Better Your Vocabulary Instruction

Use the magic squares activity to develop vocabulary and make reviewing target words fun!

By Stef Durr

crossword puzzle

How much time do you spend developing new vocabulary in your students? It seems like this is a main focus in elementary school, yet it tapers off drastically in middle and high school. Although not as much emphasis is placed on building one’s vocabulary bank at this age, knowing more words increases one’s reading comprehension. According to the National Reading Panel (NRP), vocabulary instruction is an essential skill kids need to improve their reading achievement.

What Kind of Vocabulary Should Be Taught?

It’s easy to teach the words that appear in the novel you’re reading or in the primary source you’re studying in history, but these are not the words that should assume the majority of our focus. Unless they are words that will appear in your students’ texts frequently and be key in enhancing academic success, they’re not worth creating opportunities to practice. Define them, but dedicate time to instructing the vocabulary that is appropriate to the content and essential to the understanding of a text, activity, or lesson.

What Does Effective Vocabulary Instruction Look Like?

Too often, kids are presented a list of new vocabulary words, asked to locate them in the dictionary, and to record their definitions. Successfully acquiring, or owning, new words does not mean simply learning their definitions. Instead, teachers need to focus on the following:

  • Presenting new terms in context and encouraging learners to use context clues to piece together a definition.
  • Teaching a new word’s part of speech and its variations. (Example: Advise is a verb. Advisor is a noun. Advisory can be a noun or an adjective.)
  • Using newly acquired vocabulary often and encouraging students to do the same. (I offer bonus points for using past vocabulary words in homework assignments.)
  • Breaking through surface-level understanding by comparing and contrasting new terms, finding synonyms and antonyms, and creating analogies.

A Fun Activity to Use across All Domains

The magic squares strategy, rumored to have started in China thousands of years ago, engages learners, making it fun to review vocabulary terms. It’s an appropriate activity for all ages, as you (the teacher) determine the difficulty of the vocabulary being presented. Note: Since this activity focuses solely on the terms and their definitions, it should not be used as the single source of instruction. Instead, it offers an opportunity to review.

The concept is simple: pupils receive a square divided into either six or nine smaller squares (although any number of squares could essentially work). In each square, there is a letter that corresponds to a definition, and each vocabulary term receives a number. Then, students match the terms to their definitions, placing the term’s assigned number into the corresponding square. When finished, each row and column should have the same sum. That sum is the magic number!

Here’s an example using Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust remembrance novel, Night. Twenty-five vocabulary words will be reviewed using this magic squares activity. Terms and definitions are listed side-by-side for easy viewing, and there’s a place to record the magic number.

How Can I Bring this Activity into My Classroom?

For your convenience, I created a blank Magic Numbers template. Four rows and columns make up this chart, and the magic number is 34. I’ve laid out what it would look like, and an answer template is located on page two. Record the definitions, assigning each a letter, and then scramble the vocabulary terms so that they aren’t positioned next to their definition. Create an explanation specific to your class, and you’re all set to go!

How else do you review vocabulary in your classroom? Are there engaging activities you frequently utilize to broaden language among your middle and high schoolers?