Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

Ogle, Klemp and McBride advise against inefficient vocabulary acquisition strategies such as looking words up in the dictionary or isolated phonics instruction. They advocate for increasing independent reading in order to promote vocabulary development. It can be difficult for secondary non-ELA content teachers to provide the time and appropriate materials for independent reading in their classes.

Readers have many encounters with large numbers of words. These encounters help them relate the word to their own prior knowledge and experiences and give them practice in using their growing knowledge of these words to make inferences (Nagy, 1988, p. 32).

hunger games

A student’s vocabulary growth depends on multiple exposures to new words in a variety of contexts. Learning new words requires integration, repetition, and meaningful use. New terms need to be integrated with what students already know. New terms need to be taught and retaught in multiple contexts. Students need to use new terms in ways that are meaningful to them.

Research suggests that the human brain actively “looks” for similar information to make sense of incoming data (Jensen, 1998; Sousa, 2001; and Sprenger, 1999). Thus, learning activities that help students connect what they know to what they are about to learn can positively affect comprehension. The authors recommend concept mapping, discovering similarities and differences, and predicting ABCs as strategies that help students activate their prior knowledge.

Activating Prior Knowledge

Concept definition or semantic mapping is when students work in small groups to use context clues to guess at a word’s meaning. Then the students list all of their definitions and vote on the best one. Students also come up with at least three characteristics, synonyms and/or properties of the key word or concept. Lastly, the teacher should ask students for non-examples or contrasts. The figure below illustrates how a group of students defined “democracy”.

Concept Map

An outcome of the concept-mapping process is that students learn how to discover similarities and differences between ideas. Students  can complete a Y-chart as they read and then determine how two terms, events or people are alike. Then, students separate out the differences as they discuss the terms. Students draw lines through similarities in the top part of the chat and adds them to the bottom section.  This chart works well helping students examine the differences in social studies terms like socialism and communism.


The Predicting ABCs graphic organizer allows small groups of students to share word lists and explain to each other what each term means. After skimming a chapter, students are asked identify words they think their classmates might struggle with. Then they turn to an elbow partner and discuss the words they listed in E-F. Students can move into groups and share words with the whole class.  When a student lists a word, the entire class adds it to their ABCs sheet. Then the teacher can provide whole class instruction interpreting and explaining the words. Now the class is ready to read.

Predicting ABCs Chart

There are many more resources in this information-rich chapter. In fact, this whole book is full of graphic organizers that can be adapted for use in elementary, middle and high school Social Studies classes. I like the authors’ technique of using a model teacher that encounters and solves classroom problems in each chapter.

Practice & Activities

In the past, I have conducted vocabulary tweetathons and six word definitions/memoirs. When I was a middle school teacher, I used to have students create Foldables from Dinah Zike’s videos. A few years ago, when I moved into a 1:1 environment, I had the students create flash cards and play study games on Quizlet, which led me to experiment with other vocabulary-based video games.  What tricks and tips do you have for teaching content-specific vocabulary?


Ogle, D., Klemp, R., and McBride, B. (2007).  Building Literacy in Social Studies: Strategies for Improving Comprehension and Critical Thinking . Ch. 3 (pp. 33-52). ASCD.

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