vocabulary instruction strategies for middle school

Variety is both the spice of life and the spice of vocabulary instruction. We all want students to get into routines related to in-class work, but sometimes those same routines can become too monotonous and may be detrimental to the necessary learning. 

Does this sound familiar? 

“Add this word to your notebook, and here is the definition for it, too. Now use it in a sentence.” 

Throw in a “Will this be on the test?” or “When will I use this?” and you’ve got a great list of words and definitions that are probably totally forgettable for students!

So if you find yourself in that difficult place where you need to maintain consistency while keeping vocabulary instruction fun and fresh, here are three twists you can start using today:

  1. Promote Creativity with a Visual Component
  2. Use Words in Different Contexts
  3. Create a Personalized Oral Dictionary

Using a combination of the Frayer model you might already be using in your classroom and Robert Marzano’s 6-step Vocabulary Process, these three vocabulary instruction strategies will add the spice you need to make vocabulary instruction fun and fresh!


vocabulary instruction using visuals

Some versions of the Frayer model ask students to incorporate a visual, but what about trying a visual that’s a bit more free-form and student-directed? Like Sketchnotes! Sketchnotes are a great option for vocabulary and other essential information. They can provide a layered approach that combines vocabulary words into one set of notes rather than repetition of vocabulary logs.

Want to take it a step further? Shift that visual from paper to 3D. You can use playdough, WikkiStix, or pipe cleaners for students to take a more hands-on approach to learn vocabulary. When I teach the novel Holes by Louis Sachar, I want students to define and remember the word “hammock.” What if, instead of drawing a picture of a hammock, students created one from the hands-on art supplies? Bringing STEM into ELA adds an experiential element of creating a mini-hammock that could further cement the vocabulary instruction. 

While students may not need to create a 3D product for all the vocabulary words in a given unit or novel, this method works incredibly well for tough words that you know students might struggle with or words that are integral to the unit of study. What word(s) do you really want students to take away and apply throughout the unit? Use those for this type of activity. Alternatively, when you have several words, you could assign different students to create the visual for that particular word. Afterward, you can create a display for the unit with the actual creations or photographs. 


Asking students to use their new vocabulary words in different contexts or situations is a great way to deepen their understanding. You can accomplish this (and create an awesome classroom display) by giving each student a large strip of paper and having them write their sentence on it. Then, review the submissions and pick three to display.

Using student work in your classroom will allow students to contribute to their environment and show ownership over their learning. It will also give you a student-centric display of mentor sentences!

Add a poetic twist to this task by having students write a collaborative poem using their new words in a different context. You can do this using a Google Form. Students input their lines for each word, and you export selected lines into a single poem. You can then print it for display/distribution or give students access to a digital copy. Or keep it simple with slips of paper! Students write their line of poetry and then tape or staple it to chart paper. This option incorporates words in different contexts and becomes a memorable and fun activity that builds classroom community too.


using an oral dictionary for vocabulary instruction

Finally, with the use of technology, your vocabulary instruction can shift to another level. Have students create a personalized oral dictionary using sound (or even video) files. Basic and free online audio recording tools such as Vocaroo or Online Voice Recorder would fit the bill. Students simply click the red button, record their audio, and either save or send. They can build their own oral dictionary file for easy reference! An additional bonus to the verbal component is that it provides an additional assessment opportunity for pronunciation. 

Surely you’ve heard the anonymously-attributed quotation: “Never make fun of someone if they mispronounce a word – It means they learned it by reading”? I love this sentiment and it’s a staple in my classroom! However, monitoring students’ oral communication tied to vocabulary instruction makes for a bit of a bonus!

What does vocabulary instruction look like in your middle school classroom? I’d love to hear about your fresh tips and tricks! Drop a line in the comments below and share your thoughts, or continue the conversation and find me on FB or IG!

All the best, Natayle