Techniques and Tools for Vocabulary Instruction

When it comes to vocabulary instruction, teachers have many, many questions. Here are just a few: “How can I fit vocabulary in with everything else I have to do? How should I pick the words? What should my quizzes look like? And can you give me something that will work that won’t take eight hours a week to prepare?” This post (which was previously published in slightly different form on MiddleWeb) answers those questions and others.

The first step is to prepare your lists. I recommend using (which is FREE) to either find pre-existing lists or create your own.


  1. Sign up for a FREE account.
  2. If you want to FIND a list for a book you’re teaching, go to LISTS (, then select the appropriate genre (e.g., Literature, Non-fiction, Morphology & Roots), and enter the name of the text.
  3. If you’re teaching a common text, your search will turn up more than one list. Look for the “official” list, which is labeled by the genre, attributed as “by,” and likely to be the most comprehensive. Here’s an example:
Maniac Magee:

You will see that this book actually has three lists:

·      Before the Story, Part I:

·      Part II:

·      Part III:

The vocabulary list you will see on each of the above links includes a user-friendly definition and each word as it is used in the text. Keep in mind that there may or may not be enough context clues in these initial sentences; often there are not. Fortunately, this Website provides NUMEROUS other example sentences with AMPLE instructive/directive context: All you have to do is click on each word, and you will find multiple examples of usage—for example, here:


You have two options:

  1. Open an existing list (see above for how to do that) and select “Copy this list to…” and “…New List.” You will thus turn this list into your own list, which you can name whatever you like, and you can modify the list or the example sentences.
  2. Create your own list from scratch here:

Dump in all of the words you want to teach and give this list a name, then the Website generates user-friendly definitions. Once you click on “Edit,” you can “Browse Example Sentences” and select the ones you want to include. These example sentences use the words in context, and they are great for building “Hypothesis Sheets” to introduce the words.

Once you’ve created your list, use the following resources from The Literacy Cookbook’s “Building Robust Vocabulary” page, explained below.

  1. Introduce new words with the “Hypothesis Sheet” (see examples below). Save time by copying and pasting context-laden sentences from your list. I recommend addressing 4-5 words in a Do Now (3 minutes for the “Hypothesis Sheet,” 7 minutes to go over the words with the “Note-taking Sheet”). PS—It’s a good idea to give multiple sentences for each word, to show students different nuances of meaning.
  2. Use a “Note-taking Sheet” to over the words to co-create user-friendly definitions and one more sentence per word with the class; students take notes (see example below). Use the user-friendly definitions as a guide.
  3. Use various tools to give students opportunities to practice using/playing with words during Do Nows and HW (see examples below). If you have a word wall, consider running the “Word Wall Game” as follows:

Students earn points for creating sentences using the vocabulary words (or old vocabulary words on the word wall).

  • 1 point = attempt
  • 2 points = correct usage
  • 3 points = context makes the meaning of the word clear

Students toss a ball.  Whoever has the ball gets to talk.  If the other students are too loud, you can’t hear and you can’t give points, so they waste their time and lose out on points.


  1. See “Sample Vocabulary Quiz” for ideas about how to build your quizzes. Note: Matching is a no-no because students can simply guess, and this doesn’t show they understand how to use the words. Require students to EXPLAIN their answers. If you decide to use the “scenario” approach, be sure to train students how to use that approach before you put it on a quiz.

HYPOTHESIS SHEET: Vocabulary from Somewhere in the Darkness

Vocabulary words: entwine, beckon, silhouette, fragment

DIRECTIONS: Underline any CLUE WORDS that help you form your hypotheses.

entwine If you want to arm-wrestle, you will need to entwine your arm with the person you’re arm-wrestling with.
beckon To beckon her dog to return to her, the woman called, “Come here, Snoopy!”


silhouette When you stand outside a lit window at night, sometimes you can see the silhouette of a person watching TV.
fragment When I asked him for a cracker, he gave me only a fragment, which was not enough to satisfy my appetite.





Underline clue words and formulate your hypothesis. 

exceed Barack Obama won by so much more than people had expected. His win exceeded expectations.  
proceed Barack Obama was proceeding with picking his cabinet, including Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State.  
precede Jesse Jackson’s famous presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988 preceded Barack Obama’s win in 2008.  
concede John McCain conceded to Barack Obama when it became clear that he was not going to win 270 electoral votes.  

What do these words have in common? ________________________________________________________


What does “cede/ceed” mean? _______________________________________________________


Vocabulary NOTES for Somewhere in the Darkness



            definition: _____________________________________________________________

example: ______________________________________________________________


            definition: _____________________________________________________________

example: ______________________________________________________________


            definition: _____________________________________________________________

example: _____________________________________________________________


            definition: _____________________________________________________________

example: ______________________________________________________________


Vocabulary PRACTICE for Somewhere in the Darkness


Directions: Complete the box by answering the questions. You DO NOT need to use complete sentences. This is a QUICK activity. Have fun and think outside the box.

baby basketball player mom
What might this person be entwined with?  







