Course Content
Chapter 3: Writing Mechanics Help
Chapter 12: Teaching Writing
Chapter 23: Teaching Reading
College English Composition: Help and Review
About Lesson

Importance of Vocabulary

Every English language arts teacher has a curriculum with standards centered on vocabulary. There is a very important reason for this: increased vocabulary increases reading comprehension. If your students don’t understand the words, how could they ever understand the content?

Reading comprehension and vocabulary acquisition are both skills. Just like shooting a basketball or hitting a baseball, these skills must be practiced in order to be improved. Obviously, there is no way to teach every single English word to your students. However, if you can teach your students how to figure out unfamiliar words, then they will be able to learn new words on their own while grasping the content of the reading passage at the same time.

Context Clues

Perhaps the most important method of vocabulary acquisition is using context clues. Context clues are the hints within the meaning of the sentence that give away the definition of the unfamiliar word. For example, if a teacher said, ‘Your exam was a tamoration. It was the lowest score in the whole class!’ Tamoration is not even a real word but based on the context clues, can you figure out what it means? You should be able to tell ‘tamoration’ means something really terrible, since it warrants the worst score in the class. You can even use this example as a model and have students invent their own made-up words to test their peers’ ability to figure out the intended meaning.

Once your students have a general understanding of what context clues are, they can create word maps for unfamiliar vocabulary. Word maps are any visual organization for vocabulary and can come in a wide variety of forms. For instance, your students can create webs showing the different context clues attached to each vocabulary word. These webs can even be connected to other vocabulary words that are related in meaning. If your vocabulary comes from a novel, the students can create word maps connecting different characters, plot events, and settings to various vocabulary terms. Word maps can be webs, charts, tables, flow charts, or any other visual you can imagine. The great thing about word maps is they reach any visual learners you may have in the classroom.

A final strategy centers on the teacher choosing the challenging vocabulary from a reading selection, which allows for more flexibility with activities. You can group students together to discuss what the words mean based on context clues. Then the groups report back to the class and get a consensus for the meaning of the word. Also, you can have students replace the vocabulary terms in the original sentences with synonyms they would use every day. Relating the unfamiliar words to their own personal lives can be a great way to personalize the terms and help them learn. Last, you can even have students paraphrase a passage, which means to summarize in their own words. The twist would be that they must keep the vocabulary terms as part of the paraphrasing, thus incorporating the new terms into their own writing. Each of these methods can be easily adapted to the specific needs of your students.

Word Parts

Besides context clues, word parts can also be used to teach vocabulary acquisition. Word parts are the pieces that make up words. Most words consist of two types of parts: affixes and roots. A root is the part of a word that holds the central meaning. An affix is a word part attached to the beginning or end of a root. A prefix is the affix attached to the beginning of a root, and a suffix is the affix attached to the end of a root. Affixes alter the central meaning of a word. Multiple words can have the same root, but adding different affixes will change the definition of the word.

One teaching strategy for using word parts on vocabulary words can involve learning the meaning of various roots and affixes. The goal here is for your students to be able to use roots and affixes from familiar words to help define an unfamiliar term. For instance, let’s look at the word ‘amorphous’. Depending on grade level, your students might be able to recognize that the root word ‘morph’ means to ‘change from one shape to another’. Then, if the student learns that the prefix ‘a’ means ‘not’, he can make the jump to the definition amorphous as ‘without a clear shape’.

Once you introduce the idea of word parts and how they can help a student define a new word, then you can come up with various activities to help your students practice. For instance, students can make flashcards with different affixes and their meanings and then quiz each other. You can also give them new vocabulary terms with their definitions. Then based on the definitions, the students have to define the meaning of the affix. They can even make word maps based on affixes and roots to show how words are related to each other. These are just some of the ways you can incorporate word parts into your classroom.


Students love playing games, and the competition can be just what you need to teach vocabulary. Once you go over the basics of using context clues and word parts, there are many different games you can use in the classroom.

The first game you can try is called ‘Stump the Class’. While reading a novel, mark off a certain section or a group of chapters. The point of the game is to stump the rest of the class with a difficult vocabulary word. The students can work individually or in teams, depending on class size.

Each team will have about five minutes to find five unfamiliar words and use a dictionary to find the definition. Then the game is played by each team taking turns giving the page number in the novel of where to find the vocabulary word. The other teams use only the context clues to try to define the word. If another team gets the definition correct, they get the point. If the class is stumped, then the original team gets the point. The teacher can even be a team, and if the teacher is stumped, that team can get double points.

Another idea for a game comes in the form of a class challenge. Each week or month, new vocabulary can be posted around the classroom. The class can earn points by using those vocabulary words correctly in class discussion or in any other activities. At the end of the week, or month, or whatever you decide, if the class reached a specified number of points, then they can earn some sort of reward.

All these games are adaptable to your specific class and situation. Even the other activities discussed in this lesson can be turned into games. In addition, rewards for any of these games can be whatever the teacher chooses. Students love getting small rewards, like homework passes, bathroom passes, candy, or any other small privilege.

Lesson Summary

To review, vocabulary acquisition is a very important concept to use in a language arts classroom. Students need to learn how to use context clues, which are the hints in sentences giving away the definition of a word, and word parts, which are the pieces that make up words. Word parts include roots, which hold the central meaning, and affixes, which are attached to roots. A prefix is an affix attached to the beginning of a root and a suffix is an affix attached to the end of a word. Words can share roots, but the varying affixes can change the meaning of the whole word.

Some teaching strategies for using context clues include creating word maps, which are visual organizational tools, using synonyms to replace words, and paraphrasing using the new vocabulary. All these strategies can help students practice using context clues to define unfamiliar words.

In addition, the use of fun games can motivate students to care about learning new vocabulary. Students can try to ‘stump the class’ or achieve a weekly ‘vocabulary challenge’ to earn rewards and prizes.

Overall, learning how to decipher unfamiliar words can help improve the way a student analyzes the reading. There will always be unfamiliar words, and teaching students how to use context clues and word parts to help define those terms will help them for the rest of their lives.

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