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English Language Arts Blog

The home of Vocab Gal and other educational experts K–12 resources

August 11, 2011 VG Teaching Resources Vocab & ELA Res, Vocab Gal, ELA K-5, ELA 6-8, ELA Resources - Graphic Organizers, ELA Resources - Activities, ELA 9-12, ELA PD - Classroom Management, ELA PD - Vocabulary, ELA Focus - Writing with Vocabulary, ELA Focus - Vocabulary

Teaching Vocabulary– Getting Students to 'Reach for the Stars'

How can you motivate students to do extra work without extra credit? This has been the newest discussion question around the departmental coffee pot[1] as our district has begun to focus on the concepts of formative and summative assessment. The basic philosophy is that students’ grades should reflect what they have learned, not how well they play the game of school. I support this idea, yet I want students to receive accolades for finding vocabulary words in the books they are reading or the shows they are watching.

So what’s a Vocab Gal to do? Essentially, I now reward with stars and stickers rather than extra credit points. 

A Simple Strategy for Celebrating Students that Use Vocabulary

Reach for the Stars download aims to excite students about the joys of language and the fun they can have with words! This simple reward system will have students sharing vocabulary discoveries and making the most out of reading/TV viewing. Make your classroom ceiling sparkle and download the Reach for the Stars editable PDF!

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The Reach for the Stars strategy is simple...students that recognize, find, collect, and share fifteen vocabulary discoveries are given a star.

My ultimate goal is to turn students into my vocabulary proselytes, exhilarated by finding our vocabulary words in their reading/TV viewing and curious to learn new words they stumble upon that are not in their vocabulary books.

First, when students show me a vocabulary word in the book they are reading (we read for the first 5–10 minutes of each class period), they receive a sticker[2]. When they show my a vocabulary word in a book they have to define this vocabulary word for me as a reinforcement of not only word recognition, but also understanding of meaning.

The bigger prize comes when students collect fifteen vocabulary words (either by writing them down on a list or post-it noting in their books); then they get a star on the ceiling.  The list of words can be a conglomeration of items-I have had lists consisting of one or two words from several different books, movies and TV shows that added up to fifteen.  It can also be a combination of students; I have one star with five girls’ names on it—these students sat around watching Gilmore Girls for hours until they had amassed the fifteen words[3].  As long as there are fifteen vocabulary words (and corresponding definitions) from the units we have studied, the students earn stars!

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So where do I get the stars? I have a former student whose mother is an elementary teacher (with access to the star diecut) who brings me blue star cutouts. Recently I created my own star printable for when supplies run low or a friend decides they want to incorporate this into their own classroom. When students bring me their post-it noted book or word list, I have them emblazon their name upon a star in glorious Sharpie marker then attach it to the ceiling with a thumbtack[4]. I tell students that their names will be immortalized forever[5] on the ceiling for their efforts, which pleases them immensely.

 The key is to be as exhilarated as they are when they share with you their vocabulary discoveries[6]

In Summary

To excite students about the joys of language and the fun they can have with words is a tough, yet rewarding job, and acknowledging their efforts with a construction paper star or sticker is an easy –yet enticing- way to do so.




Reading Literature/Informational Text Standard 4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text
Language Standard 4. Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown words
Language Standard 6. Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge


[1] No water coolers in education, and I only drink tea so I just hang around clutching my travel mug of Earl Grey trying to be one of the “cool kids.”

[2] Additionally, students who say vocabulary words aloud during the class period also get stickers-this year they prefer scratch-and-sniff.

[3] I [heart] Gilmore Girls.

[4] Usually I have the taller students attach the stars to the ceiling while being “spotted” by others holding down the desk the student is standing on.

[5] Or until I run out of room on my ceiling.

[6] Yes, I sometimes exaggerate my enthusiasm, but being a “vocabulary dork” makes this excitement okay-and students thrive when we fully acknowledge their accomplishments.