high school vocabulary lesson plans

Because differences are our greatest strength

Vocabulary words: An evidence-based literacy strategy

high school vocabulary lesson plans

By Cheryl Lyon, MAT

Expert reviewed by Allison Posey, MEd, CAST, Inc.

high school vocabulary lesson plans

What you’ll learn

Watch: see teaching vocabulary words in action, read: how to use this vocabulary words strategy, understand: why this strategy works, connect: link school to home, research behind this strategy.

It’s hard for students to read and understand a text if they don’t know what the words mean. A solid vocabulary boosts reading comprehension for students of all ages. The more words students know, the better they understand the text. That’s why effective vocabulary teaching is so important, especially for students who learn and think differently.

In this article, you’ll learn how to explicitly teach vocabulary using easy-to-understand definitions, engaging activities, and repeated exposure. This strategy includes playing vocabulary games, incorporating visual supports like graphic organizers, and giving students the chance to see and use new words in real-world contexts.

The goal of this teaching strategy isn’t just to increase your students’ vocabulary. It’s to make sure the words are meaningful and relevant to their lives.

Watch this video of a kindergarten teacher teaching the word startled to her students:

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Objective:  Students will learn the meaning of new high-value words and how to use them.

Grade levels (with standards): 

  • K–5 (CCSS ELA Literacy Anchor Standard L.4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases)
  • K–5 (CCSS ELA Literacy Anchor Standard R.4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text)

Best used for instruction with:

  • Whole class
  • Small groups
  • Individuals

How to prepare:

Choose the words to teach. For weekly vocabulary instruction, work with students to choose three to five new words per week. Select words that students will use or see most often, or words related to other words they know. 

Before you dive in, it’s helpful to know that vocabulary words can be grouped into three tiers: 

  • Tier 1 words: These are the most frequently used words that appear in everyday speech. Students typically learn these words through oral language. Examples include dog , cat , happy , see , run , and go .
  • Tier 2 words: These words are used in many different contexts and subjects. Examples include interpret , assume , necessary , and analyze . The Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium has a partial list of Tier 2 words, broken down by grade levels. 
  • Tier 3 words: These are subject-specific words that are used in particular subject areas, such as peninsula in social studies and integer in math. 

When choosing which vocabulary words to teach, you may want to pick words from Tier 2 because they’re the most useful across all subject areas.

Select a text. Find an appropriate text (or multiple texts for students to choose from) that includes the vocabulary words you want to teach.

Come up with student-friendly definitions. Find resources you and your students can consult to come up with a definition for each word. The definition should be easy to understand, be written in everyday language, and capture the word’s common use. Your definitions can include pictures, videos, or other multimedia options. Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary , Merriam-Webster Learner’s Dictionary , and Wordsmyth Children’s Dictionary are all good resources to help create student-friendly definitions.

How to teach:

1. Introduce each new word one at a time. Say the word aloud and have students repeat the word. For visual support, display the words and their definitions for students to see, such as on a word wall, flip chart, or vocabulary graphic organizer. Showing pictures related to the word can be helpful, too.

For English language learners (ELLs): Try to use cognates (words from different languages that have a similar meaning, spelling, and pronunciation) when you introduce new words. For more information about using cognates when teaching vocabulary to ELLs, use these resources from Colorín Colorado . You can also ask students to say or draw their own definition of the words — in English or their home language — to help them understand each word and its meaning.

2. Reflect. Allow time for students to reflect on what they know or don’t know about the words. Remember that your class will come to the lesson with varying levels of vocabulary knowledge. Some students may be familiar with some of the words. Other students may not know any of them. If time permits, this could be a good opportunity to use flexible grouping so students can work on different words.

3. Read the text you’ve chosen. You can read it to your students or have students read on their own (either a printed version or by listening to an audio version). As you read, pause to point to the vocabulary words in context. Use explicit instruction to teach the word parts, such as prefixes and suffixes, to help define the word. If students are reading on their own or with a partner, encourage them to “hunt” for the words before reading. Hunting for these words first can reduce distractions later when the focus is on reading the text. 

