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.
The 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
23 thoughts on “When Building Vocabulary, Less Is More”
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!
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. 🙂
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!
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!
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?
Yup, those are definitely toughies. Maybe leave it open to your class. “Extra credit tomorrow for the kid with the best replacement noun.”
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 🙂
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.
hi! do you have students write their own sentences using the words? do you have students write everything down as you discuss? or do you just go through the slides and then have students go to your website to get any missing info they have? thanks! 🙂
also, what is the format of your vocab exam/final? multiple choice? short answer? sentence completion? thanks!
Certainly, you could use any/all of those approaches. For the bell-ringer, I have students write all of the slide content down in their notes to use as study support for our quizzes and end-of-term exam. Occasionally, I’ll have them craft a sentence of their own, but usually they just record the one I give them. The final exam changes a bit each year, but usually includes a variety of multiple choice, matching, and sentence completion questions. No short answer for the vocab. section of the exam. Hope this is helpful info! 🙂
Do you have them copy down all slide content WHILE you talk about it, lecture-style? Do you stop to have students copy down slide content or do you tell them to go to your website to copy down any information they may have missed? Thank you! 🙂
Yes, Kelsi, I have the kids write down the slide content while I give the mini-lecture, explaining my example and giving others on the fly to fill the time as kids finishing writing. I don’t post the slide content on my class website, so students need to pay attention and stay focused on their notes. For kids with IEPs for extended time for note-taking or handwriting limitations, I print them a set of the slides at beginning of each term and they discreetly fill in the synonym/antonym lines as those are discussed in class, but the word, part of speech, definition, and sentence are already written out for them to help them keep pace with the class. Hope this is helpful info.! 🙂
So, why do you not post the slide content on your class website? Is there a reason? Also, do you have students write down everything verbatim off the slides or do you let them shorten or paraphrase the definitions or write down different synonyms/antonyms? Thanks! 🙂
I’ve found that some of my kids will lose focus and get sloppy with their notes if they know they can just go back and print everything off of the website. For kids who genuinely need assistance, I’ll send a set of the slides to them via email. For the bell-ringer notes, kids need to be there promptly at the launch of class and ready to roll because I start lecturing as soon as the tardy bell rings. It’s a good way to get everyone focused and working right away. As for the notes, students are welcome to use short-hand and add extra synonyms/antonyms or anything they need to help them remember the words for our quizzes and semester final exam. I don’t ever collect the Words on Wed. notes; I just walk the room and make sure everyone’s on task while we’re discussing the word as a whole class.
I’m a fairly new teacher and I’m really excited to use your Bellringers this year. However with the vocab quizzes, how do you deal with students who are absent on Wednesday (who didn’t get the words and only has one day to learn the words) or Friday (who didn’t take the quiz). Do you exempt them from the Friday quiz, or give them an extra day to take the quiz. I just always struggle with absent students and makeup work.
Good question, Dylan. I like to keep things as easy to manage on my end as possible. For absent kids, I’ll let them take a make-up quiz during our next SSR Friday when I have a few quiet minutes to administer the three-question quiz. I ask different questions/use different words for the make-up, of course. Also, when a kid is out on a few consecutive Fridays (some of my athletes have this problem because they travel to other schools and have to leave early on several Friday afternoons during the season) and the missing quizzes start to add up, I’ll ask if he/she wants to just take one quiz that’ll be the score I enter for all of the missing quizzes. Most kids grab that option and it shaves down the time on my end of things by a few extra minutes. Easy. Hope this helps!
I was wondering – for the first question on a vocab quiz (where the student gives a definition), do you accept an answer if the definition provided is just a synonym? In terms of vocab quizzes/Words on Wednesday, where is the line between a synonym and a definition?
Oh sure, a synonym will usually do the same job as the definition. Only a few of my kids ever connect that dot and it’s fine when they do. For me, I guess the line is clarity. Can I tell that the kid knows what the word means? If so, we’re good and I move on to the next quiz in the stack. 🙂 Laura
I was just wondering – when you use Words on Wednesday as a bellringer, which slide do you flash – the one that says “Lesson #_____” or the slide with the first word of the week?
Also, when you’re following an A/B block schedule, when/what day(s) do you have vocab quizzes?
Thanks! Kelsi 🙂
The “Lesson #…” slide is just a placeholder to keep us teachers organized. Instead, I have the first content slide projected as students arrive and many of them start writing their notes before the tardy bell even rings. Gotta love that. For the block schedule, we work on a rotation, launching each class with a bell-ringer or SSR. For block classes, I don’t say, “Words on Wednesday” – I just say, “Words,” because that particular bell-ringer will end up falling on all sorts of different days of the week. We’ll use MUG Shots (Mechanics, Usage, and Grammar), Lit. Terms, Words, SSR on a cycle of four that takes us through the semester. Really, though, the system is flexible and you can modify the rotation however best fits the needs of your kids and your schedule.
Thanks! But do you still have vocab quizzes on the last day of the week? When do you schedule vocab quizzes on the block? Thanks! 🙂
I give vocab. quizzes just twice a month, always before a SSR reading session. I announce them ahead of time so my kids will know to run through their flashcards. The block schedule causes the days to scramble on the calendar a bit, but I have everything posted on my classroom website and on the whiteboard in the classroom so kids know when stuff’s coming up. Communication, as always, is key. 🙂