Interactive Vocabulary Strategies

There are certain vocabulary instruction strategies that are beneficial for any subject. I love strategies such as these because they are go-to arrows in our quiver that we can shoot at any time.

Every teacher should have an arsenal of these. They are strategies that truly do teach students how to be learners.

Here are three basic strategies that I have found incredibly useful over the years:

1. Mnemonic Devices: These memory tricks are amazing for getting students to recall vocabulary and make connections. The more outlandish they are, the easier they are to recall.

I teach this technique in my psychology classes, but I also tutor students before and after school on these techniques.

I can't tell you how many times students have told me "I am failing Spanish because I can't memorize things."

I always say, "Bring me your vocabulary list after school, and we'll have a look."

They show me the list. Let's say the words have to do with the home. I would pick a couple of words, say aspiradora, lavadora, and limpiadora. I would ask the student what all of these words have in common. Generally, they would say, "They all end in "-dora."

Then I would say, "Did you ever watch Dora the Explorer?"


"Well, picture Dora in a home. When Dora is vacuuming, she needs an aspirin because the vacuum (aspiradora) is so loud. After cleaning, Dora's clothes are so filthy that she has to put lava in the washing machine (lavadora) to get them clean. Cleaning is a dangerous business. While Dora is mopping, she slips, and now she has a limp. She is a cleaning person (limpiadora).

Then I ask the student to find a word on the list and come up with their own mnemonic. As an example, once I had a student take the word nevar (snow) and say "It nevar snows in Georgia."

The goal is to guide the students through developing this skill on their own. It takes a lot of guidance at first, but it is a great deal of fun to watch it click, see what they come up with, and finally, for them to realize that memorization isn't that difficult--it's all about the approach.

2. Images and Links: If students can associate a word or a word part with a particular image, that is a powerful tool for learning vocabulary. When tutoring for the SAT, I would take a word list and have students create visual flash cards out of them.

We would start together by looking at a few of the words. I would take one and draw a picture that made me think of the word.

So I would do one, let's say for the word, "Acme." Acme means "highest point, summit." I would then draw a picture of a teenager with acne. That and the word would go on the front of the flashcard. On the back, I would write the definition, and a sentence that read, "The acme of my teenage years was when my acne cleared up."

This series of SAT/ACT prep words in coming to my store soon! Watch for it, as well as a freebie HERE.

Then we would come up with images and sentences for a few words together. Finally, I would have the students come up with images and sentences on their own and make their own flashcards.

3. Categorizing: Categorizing enables students to think about relationships among various words. I have found this strategy extremely helpful in breaking long word lists into chunks in social studies.

There are many ways to implement this strategy in class, but one of the simplest ways to initially teach it to your students is with a basic Group/Presentation strategy. Here's how I implement it:


A. Create a Slide Show:

-Slide 1: Group common words that will be simple for students categorize. I do it seasonally, so if it's around St. Patrick's Day, I might list, "Shamrocks, Green, Leprechauns, Rainbows, Gold, Parades." Students can easily figure out that the category should be "St. Patrick's Day."

-Remaining Slides: Think of categories for your vocabulary words. Without naming the categories, group the words by categories on your remaining slides. So if I'm doing a unit on the Age of Exploration, I might list "Chronometer, Astrolabe, Caravel, Compass, Maps" all on one slide. Students should be able to name a category for these words, whether it's "Technology, Tools, etc."


A. Divide your students into groups of three or four.
B. Give each group as pieces of construction paper as you have slides. If you can, have the construction paper and slide color match as closely as possible for each group of words.
C. Do Slide 1 as an example.
D. Then explain to the students that for the remaining slides, they will see groups of words. They need to find a category for each word that makes sense. When they see the slide, they should quietly discuss an appropriate category as a group, and write it down in marker on the appropriate color of construction paper.
E. Once all slides have been shown, go back to the beginning, and have students hold up  the category name they chose for each slide as that slide is projected. For each slide, discuss everyone's answer, and have the class decide which category name is the best (there may be more than one). The team with the best name for each category, gets a point.
F. It's more fun if there is some type of a reward for the team with the most points at the end of the round.

Students should be involved in their vocabulary acquisition in order to make them literate for life. In order to be involved, they must learn strategies that go beyond copying definitions. That's where interactive vocabulary comes in.

Vocabulary instruction that counts may take a little up front planning, but the impact on student learning is well worth it. I've got a couple of free resources here to help make teaching some of these strategies easier. Be sure to check them out!

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