Teaching vocabulary is super important for background knowledge and understanding context clues within new reading passages, math story problems, and other nonfiction subject area resources, like geography and science.
Finding teaching techniques that work fast and effectively to broaden all different types of vocabulary lists can feel daunting at times.
When students show up on your doorstep, you don’t get to choose what they learned prior to walking through that classroom door. It becomes even more of a challenge when vocabulary skills are limited.
For example, if you are trying to teach a lesson on the commutative property of addition and realize that the child has no idea what addends or sums are – or why they would even need to know.
Or if you are reading a story about baking a cake, but the student looks a bit puzzled when he or she hears the words “preheat” or “blend” or “sift.” What makes simple sense to most adults can be quite challenging for the child if he or she has never been exposed to those same experiences and doesn’t know definitions or terminology for those basic words to build upon.
How to Improve Vocabulary
I don’t know about you, but sometimes reviewing vocabulary is like pulling teeth. It can get monotonous very quickly for the students – and for you!
Fun tools I like to use to practice a variety of subjects are the Clever Catch balls. There are a TON in a bunch of different subjects and skills. They have ice breakers, multiplication practice, the Presidents, and more!
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The basic idea is that students can play as a class, small groups, partners, or individually. They toss the ball to one another (or up in the air and catch themselves if playing on their own), and whatever question or concept their right thumb (or whatever you deem the best) lands on is the item they must work out, give the definition for, recite the answer, etc.
The balls are lightweight – aka they can’t hurt each other too much if they get overzealous – and they enjoy tossing it to each other. Never mind the fact they are also learning English in the process.
Most teachers don’t have an unlimited budget though, and if you wanted to have several of these balls for small group practice going on at one time, it could get a tad expensive.
DIY to the rescue! I made my own version of a Vocabulary Ball that you can also easily replicate and customize for your own classroom!
First you need a simple beach ball in whatever size you like. They are readily available at local big box stores or even at the Dollar Store. You will also need Sharpies in any colors you prefer.
Start with the ball out of the package (my dog refused to get out of every camera shot I tried, so I figured the one where he looks like he is as deflated as the ball was a good option – lol).
Blow up your ball.
Use a sharpie to add words. That’s it!
Now on mine, I added CCSS Vocabulary words on 2 sides. One panel included some of the words from the RL and RI strands, while the blue section included words from the Math Counting and Cardinality strand.
I wanted to mix up reading and math on one, but you can choose to do what suit your class the best. As the students toss the ball, they must give the definition of the word their right thumb lands on (or as close to as possible).
Another idea would be to start the year, week, or unit with a clean ball, and then add words as they come up throughout the lessons.
Have students practice with the words – even when you are finished. You will be able to have the class continue building that vocabulary, without the backslide that always occurs right after the assessment is complete.
Maybe even use it all year for all reading (or science, math, social studies) vocabulary words. Talk about not being able to forget. Constant practice is the key.
One last idea – you could even use these balls in a center. Leave one at the area, along with paper/pencil (or a tape recorder).
As the student tosses it in the air and it lands, they can either write down or talk in the tape recorder and give the definition of the word. Accountability at its finest.
Other Games to Play for Vocabulary Practice
Need some more language vocabulary activities for your grade level? Perhaps one of the following will be just the ticket for your students:
- Create a Class of Word Detectives! – I love this simple free worksheet that allows students to use a dictionary to find a definition, an option to act it out, or even a choice to draw it if they prefer. Use it on a daily basis for just ONE word and you’ll have lots of new examples to share with the class to expand those vocabularies very quickly.
- Block Learning DIY Style! – This hands-on activity is so fun! Grab some stickers that showcase the meaning of your current vocab list, and stick them on the faces of plain wood cubes. Then have students create a writing assignment that includes the vocabulary words they personally “rolled” from the vocab dice.
- Vocabulary Practice Ideas – and a Freebie! – Want to really test what students know in nonfiction content areas without giving them a quiz? Check out this super handy freebie from our guest blogger Ashley.
Ways to Store Common Word Flashcards
Having flash cards for sight words will also increase vocabulary in a flash. Here are 2 ideas for storing those cards so they don’t get lost. You could even have a “make it take it” workshop for parents and have them make their child’s flash card holder so you don’t have to do them all yourself.
Storing Sight Words – Use an inexpensive paper 2 pocket folder for this option that students can personalize with their name with foam stickers.
Upcycled Flash Card Containers! – Use a milk jug to create a cute way to promote reduce, reuse, and recycle. Might even be a fun project for an Earth Day lesson.
Enjoy all the ideas above and have fun making your very own Vocabulary Balls. Other ideas for how to use simple materials to keep vocabulary practice engaging? We would love to hear them in a comment below!