Who might this person beckon?  







What kind of silhouette might this person have?








What would be the most important fragment of this person’s life?  







Vocabulary HOMEWORK

Directions: Complete the sentences with logical responses. NOTE: There is NOT one right answer. 

  1. If two people entwine their fingers, they are probably ____________________


  1. If a stranger beckons you, you should _________________________________________________________.
  2. If you saw the silhouette of a man with a knife, you would __________________


  1. If your mom found her vase in fragments, she would probably ______________



SAMPLE Vocabulary Quiz

[Note: This is a composite of various types of quiz questions; you can decide which approach(es) you prefer. Notice the prevalence of the question “Why?”]

Scenarios: Pick the scenario that best matches the word and defend your answer (2 points each).

Word Scenario 1 Scenario 2



I was so angry that my writing was mixed with invectives. I was so angry that my writing was made up completely of invectives. .





My soul was saved because of my faith in God. I saved a kitten from the pound and brought him home with me.





The election was a joke because many people weren’t allowed to vote. It was ridiculous. The election was a joke because the woman who won is so funny. She could be a stand-up comedian.





She was young and strong and full of life. She is old and dying.


Answer the question: Use your knowledge of our vocabulary to answer the following questions (2 points each).

  1. Which of these do you think should be compulsory – buckling your seatbelt in a car or being in your house by 8:00 pm? Why?


  1. Which is more likely to petrify you – a spider or a growling dog? Why?


  1. Which is a priest more likely to sanctify – a wedding or a murder? Why?


  1. Which is more likely to make a throng disperse – free candy or rain? Why?


9 – 12 Using stronger words in writing: Improve the paragraph below by crossing out the weak word(s) and replacing it with a stronger word.   Write the stronger word above the crossed-out word. Make sure to use the correct form of the word. I am looking for 4 vocabulary words to be used, but if you see other opportunities to use stronger vocabulary, I will give you extra credit for doing so (2 points each). [NOTE TO TEACHER: Include a word bank. ***ALSO: Check out to make your life easier when creating paragraphs like this!!!***]

In Night, Elie was very scared when he went to Auschwitz. When he arrived there was a big commotion, but then the guards forced all of the prisoners to line up and have their heads shaved. After this, they were told to strip and were given prison clothes to wear. It was a joke though, because they were given the wrong size clothes to wear. They were then looked at to see if they were strong enough. Of course, the guards treated them badly and yelled and cursed at them. These experiences, and seeing the crematorium, made Elie lose faith that God would rescue his people from the evil of the Nazis.


Using Context Clues: Read the passages to figure out which definition is best for the word in bold (3 points each).

  • 1 point = underlining context clues that make sense (underling the whole passage doesn’t count)
  • 1 point = explaining your choice with reasons (even if you get the wrong answer, if your thinking is logical and clear, you can earn this point)
  • 1 point = picking the correct answer


  1. Which of these most closely matches the meaning of stocky in the passage below?

He was a stocky man with big shoulders, the neck of a bull, thick lips, and curly hair (47).

  1. sturdy
  2. thin
  3. mean
  4. angry

Why? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  1. Which of these most closely matches the meaning of extracted in the passage below?

Some twenty prisoners were waiting in line at the entrance. It didn’t take long to learn the reason for our summons: our gold teeth were to be extracted (51).


  1. poked
  2. examined
  3. removed
  4. cleaned

Why? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

  1. Which of these most closely matches the meaning of famished in the passage below?

The bread, the soup – those were my entire life. I was nothing but a body. Perhaps even less: a famished stomach. The stomach alone was measuring time (52).

  1. full
  2. starving
  3. hungry
  4. large

Why? ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

About theliteracycookbook

In addition to this blog, I am the creator of THE LITERACY COOKBOOK Website ( and ONLY GOOD BOOKS Blog (, and the author of THE LITERACY COOKBOOK: A Practical Guide to Effective Reading, Writing, Speaking, and Listening Instruction (Jossey-Bass, 2012), LITERACY AND THE COMMON CORE: Recipes for Action (Jossey-Bass, 2014), and USING GRAMMAR TO IMPROVE WRITING: Recipes for Action (BookBaby, 2018). Check out my Website for more information about my consulting work.
This entry was posted in Assessment(s), Curriculum, Demo Lesson, ELA Common Core Standards, Instruction, Lesson-planning, TLC Website Resources, Vocabulary, Vocabulary in Context and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Techniques and Tools for Vocabulary Instruction

  1. Pingback: How to Use to Make Your Life Easier | The Literacy Cookbook blog

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