Building Rigor and Engagement Into Academic Vocabulary

image_pdfSave as PDFimage_printPrint this blog post

Six tips to get students excited about acquiring new words.

By Kristin DeJong

Remember the days when a teacher would hand us a spelling book and tell us to complete exercises in it? We would memorize each word and then take a dictation quiz at the end of the unit. Over and over…

Spelling was my strongest suit and I was an avid reader, so acquiring vocabulary was easy for me, but that’s not the case for everyone.


Circulation in high school libraries is much lower than in middle and elementary school libraries. Many students are overloaded with AP classes and multiple core courses—and many are anxious and stressed about performing well on standardized tests. Whatever the reasons are, they’re not reading for fun, and that impacts vocabulary acquisition.

Learners in all grade levels and subject areas need opportunities and encouragement to help them:

  • Become fluent with academic, domain-specific, and general vocabulary
  • Acquire the words and “own” them in their vernacular
  • Independently investigate unknown words and
  • Develop curiosity and interest in the origin of words

Many teachers find it challenging to make vocabulary acquisition more complex and engaging, but there are lots of ways to build rigor into the standard. Here are some suggestions I often use to help teachers do just that:

1) Build a scale

A rigorous scale with a sequence of learning targets allows students to understand the importance of gaining and using their vocabulary. It also makes it possible to track each student’s acquisition of words and his/her use of the newly acquired vocabulary. Each day, expose students to the scale and model how to determine and verify the meaning of words, encouraging them to be independent when gathering vocabulary knowledge. This includes the connotation and denotation of words.

2) Increase retention graphically

A quick drawing can help students retain the definition of a word over a long term and gain ownership of that word. In my class, students gather vocabulary knowledge with a “Word of the Day” warm-up. Then, they use cognitively complex graphic organizers to identify of the word, part of speech, and definition. After that, they investigate some synonyms for the word, represent the word in a non-linguistic format (usually a sketch), and write a sentence using a context clue strategy.

3) Leverage the power of team talk

Now, have students exchange graphic organizers, explain their non-linguistic representations, and examine one another’s work. I require my students to identify the context clue strategy used in each sentence and explain why their partners’ sketches help to deepen their own understanding of a word. This brings them to a much higher level of rigor and complexity of thought than if they were working independently.

4) Create “paint chip” cards

Building Rigor and Engagement Into Academic Vocabulary

Paint chip (or sample) cards serve as excellent, highly portable study tools that help students keep notes about each word’s various forms, conjugations, and origin. They can also include specific notes for language learners. When you keep them posted in your classroom for all words, you’ll give students at-a-glance access to reminders, helping they solidify the words in their long-term memories.


Give students class-wide recognition for using new words they have acquired or for recognizing new words. My students engage in an interclass completion and earn stickers on a chart every time they use or hear words that we have studied. The winning class is rewarded with pizza or donuts throughout the year. In this way, I encourage the daily use of incorporating words into their partner talk and writing.

6) Bring technology into the mix

Non-linguistic, cognitively complex activities that incorporate technology can make sketches even more engaging while allowing students to share their ideas more broadly. Have students post their sketches to a classroom “padlet” source—or film a 15-second video about a word and then upload it to a YouTube or FlipGrid classroom site. When students work as a team to plan and organize how to represent their word through video and use of technology, they become so engaged, they don’t even realize that they’ve entered the land of cognitively complex tasks.

Vocabulary Instruction Has Evolved

Gone are the days of spelling books, vocabulary lists, and weekly multiple-choice or matching vocabulary quizzes. To succeed in a 21st-century workplace that requires strong problem-solving and decision-making skills, today’s students need to become skilled at determining what words mean and how they should be used.

In turn, as we work to create more rigorous, student-centered classrooms, it’s on us to get students excited about words and language, and to see the value of having a large vocabulary that they can “own” and use regularly.