4 Flexible Vocabulary Routines for Literacy Instruction

4 Flexible Vocabulary Routines

By Lexia Elementary Curriculum Specialist 
Julie Russ Harris, EdM


So many words and so little time—it's no wonder that vocabulary instruction can seem daunting! Many teachers and school leaders are committed to cultivating students’ word knowledge and, in turn, setting them up for long-term literacy success. The trick is finding ways to embed engaging and effective vocabulary instruction into daily practice so that, bit by bit, word-learning adds up. How? One strategy for making word learning a part of the everyday is to start—and stick to—a few engaging vocabulary routines.  

We all know the power of routines for a smooth-running and (relatively) predictable classroom. But the power of routines does not have to be limited to quick and quiet transitions! When we use instructional routines, we make learning time predictable, smooth, and that much more engaging and effective. And there are a number of instructional routines that make the key elements of vocabulary instruction (like lots of peer collaboration) much more productive. Below are 4 flexible vocabulary routines to try in your classroom today:

  1. Peer conversations  

    Opportunities for students to have content-focused, back-and-forth conversations with one another is a cornerstone of vocabulary instruction. What are some useful conversation routines to get in place early in the year? For partner conversations, consider tried-and-true routines like Think Pair Share and Turn and Talk. It also makes sense to establish a routine that sets the stage for small-group conversations, like a Carousel Brainstorm during which you:
  • Place pieces of chart paper at stations around the room

  • Write a prompt on each piece of paper

  • Put students in groups at each station

  • Have groups brainstorm and record responses to the prompts

  • Have groups rotate stations (like a carousel)

  1. Card games

    Whether students are playing a game of idiom Go Fish! or a category-matching game, card games are a great way to practice and apply knowledge of words, phrases, and word-learning strategies. For example, card games can be used to:
  • Match key terms with definitions

  • Match idioms with meanings

  • Categorize pictures

  • Pair images of multiple-meaning words

  1. Acting activities

    Whether students are acting out idioms, playing vocabulary charades, or conducting character-style interviews, acting is an engaging and interactive way to get learners thinking differently about language and putting it to use. A common acting routine is "verbal charades": In this play on the classic game, students can talk while acting, but they can’t say the word, phrase, or concept they are performing. For an extra challenge, other words can be designated as off-limits as well.  

  1. Sketching activities

    You might be surprised how helpful drawing can be for vocabulary learning. Creating a graphic representation of a word, phrase, or concept helps learners process information in nonverbal ways and provides a means for applying and deepening knowledge. Establish a routine for building personal vocabulary notebooks by teaching students to:
  • Record student-friendly vocabulary definitions

  • And sketch a meaningful image


How do I teach vocabulary routines?

Whether you're establishing a routine for lining up, putting backpacks away, or returning from learning centers, routines work best when they are taught, modeled and practiced. If vocabulary routines are going to be productive, students need to both learn the steps and practice the social skills that go hand-in-hand with collaborative work and talk. Here are a few tips for establishing productive vocabulary routines:

  • Teach the steps explicitly

  • Post a visual that displays the steps

  • Model what it looks like to carry out the steps

  • Debrief the modeled steps

  • Have students practice the steps

  • Reflect together on what makes these routines work best

With the school tear in full swing, don’t worry about adding more to already-busy schedules; rather, set the stage for making word-learning part of what you and your students already do!

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