Beyond the Dictionary: Meaningful Word Study

Engaging lesson and activity ideas that grow pupils' word knowledge in all content areas.

By Dawn Dodson


We’ve all been witness to it. The confused, deer-in-the-headlights look when a student is completely and utterly lost. As a teacher, it’s a gut-wrenching situation. So, how do we effectively help our young learners navigate the treacherous waters of unknown vocabulary? What strategies do we provide in order to develop independent problem solvers? The answer to these questions, and more, is through word study. An effective, solid program that allows them to explore, encounter, and interact with language. In my teaching experiences, I have discovered that comprehensive word knowledge paves the road for more effective content and skill learning. Likewise, effective word strategies can be utilized in any content area. There are two basic ways to begin delivering effective vocabulary instruction, which is setting a purpose for learning and moving learners beyond the basic denotation of terms. The following are two of my favorites.


Setting a Purpose

Creating a meaningful context for new vocabulary words is the first step in the process to expanding word knowledge. Choosing terms that pupils will encounter multiple times is a crucial step. For example, when preparing to read a piece of literature, words that relate to the overall comprehension of the plot and analysis of setting and characters, are included in the study. A list is derived, and introduced to the class during pre-reading activities. I ask the following questions:

  • How many words on this list do you already know?
  • Are there words that you’ve heard before, but are unsure of the meaning?
  • How will these words relate to the story?

In a whole-class format, we discuss the responses to these questions and mark any meanings we already know on our papers. The class is then divided into partners or small groups of three, and word meanings are researched. For some, a thesaurus is helpful in constructing meaning, and others use a dictionary. The meanings are written on the list in pupils’ original words. After this is completed, new groups are formed and each member shares their meanings. Sharing helps clear up any confusions or errors that arise during research. This activity ends with a whole class review of each of the meanings. Pupils keep the list in their reading folders, where they take note of when each term is used in the story or article.

More than a Definition

At this point, it is well known that the rote memorization of definitions is a waste of time. Not only are the words forgotten after the unit is over, but word knowledge is failed to be developed. That said, engagement with new terms and their meanings is necessary. This is accomplished through activities over the course of a unit of study. Activity ideas include, but are certainly not limited to:

  • Word Sorts: Placing words into chosen categories that help create meanings.
  • Example/Non-Example: This is a list of original sentences where the words are used in real world contexts, as well as sentences that help demonstrate the antonym of the term.  
  • Portable Word Wall: This is an ongoing list of vocabulary terms acquired throughout a study. Words can be sorted alphabetically, and is a great resource to use during writing workshop. The portable word list can be themed, and can be sorted into any categories that fit content area study.  

Engaging learners in meaningful word study can begin by setting a clear purpose and interacting with a word in both text and written activities not only builds overall word knowledge, but also enhances learning in any content area.

More Word Study Lesson Ideas:

Building Vocabulary with Word Fun

This lesson combines word study and games. Learners build vocabulary through researching and collecting palindromes and using them to play a classroom game.

Word Detective

Through partner work, students incorporate many word skills in order to learn the meanings of unknown words. Literature resources include fiction and nonfiction articles.

Visual Vocabulary

Learners in this lesson incorporate visual and performing arts with word study. Using drawings or mini skits, students demonstrate word meanings. This is a great lesson for kinesthetic learners and can be modified to fit various word studies.

Language Arts Guide

Dawn Dodson