4. Ask students to repeat the word after you’ve read it in the text. Then remind students of the word’s definition. If a word has more than one meaning, focus on the definition that applies to the text.

5. Use a quick, fun activity to reinforce each new word’s meaning. After reading, use one or more of the following to help students learn the words more effectively:

  • Word associations: Ask students, “What does the word delicate make you think of? What other words go with delicate ?” Students can turn and talk with a partner to come up with a response. Then invite pairs to share their responses with the rest of the class.
  • Use your senses: Ask your students to use their senses to describe when they saw, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled something that was delicate . Allow students time to think. Then ask them to give a thumbs up if they’ve ever seen something delicate . Call on students to share their responses. Do the same with each of the senses.
  • A round of applause: If the word is an adjective, invite students to clap based on how much they would like a delicate toy, for example. Or students can “vote with their feet” by moving to one corner of the room if they want a delicate toy or another corner if they don't. This activity works especially well if you pair the new adjective with a familiar noun.
  • Picture perfect: Invite students to draw a picture that represents the word’s meaning. 
  • Examples and non-examples: Give one example and one non-example of how the word is and isn’t used. For instance, you could tell students that one thing that is delicate is a teacup. One thing that isn’t delicate is the cement stairs into the school. Then invite students to share their own examples of things that are and aren’t delicate .

After students do one or more of the activities above, have them say or draw the word again.

6. Play word games. Throughout the week, play word games like vocabulary bingo, vocabulary Pictionary, and charades to practice the new words. Include words you’ve taught in the past for additional reinforcement. 

7. Challenge students to use new words. They can use their new vocabulary in different contexts, like at home, at recess, or during afterschool activities. Consider asking students to use a vocabulary notebook to jot down when they use the words. You can even get your colleagues or school administrators in on the fun by asking them to use the words when talking with students or in announcements. Praise students when you hear them using those words in and out of the classroom. 

Rote memorization (“skill and drill”) isn't very helpful when it comes to learning new vocabulary. Students learn best from explicit instruction that uses easy-to-understand definitions, engaging activities, and repeated exposure. Teaching this way will help students understand how words are used in real-life contexts and that words can have different meanings depending on how they’re used. 

This explicit approach helps all students and is especially helpful for students who learn and think differently. This includes students who have a hard time figuring out the meaning of new words when they’re reading. It can be difficult for them to make an inference or use context clues to figure out what a word means.

Explicit vocabulary instruction with student-friendly definitions means there’s no guesswork involved. Repeated exposure and practice help to reinforce the words in students’ memories.  

Share with families this resource they can use at home to help students grow their vocabulary. You can model some of these strategies for families at back-to-school night or another family event.  

“Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (2nd ed.),” by Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan

“A review of the current research on vocabulary instruction,” from the National Reading Technical Assistance Center, RMC Research Corporation

“Building Academic Vocabulary: Teacher’s Manual,” by Robert J. Marzano and Debra J. Pickering

“Teaching Word Meanings,” by Steven A. Stahl and William E. Nagy

About the author

Cheryl Lyon, MAT is a PhD student in educational psychology with a focus on special education and literacy.

Reviewed by

high school vocabulary lesson plans

Allison Posey, MEd, CAST, Inc. is a curriculum and design specialist at CAST.

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12 Vocabulary Activities for High School

Gathering New Words

Words are power. Until you have a word for something, you can't think effectively about it. That's why every discipline has its own specialized vocabulary and why people who study the discipline must learn the vocabulary in order to be conversant.

So, vocabulary-building is as crucial in high school, college, and career as it was when students were first learning to read and write. It helps native speakers and English language learners, alike. You can use any (or all) of these creative word activities to help your students expand their vocabularies and their minds.

