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A Key Ingredient to Comprehension -- Vocabulary

By Andrea J. Spillett on October 19, 2011
  • Grades: 1–2

Vocabulary instruction is one of the key ingredients our students require to achieve reading success. All students need to have an understanding of what words mean and how to use them in order to find meaning in what they read.

I’d like to share a recipe for teaching our primary standards in vocabulary and concept development. Read on for meaningful, easy-to-prep ideas for teaching antonyms, synonyms, compound words, and classifying words. And don't forget Scholastic's Word Girl Competition Webcast for another opportunity where students can enrich and test their vocabulary.

There are a couple of things to think about when teaching vocabulary:

  • Teach vocabulary explicitly and in context.
  • Choose vocabulary words that are essential in order for students to comprehend the material being presented.
  • Designate a space in your room to display the vocabulary words. Ideally, it would be one the students can see easily. For example, I use a door in my classroom to display essential science vocabulary words.  



Begin this study of words that are opposite in meaning by tapping students' prior knowledge. Ask them to describe things that they have seen or may see at a pumpkin patch. They might name, for example, pumpkins, gardening tools, wheelbarrows, leaves, dirt, or even kids choosing a pumpkin at the patch. List their responses on a word web. Give students time to create their own pumpkin patch on paper with markers, crayons, construction paper, paint, or colored tissue paper.

As a group, students then brainstorm a list of antonyms. As shown in the photo above, fold a small piece of paper in half so it can be flipped up like an alligator mouth. Write the word on top and its opposite inside. For example, if students describe a pumpkin as being smooth, then write "smooth" on top of the paper. On the inside, write "rough." Some other examples of antonyms include sharp/dull, big/little, clean/dirty, dry/wet, empty/full, hard/soft, huge/tiny, and rough/smooth.



For this exercise, bring a real pumpkin to class, and let the students use four of their five senses to explore it. (I don’t use taste until after I do the Too Many Pumpkins activity, below.) Write each sense word, "Touch," "See," "Smell," and "Hear," at the top of a piece of construction paper, then choose one word that describes what they experienced when exploring the pumpkin with that sense. For example, they might choose the word "smooth" for touch. Students then brainstorm as many words as they can that have the same meaning as smooth. Below the word


"smooth," for instance, you might end up with "soft" and "silky." It is helpful for the students to have a thesaurus handy for this activity.

For another activity to help your students identify words that are similar in meaning, check out the Web game Synonym Toast



This activity teaches students about compound words, but unlike other activities, students start with the smaller words and combine them to make compounds.

To begin, download a compound word list to use for this activity.Write the word "scarecrow," for example, on one pumpkin. Cut or "split" a second pumpkin in half, and write "scare" on one side and "crow" on the other. Do this with the whole list. Then have your students make a wheelbarrow full of pumpkins from orange, brown, and green construction paper.Students search through the pumpkin parts to create compound words.


Putting words into categories is an important to skill to practice in order for students to increase their vocabulary. Begin by using magazines, old calendars, or even free clip art off the Internet to create a word picture file. Have students help by cutting the pictures out for you. I received the pictures in the photo above free from the California Dairy Council. Next, have students work in pairs to sort the pictures into two categories: foods that grow from trees and foods that grow from the ground. To extend this activity, students may work in groups to create a poster, choosing five to ten words to write down and illustrate. 

For more on learning vocabulary words thematically, see the interactive gameNina Loves to Name Things!



The article "Teaching Vocabulary with Francie Alexander" is one of the best I have read. Please take a moment to visit this link. You’ll truly find “everything you wanted to know about teaching vocabulary” and more. Needless to say, it is well worth the time!

This page from the Santa Maria-Bonita School District lists vocabulary words, pictures, and definitions used with the Houghton Mifflin series. Even if you use another language arts series, you may still find this information useful when teaching vocabulary. For other vocabulary exercises, see WebEnglishTeacher.com and Vocabulary.co.il.



In keeping with the pumpkin theme, I have chosen to showcase the story Too Many Pumpkins by Linda White. It is a hilarious story about a vivacious elderly woman who finds herself with more pumpkins than she knows what to do with. But with initiative and ingenuity, she eventually creates a memorable experience for her community.

After discussing the story, have students find recipes in which pumpkin is the main ingredient. The students may find recipes online or in a cooking magazine, or bring in family favorites. Students will be responsible for creating a recipe card listing the ingredients and measurements needed. Students then draw pictures of each ingredient and its measurement. End this activity by having students write down the recipe directions and illustrate the steps.

Use index cards and orange rope to put the recipe cards together vertically, to make a recipe mobile to hang from the ceiling. Or surprise your students by placing all the recipes in a hat and choosing one to bake for your class to taste. They’ll love it! (After doing this activity, don't forget to add "taste" to your Synonyms Make Sense word list!)

Looking ahead: There was too much to share about vocabulary for one post, so next time I'll continue with ideas on prefixes, suffixes, and multiple word meanings.

What exercises do you use to teach vocabulary? Comment below!

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