Vocabulary activities for the classroom

As a teacher, you know it is important to help your students improve their vocabulary. But it’s not easy to know which activites help build vocabulary skills. Here, I’ve adapted eight vocabulary activities from the excellent book, How Vocabulary is Learned, by Stuart Webb & Paul Nation. Because vocabulary is remembered best when it is used productively, I have integrated Flipgrid tasks for all of the activities. (If you’re not using Flipgrid, a free video bulletin board for your class, you should check it out!)

8 Great Classroom Vocabulary Activities

These activities will work well both for native speakers (to help close your students’ vocabulary gap) and English Language learners (ELL/EFL/ESL) of all levels.

  1. Classification – students work in small groups to sort words into categories.
  2. Speed reading. Students must read and comprehend a text quickly. Improves reading and vocabulary fluency.
  3. Information transfer – students extract information from graphs and tables and reproduce it in narrative form (or vice versa).
  4. Countdown narrative. Each student prepares a short narrative speech, then presents it in 4 minutes, then 3 minutes, then 2 minutes.
  5. Task-focused interaction. Students work together to solve a task using assigned words.
  6. Dictation. Teacher reads aloud a short passage while students write down the text.
  7. Word parts. Students analyze the parts of a word in order to map the meaning of affixes and stems to the word meaning.
  8. Semantic mapping. Working together, the class produces vocabulary associated with a given theme.

1. Classification

Assign students to small groups based on language ability. Provide a piece of text from which you’ve chosen 30-40 words. Suggest classification categories such as how the words relate to the text theme (background information or core), word form (such as whether the words have similar parts), semantic similarities, and so forth.

Why it’s helpful: Different students typically know different words, so working together they can negotiate meaning. The classification task requires elaboration (thinking deeply about words) and repetition, which aid memory. Discussing the relationships between words will help build word associations, which strengthen the mental lexicon (words in the mind).

Flipgrid integration: When the group is finished, they should produce a video explaining (and defending) their classifications. Every student should speak in the video.

2. Speed reading

Part of vocabulary improvement is to improve fluency for words, both receptive fluency and productive fluency. Speed reading is a highly recommended technique advocated by vocabulary and fluency expert Paul Nation. Learners should know all the words in the text, so you should choose an appropriate resource based on their vocabulary size. Here are some materials available from the University of Victoria at Wellington web site. These downloads include complete instructions:

Why it’s helpful: Fluency – the ability to understand (or produce) language quickly and accurately – is a core linguistic competency. Being able to quickly access the mental lexicon strengthens vocabulary knowledge.

Flipgrid integration: After the class has finished the exercise, students can record themselves reading the passage aloud. This will give them additional practice reading as well as speaking. Furthermore, reviewing the videos will show you if the students are having trouble pronouncing the words (or confusing the words with similarly spelled words).

3. Information transfer

In this activity, students work in pairs or small groups to transfer data between chart or table form and text. For example, they might have to fill out a passport form given information about a person, or write a description of the person based on the form. Materials for this task can come from many sources. The internet has large sources of data visualization available on a range of topics (click here for inspiration). There are also lesson plans available online for a variety of themes and ages, for example, ESOL Online - Information Transfer, which has several lesson plans available, or iSLCollective ESL worksheets, or ESL printables.

Why it’s helpful: This task can help with elaboration of vocabulary words, and to improve knowledge for words which are partially known. In paired or group contexts, students can negotiate meanings for words.

Flipgrid integration: Depending on the direction of the exercise, students can record a narrative description of the information, or they can demonstrate how the form they filled out reflects the information from the text.

4. Countdown narrative, or 4/3/2 task

This is another exercise designed to improve fluency. Provide a prompt for a topic to the class, such as “tell how your parents met,” then give them some time to look up vocabulary for their story and think about what they will say. Then, divide the class into speakers and listeners. Each speaker pairs with a listener, then tells their story in 4 minutes. Next, they find another listener and tell the same story in 3 minutes. Finally, they tell a third listener the same story in 2 minutes. Switch the groups so everyone has a chance to speak.

