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English Language Arts Blog

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

July 29, 2022 ELA K-5, ELA Seasonal Back to School, ELA 6-8, ELA Resources - Graphic Organizers, ELA Resources - Assessment, ELA Resources - Activities, ELA 9-12, ELA PD - Leadership, ELA PD - Vocabulary, ELA Focus - Writing with Vocabulary, ELA Focus - Vocabulary

Vocab Gal's Vocabulary Back-to-School Guide

Does the idea of vocabulary instruction feel overwhelming amidst every other aspect of teaching? Are you stressed out just thinking about school?  Download the Vocabulary Back-to-School Kit filled with resources that will help relieve some of the stress and ensure teachers, academic coaches, and administrators lay the foundation for strong vocabulary instruction!


Before Back-to-School Vocabulary Planning

Review Why Vocabulary Is Critical to Academic Success

Before jumping into the back-to-school vocabulary instruction implementation plan, it's important that teachers, academic coaches, and administrators review and understand exactly why vocabulary knowledge is essential for students’ to be successful in all subject areas. Individually or as a department, review the research that explains the necessity of direct vocabulary instruction, including these important truths:
  1. Vocabulary plays a fundamental role in the academic achievement of K–12 students in US.
    Source: Flynt and Brozo (2008); Blachowicz, Fisher, Ogle, and Watts-Taffe (2006)

  2. Vocabulary knowledge accounts for a significant amount of verbal ability; and verbal ability, in turn, is a strong predictor of K–12 academic achievement.
    Source: Bromley (2007); Graves, (2008), 57
  3. Vocabulary knowledge explains 70–80% of reading comprehension.
    Source: Bromley (2007), 528 (edited)
  4. College-bound students need to have 75,000–120,000 words in their vocabularies. They can acquire 300–500 new words annually through direct instruction.
    Source: Blachowicz, et al. (2006); Bravo & Cervetti (2008); Bromley (2007); Curtis & Longo (2001); Graves (2008); Nagy (1988)
  5. Direct instruction of metacognitive word learning skills affects vocabulary growth as well as reading comprehension.
    Source: Bromley (2007), 533


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Rediscover What Direct Vocabulary Instruction Looks Like

Now that you’ve been reminded as to why vocabulary is critical to student academic success, explore what direct vocabulary instruction looks like and why it’s effective. Harvard lecturer and researcher Dr. Vicki Jacobs explains that effective direct instruction:

  • promotes word consciousness
  • treats word learning as an active, generative, integrative, and meaning-making process
  • focuses on explicitly, purposefully, and systematically chosen words
  • provides students with multiple exposures to focal words in multiple contexts and offers them multiple opportunities to apply new vocabulary using a variety of strategies in oral and written language
  • contributes to success on standardized tests

To learn more about direct vocabulary instruction from Dr. Vicki Jacobs, read her FREE eBooks:


eBook Vol. I


eBook Vol. II


eBook Vol. III

Back-to-School Vocab Instruction in Action

Step 1: Classroom Set-up

As you begin setting up the classroom for the new school year, aim to create an environment that fosters word consciousness and reminds students to utilize new vocabulary throughout the day.

In your classroom space, incorporate a word wall where each unit’s vocabulary words can be on display for students to read. While some students are stronger visual learners and others are auditory learners, they are all still affected by what they see. Essentially, word walls benefit all types of learners.

I’ve had such success with vocabulary word walls in my own classroom that I created a series of word wall downloads for the blog's readers! Today, the Vocabulary Workshop Word Walls available for download are for students in Grades 1 to 6. The list of words comes from various levels and units of Sadlier’s Vocabulary Workshop.


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If you are sharing a classroom, using a bulletin board or set of windows to display the vocabulary word wall may be a fair compromise. If not permitted, teachers and coaches can hang the word walls on the sides of their traveling cart.

If a word wall display isn't possible in your classroom or on your cart, another option is to provide students with laminated or sheet-protected mini student word walls. These mini-word walls can be kept in their folders and should list all of the words from their Vocabulary Workshop units.


The next classroom strategy is to designate a bulletin board for students to bring in magazine/newspaper/online printouts of vocabulary words in everyday use is a great way to authenticate vocabulary learning and encourage students’ word consciousness.

Finally, hang posters that clarify what great vocabulary learning looks like in action. I've created two printable classroom posters that remind students of the basic tenets of classroom philosophy and behavior in order to encourage critical thinking in all areas of education, including vocabulary.

