5 active ways to encourage vocabulary development

Research points to the importance of students knowing a wide range of words for success in reading.  Hart and Risley (2003) found significant, lasting differences in the home vocabularies of children of professionals versus children born into poverty. Additional studies show this vocabulary difference widens over time (Graves, et al., 2010). Looking for ways to close the gap is crucial for literacy development. We must consider ways to actively engage all students in learning new words. Here are 5 learning activities to increase student awareness:

  1. Shades of meaning – select words that have similar meanings, such as huge and large; asked and questioned. Pass the word cards out to students and have them find their buddy with a similar meaning. Ask them to create sentences using the word pair.
  2. Plus or minus endings – make word cards using words with –ing and –ed. Ask students to use scissors to cut the endings off. Does the base word need a letter (e) or does it have an extra letter (a double consonant)? Talk about the changes for adding endings. Search for more examples in the books they are reading.
  3. Determine number of syllables – create fun containers (such as pumpkins, boots, upside down umbrellas) and label with numbers for the syllables in the words you select (use science, social studies, and math words to double up on vocabulary development). Have students sort according to syllables.
  4. Pair the pears – on pear shape paper write homophones (tale/tail), shuffle, and pass out. Ask students to match the pairs, then to create a sentence that uses both words, showing correct usage.
  5. Hoop it up – draw two basketball hoops on a large surface. Choose two sounds for students to compare (long a/short a; hard g/soft g). On basketball shape paper write words that fit the sound patterns (bake/bag; goat/giant). Ask students to place the basketball under the correct hoop.

These are just a few ideas to get your started on active, hands-on vocabulary learning!


Graves, M. F., Juel, C., Graves, B. B., & Dewitz, P. (2010). Teaching reading in the 21st century: Motivating all learners. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Hart, B., & Risley, T. R. (2003). The early catastrophe: The 30 million word gap. American Educator, 27(1), 4–9.

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