Four Vocabulary Builders

  • Building Words asks students to define prefixes, roots, and suffixes and assemble them into new words, which they define.
  • Understanding Context Clues teaches students strategies for understanding new terms by seeing how they are used.
  • Using Context Clues provides students a passage for defining terms using context.
  • Discovering Word Origins helps students think about how words evolve, changing meaning from language to language and context to context.

Five Usage Activities

  • Usage Mnemonics inspires students to discover personal memory aids for distinguishing commonly confused words.
  • Words in the Wild sends students to search the Internet for examples of correct usage of commonly confused words.
  • Spell the Right Word requires one partner to use a commonly confused word correctly in a sentence and the other to spell the right form of the word.
  • Would You Rather? has one partner use commonly confused word pairs to provide the other partner with options to choose from.
  • Malapropism Mania! asks students to read humorous malapropisms and define both the incorrect word and the word that is meant.

Three Idiom Explorations

  • Idiom Safari helps students find idioms "in the wild," as they are currently used on the Internet.
  • Literal Idioms asks students to learn the figurative meaning of idioms and then use them literally .
  • Pun-ishing Idioms teaches your students ways to create groaner jokes worthy of Dad.

Teacher Support:

Click to find out more about this resource.

Standards Correlations:

The State Standards provide a way to evaluate your students' performance.

  • LAFS.1112.L.3.4
  • 110.38.c.2.B
  • 110.39.c.2.B
  • LA 12.1.5.a
  • LA 12.1.3.a
  • 110.38.c.2.A
  • 110.39.c.2.A
  • LA 12.1.5.e
  • 110.38.c.8.F
  • 110.39.c.8.F
  • LAFS.1112.L.3.5
  • LA 12.1.5.d
  • 110.38.c.8.E
  • 110.39.c.8.E

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  • Inquire Online Middle School Teacher's Guide
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High School Vocabulary Lesson Plans That Really Work

More than just vocabulary lesson plans, the following ideas combine ideas on how to teach vocabulary and lesson plans for effective verbal communication. Before getting into the fun stuff, let’s look at why learning vocabulary is so important.

  • All standardized tests are reading tests with specialized vocabulary. In fact, the major reason we may not understand our automobile manual, our medical prescriptions, and our investment prospectus is we are not familiar with the jargon.
  • Having a broad vocabulary increases confidence . Students who are able to communicate effectively are more likely to forge strong ties with their peers and adults alike.
  • Vocabulary skills make reading, writing, and speaking so much better, because comprehension of text and conversation increases.

Great Vocabulary Ideas

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The foundation for improving vocabulary involves daily practice using activities such as reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Click on these lesson ideas to find ways of boosting vocabulary learning:


The old school approach to vocabulary consisted of copying down new words, defining them, throwing them in your backpack, taking them out of your backpack 10 minutes before the quiz, studying the words, getting a ‘D’ on the quiz, forgetting the words, getting the quiz back, throwing the quiz in the garbage can never to be seen again. There’s a better way. It’s called actually having kids learn the word by employing verbal, visual, and auditory skills to take ownership of the word.


You’ve tried the old school approach. Now it’s time for a more focused approach. Forcing children to think outside the box provides opportunities for creativity and review. Be careful though; students might want to do extra practice.


Kinesthetic learners need entertainment. If you don’t provide it, then they will find other means. These great activities help students learn while having fun and moving around.

This post is part of the series: Learning Styles

These lesson plans are geared toward multiple learning styles.

  • Fun Language Arts Review Lesson Plan
  • Literary Terms Lesson Plan: Teaching to Different Learning Styles
  • Teaching Tips - Vocabulary Lesson Plans
  • Creative Lesson Plan: Vocabulary Poster
  • A Vocabulary Lesson Plan for Normal People

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word wall in first grade classroom filled with vocabulary words

Teaching Vocabulary

On this page:, components of vocabulary instruction, instruction for english language learners (ells), lesson model for: word consciousness, lesson model for: word-meaning recall, lesson model for: contextual analysis.

