Teaching Vocabulary

It took me way too long to realize that one of the major things that my students struggled with in World Religions wasn’t the broad concepts, but the simple vocabulary. It’s a lot of new material, and so much of it is in different languages that students are not familiar with. Over the years, I’ve become better about defining and refining which words my students really need to know in order to understand a religion, and worked to incorporate more ways to teach and assess understanding of those vocabulary words without boring my kids entirely.

(I think my fear of teaching vocabulary comes from those spelling lists we all had in elementary school. They were seemingly endless, and without any reward except for the satisfaction of a good grade on the quiz. I don’t want these word lists to be like that…)

Teaching vocabulary is also a challenge because this year I am differentiating between students earning Honors credit and those earning Standard in the same classroom. That means that an assessment that might have just checked recall or comprehension of words before now needs to have some options that up the difficulty level. Recently, for a quick quiz, I projected the same word bank up on the screen. The kids taking the class for standard credit had a list of definitions to match them to, fill-in-the-blank style, while the kids taking it for honors had to write a paragraph incorporating ten of the terms in a meaningful, with an additional credit for what I called synthesis. That meant their paragraph had to actually make sense and flow, rather than being just a list of definitions. I thought this was a good way to hit different difficulty levels, but the kids who wrote the paragraphs did MUCH better than those who did the matching. I’m unsure whether this was due to the assessment, or the preparation. Any thoughts? I will keep working on ways to do this better.

One assignment that I’ve really liked doing with vocabulary is a Pinteretst board. I print out paper templates for the kids who want to do a low-tech version (I actually found the online template for this on Pinterest. Don’t roll your eyes and just do a search). Some of these actually come out really neat, as the kids that like to draw have a chance to be creative, and others often take the time to make a collage of sorts. For others, who have easy access to a smart-phone or computer, I let them do it online and they can simply send me a link to the board. The instructions are fairly simple–they have to draw or find a meaningful image for each term, and then they have to offer an explanation that reveals how the term is used for the religion. I usually do this with the Hinduism unit, because it’s the first time they are really challenged by the words-all that Sanskrit!


This is a screenshot of a very well-done board. I love it because this student took the time to find photos that she loved and that related to the material, and then explained the connections!

It’s important for me to spend some time on the vocabulary early on in the Hinduism unit, especially because many of the religions that follow use the same terminology: karma, moksha, samsara. I’ve thought about the “word wall” idea, but I think it still feels a little elementary school to me. I would like to come up with some activities that allow students to categorize these terms though, and think about how they flow throughout the Indian religions but also change in their meaning.

How do you approach teaching vocabulary in a way that’s meaningful and not painful for you and the students?


6 thoughts on “Teaching Vocabulary

  1. Kate,
    Please allow me to say first, that you are a rock star! Second, I love reading your blogs. There’s so insightful. Ok…now that all of the mushy stuff is out of the way, lets get to your question!
    You asked how do approach teaching vocabulary to students in a whay that isn’t painful for them in their learning process. I sturggled with this last year as I realized that the vocabulary in Health was not only vast in numbers, but often boring. So I found a few creative ways to teach it. The first was the creation of a project called “Paper Slides”, in which students are able to create a story based upon the vocabulary for whatever unit we were in. I am sure I didn’t invent this, but I did come up with a way to implement it into my class. Here is a youtube video of it, let me know what you think!

    Second, I also use a site called “Quizlet” for students to study their vocabulary. If you’ve already heard of it, then you may already know all of it’s benefits. If you haven’t, it’s awesome! I make flash cards for each unit, and along with the flash cards are photos, and games/quizzes that you can play. The app is downloadable to ny smart phone and it’s free! There is a free subscription which gives you limited options, but the paid subscription is only $25 for a year. (If you happen to check it out and really like it, you can use me as a reference and your subscription would only be $20, and I get six months free!) On the site, you can see who uses the words, how they do on their quizzes, and so forth. It’s an awesome way for kids to study without having to carry all of their notes while taking advantage the conveniece of a smart phone. Go to Quizlet.com and check out my account, “MrJeffersonJhs” is my handle.
    Hopefully this helped out a little bit for you millions of readers (but more importantly, for you), and thanks for enlightening the world with your words and thoughts! Until the next blog…


    Liked by 1 person

    • Jefferson! These paper slides are great. I’ve done something similar with US History, I don’t know why I never thought to do it in World Religions. Definitely making an appearance in the next unit. I like how they use technology but also simplify things–the kids don’t get totally caught up in the video or the computer but actually spend more time on what they are producing.

      I will definitely check out Quizlet too, I remember you mentioning it the other day. Do you think you can have the kids create their own sets of cards on there?


  2. Well, finally mom can chime in on a blog post! Education research says students need seven exposures to a new word or concept before it is internalized. I suspect your honor students are repeating new words to themselves without even thinking about it. I would keep coming back to new words during class and even have students create a word wall with an image to help them recall the word. I always had some classmate who spent the entire class drawing caricatures–you probably have one too. Put that student to work creating images to represent new words. So seven exposures is seeing it, reading it, using it, discussing opposites, similarities, saying it out loud and to themselves, and writing it. And importantly, exposures need to be spaced out over time and revisited.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Mom! I’m glad that you told me about the seven exposures. I will work on incorporating more of those. I think a stressor that I feel is not having enough time to go over all of those ideas, but I think what I will need to do is to revisit the terms even once we have moved beyond the unit, when it makes sense to. Maybe finding similarities and opposites is a way to do just that!

      Thanks, you’ve got the wheels turning!


  3. Pingback: What You Don’t Know (according to Stephen Prothero) | Desks & Deities

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