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

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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. Drawing on her experience, Ackley posted the successful vocabulary activities she has used in her classroom on her Web site, The Teacher's Desk, to serve as both a resource and an inspiration for other teachers.

"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."

Ackley's Spelling/Vocabulary Plans from the Teacher's Desk come from a variety of sources. She says that a few ideas originate from a book called the Teacher's Book of Lists by Sheila Madsen and Bette Gould. Some are derived from her lifelong interest in words, and she developed others in a summer graduate course at Youngstown State University. Her last source is her own desire to make learning vocabulary fun and meaningful for her students.

What is Ackley's favorite vocabulary activity from her collection? "Some years, I don't even use all the activities," she told Education World. "It depends on the needs of my students and what we are covering in class. The one I use most frequently is Vocabulary Sort. It's easily adapted to any story or novel that we are reading and serves as a great introductory lesson because it includes not only vocabulary development but also background building and predicting."


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 the Middle-L mailing list.

"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.

McCrory is still eager to receive suggestions for activities that add to students' vocabulary in an enjoyable manner. If you have an idea to share, she invites you to contact her by email at [email protected].


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. 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 What Does It Mean? 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!

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 the Mystery Word page of The Wacky World of Words, you will find five different suggestions to help you use these mystery-word clues with your students. Take it from there by having your students create clues for words they select.

More Vocabulary Puzzles. offers Grade Level Puzzles that allow students to practice their root word, synonym, and antonym skills. After they have experimented with the examples, instruct students to choose a few opposites and create puzzles for the class. You may use the puzzles as filler activities writing them on the board. Find more Rootonyms at Root Specific Vocabulary Puzzles.

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. This resource comes from The Language Teacher Online. 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 and Plain English Glossary. 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. Are you familiar with the word game Balderdash? Students who play The Dictionary Game 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. See the Columbia Education Center Language Arts Lesson Plans for a host of ideas.

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. Englishtown also sponsors two other games: Quiz Wiz and Crossword Puzzle.


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. Download a sample version of the interactive spelling and vocabulary game called 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. If you like what you see, pay a small registration fee to Family Games Freeware and Shareware, and you will receive a code that will enable you to access the entire game.

Spelling Correction Game. Many students find spelling words aloud or on tests easier than correcting misspelled words in writing. Misspelt Animal Jokes will give them practice in identifying written spelling errors. Here students find the misspelled word, type it correctly in the space, and check it immediately. If they are correct, letters in the answer to a riddle appear in the spaces above. In the end, a joke is revealed. This game is just one of a collection of junior-, middle-, and senior-level games provided by The Web Classroom.

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.

Article by Cara Bafile
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