Vocabulary is the knowledge of words and word meanings. As Steven Stahl (2005) puts it, “Vocabulary knowledge is knowledge; the knowledge of a word not only implies a definition, but also implies how that word fits into the world.” Vocabulary knowledge is not something that can ever be fully mastered; it is something that expands and deepens over the course of a lifetime. Instruction in vocabulary involves far more than looking up words in a dictionary and using the words in a sentence. Vocabulary is acquired incidentally through indirect exposure to words and intentionally through explicit instruction in specific words and word-learning strategies. According to Michael Graves (2000), there are four components of an effective vocabulary program:

  • wide or extensive independent reading to expand word knowledge
  • instruction in specific words to enhance comprehension of texts containing those words
  • instruction in independent word-learning strategies, and
  • word consciousness and word-play activities to motivate and enhance learning

The National Reading Panel (2000) concluded that there is no single research-based method for teaching vocabulary . From its analysis, the panel recommended using a variety of direct and indirect methods of vocabulary instruction.

Intentional vocabulary teaching

Specific word instruction.

  • Selecting Words to Teach
  • Rich and Robust Instruction

Word-learning strategies

  • Dictionary Use
  • Morphemic Analysis
  • Cognate Awareness (ELL)
  • Contextual Analysis

According to the National Reading Panel (2000), explicit instruction of vocabulary is highly effective. To develop vocabulary intentionally, students should be explicitly taught both specific words and word-learning strategies. To deepen students’ knowledge of word meanings, specific word instruction should be robust (Beck et al., 2002). Seeing vocabulary in rich contexts provided by authentic texts, rather than in isolated vocabulary drills, produces robust vocabulary learning (National Reading Panel, 2000). Such instruction often does not begin with a definition, for the ability to give a definition is often the result of knowing what the word means. Rich and robust vocabulary instruction goes beyond definitional knowledge; it gets students actively engaged in using and thinking about word meanings and in creating relationships among words.

Research shows that there are more words to be learned than can be directly taught in even the most ambitious program of vocabulary instruction. Explicit instruction in word-learning strategies gives students tools for independently determining the meanings of unfamiliar words that have not been explicitly introduced in class. Since students encounter so many unfamiliar words in their reading, any help provided by such strategies can be useful.

Word-learning strategies include dictionary use, morphemic analysis, and contextual analysis. For ELLs whose language shares cognates with English, cognate awareness is also an important strategy. Dictionary use teaches students about multiple word meanings, as well as the importance of choosing the appropriate definition to fit the particular context. Morphemic analysis is the process of deriving a word’s meaning by analyzing its meaningful parts, or morphemes. Such word parts include root words , prefixes, and suffixes. Contextual analysis involves inferring the meaning of an unfamiliar word by scrutinizing the text surrounding it. Instruction in contextual analysis generally involves teaching students to employ both generic and specific types of context clues .

Fostering word consciousness

A more general way to help students develop vocabulary is by fostering word consciousness, an awareness of and interest in words. Word consciousness is not an isolated component of vocabulary instruction; it needs to be taken into account each and every day (Scott and Nagy, 2004). It can be developed at all times and in several ways: through encouraging adept diction, through word play, and through research on word origins or histories. According to Graves (2000), “If we can get students interested in playing with words and language, then we are at least halfway to the goal of creating the sort of word-conscious students who will make words a lifetime interest.”

Multiple exposures in multiple contexts

One principle of effective vocabulary learning is to provide multiple exposures to a word’s meaning. There is great improvement in vocabulary when students encounter vocabulary words often (National Reading Panel, 2000). According to Stahl (2005), students probably have to see a word more than once to place it firmly in their long-term memories. “This does not mean mere repetition or drill of the word,” but seeing the word in different and multiple contexts. In other words, it is important that vocabulary instruction provide students with opportunities to encounter words repeatedly and in more than one context.