Why it’s helpful: By practicing and repeating the same story multiple times, vocabulary – particularly, productive vocabulary – is reinforced and speaking fluency improves.

Flipgrid integration: After everyone has finished, students record themselves telling the story again in 2 minutes. This lets the teacher check all progress, and lets the student listen to their own language use.

5. Task-focused interaction

The idea behind task-based interaction activities, and task-based instruction (TBI)/ task-based learning (TBL) in general, is to create situations in which language use is the means students use to solve a task, not the focus of the task itself. Research shows* that more vocabulary is learned if you provide a worksheet describing the activity and including vocabulary to be used. This is by nature a group activity. Types of tasks (source: Six types of task for TBL) include:

  • Listing or brainstorming
  • Ordering and sorting
  • Matching (such as matching headlines to pictures)
  • Finding similarities and differences
  • Problem solving
  • Sharing personal experiences/ storytelling

Alternative: Depending on which language skills you want students to use, you can assign spoken tasks or computer-mediated task (such as by text).

Why it’s helpful: A key component of language learning is motivation. By steering the group’s focus to completing an activity, students are motivated to communicate.

Flipgrid integration: Each group presents their results. If the different groups are all working on the same task, they can compare their conclusions.

6. Dictation

Choose a short (around 150 words) piece of text. They should know the words in the text. Read it three times. The first time is for general comprehension and familiarity with the text. The second time is read more slowly for the dictation. The third reading gives students a chance to make corrections. After the activity, you can put the correct text on the board and students can correct each other’s papers.

Why it’s helpful: It is often difficult for students to map spoken to written language. They may not know how a word they have heard is spelled, or how a written word is pronounced. By transcribing text that the teacher reads, they are forced to reconcile listening input with writing output.

Flipgrid integration: The teacher can upload a recording of the reading so that students can study their mistakes.

7. Word parts

The focus of this activity is to help students remember words by breaking them into parts and thinking about what each part means. This activity should be implemented in the greater context of teaching students about affixes and word stems. Give them a short reading that includes the words to study. First, they should look up the words in the dictionary (or guess the meaning from context). Then, they should underline or highlight the parts they think are important. Next, they should connect the meaning of each part with the meaning of the whole word.

Why it’s helpful: This task will aid memory for a word through elaboration. It will pay further dividends by helping students learn the meaning of affixes, which in turn will aid their ability to guess the meaning of new words they encounter.

Flipgrid integration: If different students and groups work on different words, they can report their work in video format and together build a word resource for the entire class.

8. Semantic mapping

This is a teacher-led, class-based activity. Start with a topic or theme and start the map in the center of the board with a few words or phrases. The teacher then leads a discussion brainstorming vocabulary related to the topic. This is a great activity to launch a new topic or unit because it activates both vocabulary knowledge and background knowledge related to the topic. As each word is added, the class should discuss how it relates to the theme and the other items. The physical arrangement of words on the board can also organize the words into categories.

Why it’s helpful: This is a great elaborative activity to help build and strengthen students’ mental lexicons. It can also serve as a model for group activities, such as classification.

Flipgrid integration: When the map is finished, one of the students should video the teacher summarizing the semantic map. Students can then use the video as reference as they work through the unit on which it is based.

Summary

The great thing about these activities is that you can adapt the content to the class level, making them appropriate for anything from a native-speaking, fifth grade English class to a college-level English for Academic Purposes class. Furthermore, tasks can be adapted using existing course material and content, providing a way to reinforce vocabulary.

The Flipgrid classroom is an ideal application for vocabulary learning, since videos require students to practice producing their words, increasing the chances that the words will be remembered.

*Newton, J., (2013). Incidental vocabulary learning in classroom communication tasks. Language Teaching Research, 17 (2), 164-187.

by Heidi Brumbaugh, PhD

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