You’ve made the important and necessary decision to spend some time on direct instruction for academic vocabulary. If you hadn’t made that decision, allow us to convince you with this blog post – 3 Reasons Why You Should Teach Academic Vocabulary. Making the decision is a no-brainer, but teaching it can be challenging. Are you in need of some easy ways to teach academic vocabulary for mastery? We’re happy to share five of our favorite ideas! Whether you’ve only got a few minutes to spare or you plan to spend a solid chunk of time on vocabulary, we’ve got you covered!


Using the Proper Terms 

This strategy works well in any and all subjects, with very little extra planning or teaching time utilized in specific instruction. What you need to do is purposefully use specific academic vocabulary words in your math, social studies, science, and ELA lessons during direct instruction and explanations. Many of us use words that the kids are familiar with, or words we’ve created in our own classroom vocabularies. For example, have you ever demonstrated multiplication and explained the process by stating, “You’re going to times this number by this number. The number ____ will be our answer!”? Instead, you should use this opportunity to introduce and reinforce juicy math vocabulary terms such as factor and product. Write the definition of those terms in the corner of the board or on an anchor chart. You won’t need to take long to explain the specific terms the first time. Each time you revisit a strategy or skill where those words can be used, reuse them until they become a permanent part of your classroom environment and an expectation for your classroom discussions. Your students will not only know those words, they will know their meanings and know how to use them in context.

*** These can also be added to a WORD WALL. Then it can be referred to throughout the year.


Sentence Frames

Vocabulary sentence frames are practical and can accompany any lesson or topic. These are not exactly “on the go” as you will need a few minutes to prepare them in advance. If time escaped during your lesson, you could write them on the whiteboard or project them on the SmartBoard for students to copy in a pinch. You can use them as exit slips with a variety of academic vocabulary. For example, if you’ve been learning the terms obtuse, acute, right, and angle in your recent math unit, give a sentence frame exit slip for students to complete to show they’ve mastered the definitions of these terms. 


Be A Vocab Detective

This can be fun for kids of all ages, especially if you get into the spirit, as well.  Ways to set the mood include handing out mini-magnifying glasses, decorating your own cardstock detective badges, and introducing the idea with a mystery read aloud, such as Detective LaRue for younger kids or an Encyclopedia Brown short story for the upper elementary grades. Establish that you’re all Vocab Detectives and then you’ll be teaching vocabulary words in the moment and in every subject! (Sounds like a good deal to me!) Explain to students that the job of a Vocabulary Detective is to spot words that are specific to math, science, reading, testing, etc. You could even provide them with a ready-made list of words you’ll be searching for such as the ones found here for ELA and Math. When students spot one in their reading or in a whole class lesson, post the word and its definition on your “Casebook” anchor chart. Make sure you credit the “detective” who identified the word. What does this look like?

Let’s say that you’ve assigned your students a review activity and in the directions a Vocab Detective spots the words “Respond” and “Enumerate”. Realizing these are academic vocabulary words, your Vocab Detective will add it to the classroom Casebook/Anchor Chart so all the students in your class can see these “clues” to unlock a better understanding of academic vocabulary. Once a word goes up, make sure you provide a definition and an example sentences (many can be found here). 

After your list has grown to include a good number of words you’ve found on the fly, you can expand your activity to include review games and handouts that ask your detectives to “Crack the Case” by using the words correctly in a sentence or matching the definition to the term. 



Mini-lessons don’t have to be flashy (although they can be lots of fun and be quite memorable), but they are so essential in teaching. A mini-lesson typically takes a narrow focus on a smaller skill that you want to teach so that it can be used in conjunction with a larger concept. Utilize these small chunks of time to introduce and practice vocabulary concepts that will then be utilized in a larger lesson. As you begin a lesson on poetry, you might introduce the terms assonance and alliteration, providing definitions with examples from a poem that you’ll share. Perhaps you intend to start teaching fractions. Introducing the words numerator and denominator would be essential anyway, but instead of simply saying “The top number is the numerator and the bottom number is the denominator” explain what they mean, relating your definitions concretely to parts of the whole. You could also round out your mini-lesson with manipulatives to provide a concrete example to accompany your vocab!


Review Games 

Review games are the big-ticket item for both teachers and students. They can take time to prepare and to facilitate, but students typically love them more than handouts or direct instruction. Once your students have been introduced to a set of vocabulary terms (I recommend grouping them by math, ELA, or test-taking terms), spend time practicing and reviewing them in some of the ways mentioned above before having a whole class or small group game time. Here are some games you can play or create.

Kahoot or Quizizz – Whole class or centers with individual devices. You can assign Kahoots and Quizzizz through Google Classroom or by sharing links.

Jeopardy – Whole Class. Create one the old-fashioned way on a whiteboard or with a PowerPoint, or take advantage of free services like Jeopardy Labs. 

Tic-Tac-Toe – Centers. Have three students per center use small whiteboards. Two players face each other in Tic-Tac-Toe while the third player gives questions, either providing the definition of the vocabulary words and asking for the correct term, or providing the term and asking for the correct definition. You’ll need to provide a list or word cards for the quiz master to use. The quiz master can play the winner of the match ensuring that all three students will have a turn to be the quiz master.

I Have…. Who Has… Cards – Whole class or centers of about four students. You can make your own cards or use these editable ELA, Testing and Math Vocab sets with this Academic Vocabulary Words Resource. 


Worth the Investment?

If you’re worried that you’ll spend too much time teaching academic vocabulary or too much time creating resources that won’t have any other purpose—put your mind at ease. There are so many ways that you can use and re-use the words you’re teaching and the methods and strategies that helped you. Let’s examine a few of the long-term uses for vocabulary resources.

  • Continued academic success, especially in the upper grades, college, and careers. As we mentioned in the Testing Vocabulary blog post, a knowledge and mastery of academic vocabulary terms creates more opportunities for success and advancement in many areas and fields, even those that do not involve college degrees. What you are doing in a few minutes or hours per week could translate into lifelong success. You’re planting a seed or building a nest egg that will help the next generation.
  • Review for testing, math, and ELA concepts. The terms you’ll teach in academic vocabulary are academic, after all. Your students will use them again in content areas and in yearly normed and standardized tests. Again, you’re investing in the future success of your students.
  • Thinking in the immediate future, academic vocabulary words make great challenge words for spelling and great detail words for specificity in technical and expository writing.
  • Studying for a test in ELA or Math? Use your vocabulary charts and game cards as flashcards and self-check lists.
  • Worried about the “summer slide” or have parents who would like some extra practice activities? Vocabulary activities are easy to turn into packets and handouts to help students keep their skills sharp.
  • And like the last post mentioned, teaching GREEK AND LATIN words is also a great way to help students understand a variety of words they will find on standardized tests!



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