Restructuring of vocabulary tasks

Findings of the National Reading Panel

  • Intentional instruction of vocabulary items is required for specific texts.
  • Repetition and multiple exposures to vocabulary items are important.
  • Learning in rich contexts is valuable for vocabulary learning. Vocabulary tasks should be restructured as necessary.
  • Vocabulary learning should entail active engagement in learning tasks.
  • Computer technology can be used effectively to help teach vocabulary.
  • Vocabulary can be acquired through incidental learning. How vocabulary is assessed and evaluated can have differential effects on instruction.
  • Dependence on a single vocabulary instructional method will not result in optimal learning.

It is often assumed that when students do not learn new vocabulary words, they simply need to practice the words some more. Research has shown, however, that it is often the case that students simply do not understand the instructional task involved (National Reading Panel, 2000). Rather than focus only on the words themselves, teachers should be certain that students fully understand the instructional tasks (Schwartz and Raphael, 1985). The restructuring of learning materials or strategies in various ways often can lead to increased vocabulary acquisition, especially for low-achieving or at-risk students (National Reading Panel, 2000). According to Kamil (2004), “once students know what is expected of them in a vocabulary task, they often learn rapidly.”

Incidental vocabulary learning

The scientific research on vocabulary instruction reveals that most vocabulary is acquired incidentally through indirect exposure to words. Students can acquire vocabulary incidentally by engaging in rich oral-language experiences at home and at school, listening to books read aloud to them, and reading widely on their own. Reading volume is very important in terms of long-term vocabulary development (Cunningham and Stanovich, 1998). Kamil and Hiebert (2005) reason that extensive reading gives students repeated or multiple exposures to words and is also one of the means by which students see vocabulary in rich contexts. Cunningham (2005) recommends providing structured read-aloud and discussion sessions and extending independent reading experiences outside school hours to encourage vocabulary growth in students.

An increasing number of students come from homes in which English is not the primary language. From 1979 to 2003, the number of students who spoke English with difficulty increased by 124 percent (National Center for Education Statistics, 2005). In 2003, students who spoke English with difficulty represented approximately 5 percent of the school population—up from 3 percent in 1979.

Not surprisingly, vocabulary development is especially important for English-language learners (ELLs). Poor vocabulary is a serious issue for these students (Calderon et al., 2005). ELLs who have deficits in their vocabulary are less able to comprehend text at grade level than their English-only (EO) peers (August et al., 2005). Findings indicate that research-based strategies used with EO students are also effective with ELLs, although the strategies must be adapted to strengths and needs of ELLs (Calderon et al., 2005).

Diane August and her colleagues (2005) suggest several strategies that appear to be especially valuable for building the vocabularies of ELLs. These strategies include taking advantage of students’ first language if the language shares cognates with English, teaching the meaning of basic words, and providing sufficient review and reinforcement. Because English and Spanish share a large number of cognate pairs, the first instructional strategy is especially useful for Spanish-speaking ELLs. These students can draw on their cognate knowledge as a means of figuring out unfamiliar words in English. A second instructional strategy for ELLs is learning the meanings of basic words — words that most EO students already know. Basic words can be found on lists, such as the Dale-Chall List (Chall and Dale, 1995). A third instructional strategy that ELLs particularly benefit from is review and reinforcement. These methods include read-alouds, teacher-directed activities, listening to audiotapes, activities to extend word use outside of the classroom, and parent involvement.

