Connected Vocabulary

“Words are the most powerful thing in the universe…” (Charles Capps) I don’t know about you, but it seems I spend at least half of my instructional time on vocabulary. We know the old school method of assigning lists of words, requiring students to look up and copy definitions from the dictionary, and then quizzing them on those meanings does not result in actual acquisition of vocabulary.

For students to truly acquire, and be able to use, new vocabulary they need to see it in context and connect it to existing frameworks in their brains. Unfortunately, providing students with the necessary context and connections is not always easy. In this post I’d like to review for you some of the various vocabulary units and activities I use to help students truly learn and begin to use the vocabulary they need to succeed. I also have a few previously unmentioned free activities and resources to share with you!

Vocabulary Units/Sets

I have several different vocabulary units (for lack of a better term) I use. When working with preliterate and beginning students, I prefer my Phonics Based Vocabulary Units. When I was teaching with National Geographic’s Inside curriculum, I used academic vocabulary units specifically tailored to those books (level A and level B). With intermediate and advanced students who are in academically focused classes (not community education), I tend to use my 30 Weeks of Academic Vocabulary program.

For more targeted vocabulary instruction, I have themed vocabulary sets. These sets tend to all use the same vocabulary activities and focus on 12-24 words each. I have sets for various themes including:

These themed vocabulary activity sets have come about because of specific needs for various units of study. The use of the same basic activities allows students the opportunity to concentrate on the vocabulary and not spend time and energy trying to understand the directions for the activity.

Vocabulary Activities

While we tend to use the same basic activities over and over again, there are a few that are standout favorites. These favorites include:

A newer activity that I dreamed up a couple years ago is Connected Vocabulary. To play this game, you need to number your vocabulary words from 1-6, 1-12, or 1-20. Each group will also need two number cubes that have the same value as the number of words in your list. You can find number cubes in all of the standard sizes (D6, D12, D20) fairly cheaply on Amazon. The student whose turn it is will roll the number cubes to determine which words from the list he/she will use that turn. The student will then use both words in a single sentence or explain one way in which the two words/items are connected (i.e.: A cat and a bat are both mammals. -or- Cat and sit both have only one syllable.). If successful, he/she earns a point and the student with the most points at the end of the game wins.

Vocabulary Glossaries

As previously said, looking words up in a dictionary and copying the definition is not the most effective means of gaining new vocabulary. But, as I talk about in the post Adding to Our Lexicons, sometimes it is necessary. When we do engage in “dictionary work,” I prefer to have students go beyond creating a list of definitions. Generally, I ask them to complete either a Circle Graphic Organizer or a Master the Term Graphic Organizer (both are free!). We then place these organizers into our own custom glossaries.

These glossaries aren’t fancy. They are three ring binders (usually one inch) that have construction paper dividers (trim to 9×11 inches) for each letter. Students then place the graphic organizers into the appropriate sections, alphabetizing the words as they go. At the end of the term, semester, or year (however long our class lasts), students have a custom glossary of the terms we learned together.

While the paper glossaries are great, some of my students preferred a digital version. In order to accommodate them, I created digital glossaries in PowerPoint to go with my 30 Weeks of Academic Vocabulary, Academic Vocabulary (correlates with National Geographic’s Inside curriculum), and CCSS Math Vocabulary (third grade and seventh grade) sets. (Side note: if you are teaching with National Geographic’s Pathways series, you can get premade glossaries, and lesson plans, for each book in the Listening/Speaking and Reading/Writing posts.) I also created a general template that students could use to create their own personalized glossaries for any class, subject, or personal learning goal.

The general template includes a title page, a general table of contents slide (letters of the alphabet), a general word list slide for each letter of the alphabet, and a preformatted Master the Term slide. The title page simply says “Vocabulary Glossary” and provides a place for students to list the text or class. The table of contents has all of the letters of the alphabet and each letter is hyperlinked to the appropriate slide for that letter’s word listing. The general word list slides for each letter include a button that is hyperlinked back to the table of contents and a textbox for students to enter their words in alphabetical order. Each letter has one Master the Term slide already formatted with a Table of Contents button and a button to return to that letter’s word list.

To use the template, students need to enter their term on the appropriate letter’s word list. They then will want to copy and paste the preformatted slide to create a new slide for their word. They will complete the sections of the graphic organizer, creating the entry for the new term. Finally, the students will hyperlink the term from the letter’s word list to the appropriate graphic organizer slide. It seems a little complicated but it’s actually quite easy, and I’ve never had a student who preferred the digital glossaries and couldn’t understand what to do with minimal instruction.

This PowerPoint template is a free download just below the picture in this section. The file also translates well to Google Slides, so fear not if you prefer Google over Microsoft. Feel free to help yourself and use it with your own students.

Word Wall Spinner Challenge

As I share in my Spin & Spell post, I create custom spinners for various games and activities in my classroom using old CD and DVD discs. My father built me several spinner stands (directions for building your own are free) and my students love using them. I design my own spinners using Publisher and print them on Avery CD labels. Our word wall spinners are just another version. Since our word wall is a central feature of our classroom, one of our go-to time filler activities is Word Wall Spinner Challenge.

The only equipment needed is one of two CD spinners with various challenges on them that relate to the word wall. Which spinner we use depends on how we’ve organized our wall. Since we often organize by part of speech, the second spinner is not very challenging since most of the sections ask the student to find a word of a specific part of speech. The included challenges are:

  • Find two rhyming words.
  • Choose a word and define it.
  • Choose a word and use it in a sentence.
  • Find two words with the same number of syllables.
  • Find two words with short vowel sounds.
  • Find two words with long vowel sounds.
  • Find two synonyms.
  • Find two antonyms.
  • Find a noun/verb/adjective/adverb.
  • Find a word that has a prefix or suffix.

To play, students take turns spinning and attempting to complete the challenge. If they do, they earn a point. Sometimes we have a race and two students compete the be the first to complete the challenge.

The CD spinner stand building plans are a free download from my Teachers Pay Teachers store and the CD label templates are a free download above. (The link is just below the picture of the spinner stand.) The PDF file will print out two copies of each spinner label. I will often put a label on each side of the CD so the people sitting behind the spinner can see what was spun as well.


I try very hard to provide as many opportunities as possible for my students to see words in context and practice using them. Are there other things we do to foster these connections? Of course, but the ones included here are the most common and successful thus far. I hope you’ve found at least one new idea to use in your classroom. Happy teaching, everyone!