion for grouping is known in advance of sorting. Students must search for meanings and discover relationships among technical terms without the benefit of any structure. For example, if you were given the following list of names, how many different arrangements could be made by grouping together two or more names? You must be able to justify the reason or reasons for each arrangement.

      Washington Susan B. Anthony
      Alexander the Great John Kennedy
      Rembrandt Edison
      Columbus De Gaulle
      Hitler Helen Hayes
      Caesar Napoleon
      Cleopatra Einstein
      Henry Ford Margaret Mead

    The possibilities are unlimited. Your arrangements probably run the gamut from the obvious (men versus women, modern versus ancient leaders, inventors, artists) to the less obvious (names given to foods and cities, faces on monetary currency worth one American dollar) to the bizarre (suspected of having venereal disease).

    Both types of word sorts, open and closed, are useful vocabulary reinforcement activities. Let's take a closer look at each.

    Open sorts: A similar experience to the one you just had awaits students when they are assigned to manipulate a corpus of words in an open-sort activity. Examine how an art teacher reinforced understandings...[by asking] students to...classify the words below by arranging them into logical groups:

      jordan roka cornwall stone
      ball lead cone
      antimony chrome wheel
      cobalt slip bisque
      mortar scale stoneware
      scrafitto kaolin oxidation
      leather hard  

    Several categories that students formed included types of clay, pottery tools and coloring agents.

    Closed sorts: Closed sorts help students study words critically by requiring them to classify terms in relation to more inclusive concepts. Study how a business teacher helped reinforce concept development from an assignment that students had just read on types of resources. He directed students to classify the list of terms under three types - 'natural resources,' 'capital resources' and 'human resources'.

    Here is an example of how you could use a word sort in your course: select the most important vocabulary concepts from the chapter you have assigned for reading or from your lecture. Give your students a list of those words and ask them to either (open sort) list as many different arrangements they could make by grouping together two or more words (with justification), or (closed sort) give them a few categories in which to sort the words. This is an excellent assessment of your students' understanding of the words and also provides an interesting basis for group or class discussion of concepts. The "hands on," inquiry basis for the learning makes the information especially memorable for the students.

  2. Categorization
    Categorization is similar to the word sort because it also serves to reinforce vocabulary concepts. Usually, students are given four to six words per grouping and are given a task. The following examples are from Content Area Reading, 3rd Edition, by Vacca & Vacca:

    "This exercise demands that students perceive common attributes or examples in relation to a more inclusive concept, to distinguish superordinate from subordinate terms. Study several sample exercises from different content areas:

      Social Studies
      Circle the word in each group that includes the others.
    1. government
    1. generals
    1. throne
      Circle the word that best includes the others.
    1. satire
    1. irony
      faux pas
    1. humor
      Circle the word that includes the others.
    1. closure
    1. irrational
    1. function
    Other categorization exercises may direct students to cross out the word that does not belong in each set. This format forces the students to manipulate words that convey the meanings of common items. Examine the following sample exercises:
      Cross out the word in each group that doesn't belong.
    1. fats
    1. meat
      fish oil
    1. liver
    A variation on this format directs students to cross out the word that does not belong, and then explain in a word or phrase the relationship which exists among the common items.
      Cross out the word in each set that does not belong. On the line above the set, write the word or phrase that explains the relationship among the remaining three words.
    1. spectacle
    1. drama
    1. Aristotle

  3. Concept Circle
    Concept Circles allow students to think critically about the relationships between words. By dividing a circle into quarters, and writing a word in each section, students can describe or identify the relationship that exists among them.

    Also, students can fill in a section that contains a word that does not relate to the other words. Or, a section can be left blank, and the students need to complete the circle with a word that relates to the others (and justify their answer.)

    (example from Vacca & Vacca:)

  1. Semantic Map
    Semantic maps help students understand the differences and similarities between words and is especially useful as a basis for class discussion.

The following is an example from "literacy learning":

Kinds of
windows doors rustic large small cheap expensive

    1. Concept Ladder
      Concept ladders can be used when you want the students to focus on one particular word/concept rather than on a set of words.

      As written by Jean Gillet and Charles Temple in Understanding Reading Problems: Assessment and Instruction: "...it is useful to think of the meaning of one word in relation to the meanings of others. To semanticists, meanings come not by themselves but in family or hierarchial relationships. A duck can be thought of not just as a white or yellow creature with a beak and feathers but as a kind of bird. Moreover, it is useful to know that there are varieties of ducks: mallards, teals, wood ducks, mergansers. Ducks are seen in stages, too. A little fuzzy yellow-beaked thing grows up to be a brown-and-green adult duck... Albert Upton (1973), has suggested a set of three questions that people should ask when they are striving for exactness in meaning:

  1. What is it a kind of / what are the kinds of it?
  2. What is it a part of / what are the parts of it?
  3. What is it a stage of / what are the stages of it?

    To these we have added a fourth:

  4. What is it a product or a result or / what are the products or results of it?

    These four questions can be adapted to yield much information about any meaning or word under consideration. Depending on whether the item under scrutiny is a class of things (that is, ducks in general) or a particular thing (that mallard over there with the twisted beak), one side of the question or the other will be useful but not always both."

    Concept ladders are based on Upton's questions. Usually three words should go into each category.

    (example from literacylearning:)

                    kind of: instrument
                 part of: band, orchestra
              made of: wood, ivory, metal
           WORD: piano
        kinds of: grand, baby grand, upright
     parts of: strings, keys, pedals
used for: making music


  1. Activies for Practicing / Using Vocabulary

    1. Quizzes
      Discovery School has an exciting feature that is free to teachers called "Vocabulary Quiz Whiz." Simply enter a list of words (words are separated by commas) and hit "enter." Quiz Whiz will immediately give you a matching vocabulary quiz. What is especially nice is that Quiz Whiz automatically supplies definitions for the words in your list. Also, you can choose the definition you want (depending of course on what form of the word you need) or you can enter your own. [Note: don't check the box that says "anagrams".]

      Note: You can also create online quizzes for your classes at: http://school.discovery.com/quizcenter/quizcenter.html

      This is a very helpful site. Once you create a quiz for your course, it is posted to an Internet address that you can give out to your students. You can create quizzes that allow students to re-try incorrect answers, or quizzes that students take and the program corrects and emails results directly to you as well as the student. There are essay tests that get emailed to you (without correction). All your test files are stored into a "cyber classroom" space for you.

    2. Vocabulary Practice Worksheets
      Yet another helpful site from School Discovery. Here, you can easily create worksheets for your students including matching activities, sequencing, fill in the blank, etc.

    3. Puzzle Activities
      Puzzle activities, such as crosswords, scrambles, anagrams, etc. help students practice and self-test their vocabulary words. In the past I have used various puzzle-maker programs to create these exercises. However, now there are wonderful, free programs online that will allow you to create a puzzle for your class in minutes.

      One of the best sites for creating vocabulary exercises
      for your course is at Discovery School's "Puzzlemaker." At this free site for teachers, you can make crossword puzzles, mazes, cryptograms (great for quotes), jumbles, fallen phrases, letter tiles and word searches that spell out a secret message after all the words have been found.

    4. Student-Created Vocabulary Activities
      Often for extra credit, I will allow students to create vocabulary quizzes, puzzles, etc. (They must be flawless and provide the answers as well.) If they are especially well done, I will copy and distribute the activities to the class for their enjoyment and practice (the student writer is thrilled at this).


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