Strategies for ELLs

  • Take advantage of students’ first language
  • Teach the meaning of basic words
  • Review and reinforcement
  • ability to interpret literal and figurative meanings of idioms
  • ability to research origins of idioms

Grade level

  • Kindergarten and above
  • whole class
  • small group or pairs
  • small plastic toy horses
  • drawing paper
  • crayons or markers
  • dictionaries

Animal idioms

An idiom is a phrase or expression in which the entire meaning is different from the usual meanings of the individual words within it. Idioms are fun to work with because they are part of everyday vocabulary . Students enjoy working with figurative meanings, as well as imagining possible literal meanings for the expressions. They also enjoy finding out about the origins of idiomatic expressions, some of which are very old. Introducing idioms by topic can make them easier for students to remember. This sample lesson model focuses on introducing idioms that make use of animals or animal comparisons.


Tell students that an idiom is an expression that cannot be fully understood by the meanings of the individual words that are contained within it. The meaning of the whole idiom has little, often nothing, to do with the meanings of the words taken one by one. Point out to students that idioms are often used in writing or speech to make expression more colorful and that some of the most colorful English idioms make use of animals or animal comparisons. Explain that many idioms have interesting origins that may not make literal sense to us today, but made perfectly good sense during the times in which they were coined.

Tell students that the expression “to hold your horses” is an idiom. Demonstrate its literal meaning by holding a bunch of small plastic toy horses in your hand. Tell students that when someone tells you “to hold your horses” it would be silly to think that they wanted you to hold a bunch of horses in your hand. The whole expression “to hold your horses” actually means “to slow down, wait a minute, or be more patient.” For example, if you were impatiently waiting for your sister to get off the phone, your sister might say to you, “Hold your horses. I’ll be off the phone in a minute!”

Tell students that “to be raining cats and dogs” is another idiom. Ask students whether, if someone said it’s “raining cats and dogs,” they would expect to look up and see animals falling from the sky. Then explain to them that “raining cats and dogs” is used to describe when it’s raining really heavily or really hard. Ask volunteers to describe a time they remember when it was “raining cats and dogs.”

Ask students to draw pictures of the literal meaning of either “to hold your horses” or “to be raining cats and dogs.” Then have them take turns showing their illustration and using the idiom correctly in a context sentence.

Collaborative practice

Tell students that they are going to work together in groups to make a drawing of an animal idiom’s literal meaning and then act out its real, or figurative, meaning. They will see if the drawings and skits they make provide enough information for their classmates to figure out what the idiom really means. To begin, select a group of three students to demonstrate the activity. Tell this group that their idiom is “to let the cat out of the bag” and that this idiom means “to give away a secret.”

Divide the group tasks as follows: One student will draw the idiom the way it would look if it meant literally what it said: by drawing a sketch of a cat leaping out of a paper bag. This student labels the drawing with the idiom, “to let the cat out of the bag.” The other two students develop a brief skit about the figurative meaning of the idiom: “to give away a secret.” For example, they could develop a simple scene where someone finds out about a surprise birthday party, because a brother or sister gives it away beforehand. The last line could be: “You let the cat out of the bag.”

When the group is finished, have them show the idiom’s literal meaning in the drawing, and then act out its figurative meaning in the skit. Have the group challenge their classmates to guess the idiom’s figurative, or intended, meaning and then correctly use the idiom in a sentence: Nancy let the cat out of the bag when she told Nick about the surprise birthday party. When the whole class has understood how this activity works, assign a different animal idiom, with its figurative meaning, to other groups of students. Each group then works out its plan for making the drawing and acting out the skit. Have the groups take turns demonstrating their idioms to the class, so the class can guess the idiom’s figurative meaning and use it in a sentence.

English language learners

Learning about idioms can be particularly helpful for ELLs because the gap between the literal meaning of individual words and the intended meaning of the expression often causes trouble in translation.

  • ability to remember word meanings
  • Grade 3 and above

Sample texts

  • “Alaska Adventure” (Resources)
  • “Studying the Sky” (Resources)

Keyword method

Mnemonic strategies are systematic procedures for enhancing memory. The word mnemonic comes from Mnemosyne, the name of Greek goddess of memory. The keyword method, a mnemonic strategy, has been shown to be effective with students who have learning difficulties and those who are at risk for educational failure. According to the National Reading Panel, the keyword method may lead to significant improvement in students’ recall of new vocabulary words. This sample lesson model targets two contextualized vocabulary words. The same model can be adapted and used to enhance recall of vocabulary words in any commercial reading program.

