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Vocabulary and Spelling: Do Your Students Say 'Boring'?

Henry Ward Beecher said, "All words are pegs to hang ideas on." If words are pegs, does it follow that the more words we know, the more ideas we may have? True or not, it is hard to argue the fact that a good vocabulary is an asset in life. What greater service can teachers perform than to help students foster their understanding of words? The Internet offers many tools for young etymologists and an abundance of great ideas for teaching vocabulary and spelling. Dig for definitions and pry for pronunciations -- virtual vocabulary has no limits!

Teacher Angela A. Ackley was trapped for some time between the necessity of teaching vocabulary and its "dull" reputation. How could she make vocabulary activities more interesting? she wondered.

"The best way to teach vocabulary is to make it meaningful to students," said Ackley.

"Whatever vocabulary activities we do in class must be tied to what the students are learning or want to learn," said Ackley. She teaches fifth- and sixth-grade language arts at Saints John and Paul Catholic School in Ashtabula, Ohio. "One thing I've learned over the years is not to just give students lists of words to learn and be tested on. BORING! They learn the words for the test and promptly forget them. By making vocabulary study meaningful and by integrating it with reading, spelling, and writing, it makes sense to the students and they take ownership of the material."


Janet McCrory is an educator in search of activities like those supplied by Ackley. A sixth-grade teacher at South Marshall Middle School in Benton, Kentucky, McCrory recently embarked on a quest for engaging vocabulary activities. In her search, she turned to her connected colleagues on a middle school listserv.

"We had just received the results of last year's CTBS test," says McCrory, "and our test scores in reading were even higher than the previous year's. Many of the students, however, scored much lower on the vocabulary section than on the comprehension section. This led me to wonder what I could do to increase my students' vocabulary, thus producing higher test scores."

Because her past posts to Middle-L had always netted a wealth of information, McCrory was surprised to find that she received few responses to this plea. She attributes the lack of advice to the fact that many teachers are as "stumped" about ways to increase vocabulary and raise test scores as she is.


Although not a complete solution to teaching students about new words, the Web has several super activities, on-line games, puzzles, and ideas to help classroom teachers build students' vocabulary and spelling skills. Consider these suggestions for energizing your vocabulary activities!

A Word a Day. Many teachers share a new word each day with their students, and the Web offers many excellent resources for creating a word-a-day calendar. Visit the Daily Buzzword from WordCentral for a word, its pronunciation, its definition, and how to use it. In addition, the site offers information about the derivation of the word, asks a related thought-provoking question, and explains the correct answer. Another site that provides a new word each day is A.Word.A.Day. On this site and on A.Word.A.Day, your students can listen to the correct pronunciation of the word as well as read its meaning!Sign up for the mailing list to have a word delivered to your inbox each day! One more site that offers a word with its definition each day is Daily Word Quiz.

Vocabulary-Building Puzzles. is full of fun puzzles for all ages. Share some of these on-line interactive puzzles with your students. Students fill in root words, and the definitions are explained to help students solve the questions. The students also receive immediate feedback about their performance. Even teachers will be challenged by the upper-level games! To encourage your students to engage in these puzzles, keep track of their achievement on a board in your classroom.

Mystery Word. At Mystery Word you will find more than 50 sets of five clues. Each set of clues will lead to a Mystery Word. (Click here for the answers.) Take it from there by having your students create clues for words they select.

Games and Reviews. The materials at Houghton Mifflin Spelling and Vocabulary are helpful to any teacher, especially teachers who use the company's teaching materials in the classroom. This section of the Education Place Web site includes printable puzzles and reviews by grade level and cycle. There is also a super word-meaning game called Fake Out! Supplement your daily vocabulary activities with these materials from Houghton Mifflin.

Pyramid Power. Do you remember the game show $10,000 Pyramid? A Lively Vocabulary Game is based on that show. Students guess words within categories or the titles of larger categories suggested by the words. Students play rapid-fire rounds of this game, which requires little preparation once the game starts. Try the game with words from your science or social studies curriculum.

Internet Terms. An Internet Vocabulary Lesson is a great page of Internet terms to use as an introduction to the many words that have developed because of new technology. The page also details how the Internet operates. Create your own Internet glossary with the help of this site as well as with Matisse's Glossary of Internet Terms. Both sites have excellent lists of Net-related words for students to explore. Consider substituting commonly used terms from those sites for your usual weekly spelling or vocabulary list.

Dictionary Game. Have students create definitions for words they don't know. Only the teacher knows the real meanings. Then students vote for the definitions they believe are correct and score points, either in teams or individually. The game can become hilarious.

Categorizing Words. If your students have ever played the game Tetris, they will have no trouble following the instructions of Word Drop. Use this game to help your students see the relationships between words. You could complement this activity with a word web to clearly illustrate the connections between these words.


Are you running short of creative spelling ideas? These activities straight from the Internet come to your rescue!

Make Your Own Sentence. In this cool activity from Spelling Ticklers, students use the letters in vocabulary words to create sentences. Example: GLOVE -- Great Learners Overcome Vocabulary Exercises.

Spell-Mell. In this game, students place given letters in blank spaces to spell words. Pictures and definitions help them solve the puzzles. Animations add interest to the program. The game is available for purchase at Family Games Freeware and Shareware.

Spell Check. Another spelling correction game, Spell Check, from, displays groups of four words, one of which is misspelled. Students select the misspelled word and type the correct spelling in the box. Two levels of difficulty are offered. Students who correctly spell all 20 words in the set may put their names on the site's leader board.

Steps to Literacy

Looking for books that will build your students’ vocabulary? You can find curated collections of texts that use rich vocabulary at Steps to Literacy.

Steps to Literacy offers inclusive and differentiated collections of age and developmentally appropriate books and resources that engage students and foster a love for reading within each of them.

Learn more about building your own customized classroom library.

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Article by Cara Bafile
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Links last updated 12/15/2016