How Inquiry Led Me to a Vocab Strategy that Actually Works!

By Jessica Salfia

Vocabulary is one of those things that I’m always tinkering with, and I’ve tried it all: memorization, flashcards, quizlets, words of the day.

And despite a few successful strategies, vocabulary is always one of those things that feels like no matter what I do, it could be a hit or miss.

Sometimes kids learn the words and sometimes kids learn the word long enough to take a test or quiz and sometimes it feels like a waste of time.

With vocab lessons and activities, I sometimes feel a bit like I am shouting into a void, so I started asking myself what EXACTLY do I want my students to get out of vocabulary activities?

  1. I want students to acquire language. I want them to think about language and word choice in a purposeful way. I want them to “own” words.
  2. I don’t want students memorizing terms long enough to take a quiz. I want them acquiring tools that will help them as writers and readers.

And then I asked my students what they saw as problems with vocabulary assignments. Here are some of the things they told me:

Me: “Hey kids! Tell me what you think about vocabulary assignments. Do you like them? What works?”

  • “Mrs. Salfia, big lists are overwhelming! More than 10-20 words and I just figure, what’s the point?”
  • “If it’s a word I’ll never use, I don’t try as hard to remember it.”
  • “Vocab stresses me out because I know that the quiz or test is going to bring my grade down.”
  • “We all know that vocab is busy work so teachers can have a grade to put in.”
  • “I know we need it for like, the SAT and ACT, but it’s so boring!”
  • **kid made a vomit sound**
  • “Quizlet and Kahoot help, but writing definitions is a waste of time.” 
  • **someone just gestures “thumbs down” 
  • “Value depends on the class.”
  • “I see value in it, but it’s such a pain.” 

OK, ok…we get the point…

So I’ve identified what the kids don’t like about it, what I want them to get out of it, and I’ve identified some of the problems with vocabulary: big lists are too much, memorization works sometimes, most kids see it as a waste of time, but all of us recognize that there is some value in it.

Then, it hit me. What if instead of 10 or 15 or 20 words, a kid just had to learn one? And what if the emphasis was not on learning a whole list of words, but instead, what if I emphasized conversations about 1 word at a time and language and asked kids to share the word they learned with their friends?

Behold: the most effective vocab lesson I have ever taught was born.

Step 1:

Give students the whole list of words to look over. Here, expect some groans and eyerolls. I just did this with a list of 40 words for The Crucible with my English 11 students and a list of 21 rhetorical devices with my AP Language Students.  You should have seen my English 11 students when I handed them a list of 40 vocab terms. After the initial grunts and groans, tell them all they have to do is read over the list once or twice.

Step 2:

Ask them if they have any questions about any of the words.

Then, assign a single term or two to each student. Tell them at this point, they are only responsible for learning their word(s), but they have to OWN that word or words.

Give them 1-3 days to become an “expert” on that word or term. What does it mean? Where does it come from? How does a writer use it? How would you use it?  You can have them write out these things on a notecard or in their writer’s notebooks.

Step 3:

Start having vocabulary conversations. When your students are experts on “their word,” start class each day with 1-3 word conversations. My students were to meet with a different friend or a few friends each day, and teach each other their words.

My English 11 students then highlighted words on the list they had been taught as words they now “own.”

My AP Lang students are filling out a chart like this one:

Screen Shot 2019-11-19 at 10.56.42 AM

Step 4:

After a week or two of word conversations, your students should now “own” all the terms the class has been assigned. At that time you can assess in whatever way you are most comfortable.

My English 11 students had to use the words correctly in a sentence, and they only had to get 30 of the 40 words correct. Every additional word correct was extra credit.  They did better on these quizzes than on any other vocabulary assessment this year.

My AP students will have to identify the rhetorical devices in action once they have “owned” all the terms from their list. We are still working, but check out these lovely student samples below:


This has been by far the most effective and fun way I have every taught vocabulary. When the emphasis becomes conversation, sharing what you know with a friend, and learning from your peers, some of the vocab anxiety gets eliminated. It becomes less about grades and memorization and more about learning and language.

Let us know if try this in your classroom, or if you have an effective vocabulary strategy that works!

And don’t forget, if you’re interested in sharing knowledge and good conversation, #NCTE19 is this week! Be sure to come find us if you’re in Baltimore, or follow the #NCTE19 hashtag so you can share in all the incredible learning this weekend will bring!