Direct explanation

Explain to students that you are going to show them how to use the keyword method, a useful strategy for remembering the meanings of vocabulary words. Tell them you are going to model the strategy twice, using the words archipelago and lunar.


Define the target word

Read aloud the following sentence from “Alaska Adventure.”

The Aleutian archipelago stretches for more than a thousand miles.

Then tell students that an archipelago is “a group of islands.”

Think of a keyword for the target word

Say: To help me remember the meaning of the word archipelago , a group of islands, I am going to think of another word, called a “keyword.” The keyword is a word that sounds like archipelago and also is a word that can be easily pictured. My keyword for archipelago is pelican . Pelican sounds like archipelago and is the name of a water bird with a very large bill.

Link the keyword with the meaning of the target word

Explain to students that the next step is to create an image of the keyword pelican and the meaning of the target word archipelago interacting in some way. Tell them it is important that the keyword and the meaning actually interact and are not simply presented in the same picture. On the board, sketch a picture of a pelican flying over a group of small islands.

Say: Look at the picture of the pelican flying over the group of islands. Ask: Pelican is the keyword for what word? (archipelago) Say: Yes, archipelago. To recall the meaning of the word archipelago, imagine a pelican flying over a group of small islands.

Recall the meaning of the target word

Tell students that when they see or hear the word archipelago , they should first think of its keyword and then try to remember the picture of the keyword and the meaning interacting.

Ask: What is the keyword for archipelago? (pelican) In the sketch, where was the pelican flying? (over a group of islands) Say: Right, over a group of islands. Ask: So what does archipelago mean? (a group of islands)

Point out to Spanish-speaking ELLs that archipelago and archipélago are cognates .

  • ability to recognize types of semantic context clues
  • ability to use context clues to infer word meanings
  • Grade 4 and above


  • Context Clues

Teaching chart

  • Types of Helpful Context Clues (Resources)
  • copies of Types of Helpful

Context clues chart

  • transparencies
  • blue, red, and green overhead transparency markers

Introducing types of context clues

Instruction in specific types of context clues is an effective approach for teaching students to use context to infer word meanings. Baumann and his colleagues recommend teaching five types of context clues: definition, synonym, antonym , example, and general. This sample lesson model can be adapted and used to enhance contextual analysis instruction in any commercial reading program.

Tell students that they can sometimes use context clues to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word they come across in their reading. Remind them that context clues are the words, phrases, and sentences surrounding an unfamiliar word that can give hints or clues to its meaning. Caution students that although these clues can prove to be helpful, they can sometimes be misleading.

Definition context clues

Give students copies of the Types of Helpful Context Clues (opens in a new window) chart. Briefly go over the chart, identifying the types of context clues and discussing the example for each one. Tell students that they should refer to the chart as they learn more about the five different types of context clues.

Explain to students that in a definition clue the author provides the reader with the specific definition, or meaning, of a word right in the sentence. Point out that words such as are, is, means, and refers to can signal that a definition clue may follow. Then print the following sentences on a transparency:

A conga is a barrel-shaped drum. At night your can see constellations, or groups of stars, in the sky.

Read aloud the first sentence.

Say: I’m going to look for a context clue to help me understand the meaning of the word conga. Underline conga in blue.

Say: In the sentence, I see the word is. The word is can signal a definition context clue . Underline is in red.

Say: The phrase a barrel-shaped drum follows the word is.  Underline the context clue in green.

Say: A conga is a barrel-shaped drum. The author has given a definition context clue.

For more vocabulary lesson plans, purchase CORE’s Vocabulary Handbook (opens in a new window)

For more information about vocabulary, browse the articles, multimedia, and other resources in this special section: Topics A-Z: Vocabulary (opens in a new window) .

