Vocabulary instruction used to be my Achilles’ heel. I tried tons of different strategies, but each one brought very little yield in terms of student retention. Frustrated, one summer I tossed aside the yellowing school-issued workbooks and went rogue, building my own plan and materials.

15-2The result is Words on Wednesday, a close examination each week of five words students will actually use in their adult lives. Instead of memorizing a list of 10 themed words each week, we focus on just five words and really get to know ‘em. We discuss the denotation, connotation, synonyms, antonyms, and present a relevant, real-world sentence featuring the word. I also tell a funny story from my life or talk about a current event related to the word while the students jot notes from the slide being projected on the white board.

A critical piece of successful vocabulary building is, of course, holding kids accountable. To keep things manageable, I give a weekly quiz on Fridays of just three questions and the word list builds as the semester rolls. For the first question, I give the class a vocab. word aloud and have students write a definition, which can be in their own words; the definition just needs to be accurate. For the second question, I give a different word and have the students write an accurate synonym. For the third, I give a third word and have students write an antonym.

This method is quick, discourages cheating (I choose different words for each of my classes on the spot as I’m giving the quiz), and takes less than five minutes to grade because, as I said, the quiz is only three questions long. I have 170 students this year (ack!), so I need something that holds them accountable, but doesn’t take all weekend to grade.

In my 16 years in the classroom, this is the most manageable, effective system I’ve found. Give it a try. You can use the word slides I built or build your own level-appropriate slides.
high school English

Join the conversation! 8 Comments

  1. Hello! I am building my own word slides for vocabulary because I am required to teach the same words as the other teachers in my grade are. We give 5 vocabulary words each week from the novels/plays we go over in class. I have a question though, what did you do for words that don’t have synonyms and/or antonyms? I am having trouble with words like beadle, edict, ghetto, delude, fatalistic, repertoire, perforated, staccato, which, I feel, don’t have synonyms or antonyms. Thank you!


  2. Hi Robert,
    Could you just give a short phrase instead of a single-word synonym or antonym? I’m thinking it’s more important that kids understand the nuances of the main word being studied and a phrase might get the point across more easily. 🙂


  3. Hi, I was thinking that, but I feel like I would just be rephrasing the definition given to them. I don’t think that would be of much help to them at all. :/ What should I do? Thanks!


  4. Hmm…I know I’ve seen dictionaries sometimes include the phrase “Near Synoynm” or “Near Antonym.” For the slides, I’d choose that phrasing and give students synonyms and antonyms for those difficult cases that are close but not perfect, making sure to explain the connotative differences in the words you chose. And, who knows, the kids might even be able to help you brainstorm perfect synonyms/antonyms. Happy slide building!


  5. Thanks for all your help! I’m having an especially hard time finding antonyms for NOUNS. What would be the opposite of a ghetto? Or a repertoire? Would it be okay if I said that these words had no antonyms?


  6. Yup, those are definitely toughies. Maybe leave it open to your class. “Extra credit tomorrow for the kid with the best replacement noun.”


  7. hi! i was just wondering, how long does it take you to go over words on wednesday? It takes me almost the whole class period to discuss my vocab b/c students have to copy down the definitions, make their own sentences, etc. thanks 🙂


  8. Hey Kelsi,
    The vocab. bell ringers usually take about 10 minutes, though they do sometimes stretch up to 15 min. when kids want to jump in and share their stories that connect to whatever sentence I’ve given them. Also, I give only five words each week, which helps keep things brief and rolling along.

    Happy planning!
    🙂 Laura


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