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August, D., M. Carlo, C. Dressler, and C. Snow. 2005. The critical role of vocabulary development for English language learners. Learning Disabilities: Research & Practice 20 (L), pp. 50-57.

Beck, I.L., M.G. McKeown, and L. Kucan. 2002. Bringing words to life:Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.

Calderón, M., D. August, R. Slavin, D. Duran, N. Madden, and A. Cheung. 2005. Bring words to life in classrooms with English-language learners. In E.H. Hiebert and M.L. Kamil (eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbraum.

Chall, J., and E. Dale 1995. Readability revisited: The new Dale-Chall readability formula. Brookline, MA: Brookline Books.

Cunningham, A.E. 2005. Vocabulary growth through independent reading and reading aloud to children. In E.H. Hiebert and M.L.Kamil (eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbraum.

Cunningham, A.E., and K.E. Stanovich. 1998. What reading does for the mind. American Educator. 22, pp. 8-15.

Graves, M.F. 2000. A vocabulary program to complement and bolster a middle-grade comprehension program. In B.M. Taylor, M.F. Graves, and P. Van Den Broek (eds.), Reading for meaning: Fostering comprehension in the middle grades. Mew York: Teachers College Press.

Kamil, M.L. 2004. Vocabulary and comprehension instruction: Summary and implications of the National Reading Panel finding. In P. McCardle and V. Chhabra (eds.), The voice of evidence in reading and research. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Kamil, M.L., and E.H. Hiebert. 2005. Teaching and learning vocabulary: Perspectives and persistent issues. In E.H. Hiebert and M.L. Kamil (eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

National Center for Educational Statistics. 2005. The condition of education. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

National Reading Panel. 2000. Teaching children to read: An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literature on reading and its implications for reading instruction. Washington, DC: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Schwartz, R.M., and T.E. Raphael. 1985. Concept of definition: A key to improving students’ vocabulary. Reading Teacher 39, pp. 198-203.

Scott, J.A., and W.E. Nagy. 2004. Developing word consciousness. In J.F. Baumann and E.J. Kame’enui (eds.), Vocabulary instruction: Research to practice. New York: Guilford.

Stahl, S.A. 2005. Four problems with teaching word meanings (and what to do to make vocabulary an integral part of instruction). In E.H. Hiebert and M.L. Kamil (eds.), Teaching and learning vocabulary: Bringing research to practice. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Diamond, L. & Gutlohn, L. (2006). Vocabulary Handbook.Consortium on Reading Excellence, Inc. Reproduction of this material is prohibited without permission from the publisher.

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  1. Literacy Strategy: How to Teach Vocabulary Words

    How to prepare: Choose the words to teach. For weekly vocabulary instruction, work with students to choose three to five new words per week. Select words that students will use or see most often, or words related to other words they know. Before you dive in, it’s helpful to know that vocabulary words can be grouped into three tiers:

  2. High School Vocabulary Lesson Plans That Really Work

    The old school approach to vocabulary consisted of copying down new words, defining them, throwing them in your backpack, taking them out of your backpack 10 minutes before the quiz, studying the words, getting a ‘D’ on the quiz, forgetting the words, getting the quiz back, throwing the quiz in the garbage can never to be seen again.

  3. Teaching Vocabulary

    According to the National Reading Panel (2000), explicit instruction of vocabulary is highly effective. To develop vocabulary intentionally, students should be explicitly taught both specific words and word-learning strategies. To deepen students’ knowledge of word meanings, specific word instruction should be robust (Beck et al., 2002).

  4. Vocabulary Lesson Plans

    Word Up Schedule The exercises and sections within each Word Up unit can be assigned flexibly and accommodate any schedule. Use them as homework, group work, independent practice or as components of an after-school program. See a sample schedule for grades 2-5 here and a sample schedule for grades 6-8 here. Using the Assessments