Drawing students’ attention to these posters occasionally can hopefully help clarify what great vocabulary learning looks like in action. My Vocabulary Back-to-School Kit includes these learning expectations posters. Download them now!


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Now if you already have word walls and learning expectation posters, grab the "Other Ways to Say ___" posters and tip sheets. These three downloads are included in the Vocabulary Back-to-School Kit and can be printed as either a poster or an 8½ x11 handout for students to keep in their folders. Not only do these posters reinforce the importance of expanding their lexicons, they are also a great resource for students to reference when completing assignments, writing essays, preparing for presentations, and more!


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Step 2: First Week of School Activities

The first weeks of school are critical for both teachers and students to have a successful school year. The beginning of the new year can be stressful for teachers, with getting to know students, establishing a classroom community, assessing students’ previous knowledge, teaching classroom routines, and diving into content-area instruction. Luckily, I have several printable resources in my Vocabulary Back-to-School Kit that will help!

Getting to Know Your Students and Establishing
a Classroom Community

Games and activities are a great way to kick off the year and develop a classroom community. Start each day with one fun activity or icebreaker that will help you get to know your new students and help them to get to know each other. Focus on praising students for respectful behaviors and correcting student responses that are disrespectful. Setting clear expectations and modeling what positive, respectful classroom behavior looks like, as well as correcting and discussing disrespectful behavior when it occurs, is crucial for creating a harmonious class. Too many teachers are so anxious to begin content instruction at the start of the year that they fail to take the time to focus on classroom behaviors; many students need clear examples and discussions in order to learn boundaries and proper conduct.

Setting aside time early on so as to focus on vocabulary definitely pays off through the rest of the year. Many of the icebreakers and activities available for download encourage students to utilize their vocabulary from the first day of school.

Breaking the Ice Vocabulary Activity

With this icebreaker activity you can observe the range of vocabulary prowess in your class while fostering a positive class community at the same time. Download the free Vocabulary Back-to-School Kit to get the Breaking the Ice activity.

With this icebreaker activity you can observe the range of vocabulary prowess in your class while fostering a positive class community at the same time. Download the free Vocabulary Back-to-School Kit to get my Breaking the Ice activity.

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Why Words Matter Vocabulary Activity

Get to know your new students' thoughts on vocabulary instruction with the Why Words Matter Vocabulary Activity in the back-to-school kit. With this activity, students have to generate the top three reasons why learning vocabulary words is important to them! This activity will help you assess which students are motivated to learn new words and which students will need a little help understanding why learning vocabulary is so important.

Get to know your new students thoughts on vocabulary instruction with the Why Words Matter Vocabulary Activity in my back-to-school kit.

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Additionally, there are two printable back-to-school activities that will get students learning about each other. I make sure that I always encourage students to celebrate each other and also to understand that respect is paramount in the classroom.

Your Face Tells a Story Vocabulary Activity

My first, and favorite, back-to-school activity is both fun and creative. With the Your Face Tells a Story activity sheet students fill in a face template with words and visual representations of their favorite things, interests or hobbies, goals, favorite quotes, etc. Their hair is made up of phrases that incorporate favorite already-learned vocabulary words or a few words from a list you provide on the board. When complete, display these "faces" in the classroom so students can get to know their new classmates.

Note: You can also use these faces later as narrative writing prompts.

Now Introducing... Vocabulary Activity

The second activity helps students really learn about one another. Pair students up and ask them to interview each other using the Now Introducing... Activity template. When the interviews are complete, have students share with the class the top three interesting aspects of their interviewee, and encourage them to use at least one or two vocabulary words as they tell the class about their partners.


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Assess Students' Previous Word Knowledge

Unless teachers have an accurate understanding of their students’ competence with vocabulary word knowledge, they will not be able to design the lessons their students need for improvement. Sometime during the first two weeks of school assess your students' previous word knowledge.  The best way to pre-assess students’ vocabulary knowledge is to use your vocabulary program’s diagnostic test.

I especially like the Sadlier’s Vocabulary Workshop® Enriched Edition and Vocabulary Workshop® Achieve diagnostic tests because they include a strong sample of important Tier 2 vocabulary words, and they embed each word in a phrase that includes context clues. These diagnostic tests from the Sadlier vocabulary books give students a preview of the words they will learn throughout the year and help teachers learn more about their students and their needs. I always tell students that their scores are great–whether they fail the tests or ace them. Failure implies that students are unfamiliar with the words and will work hard to learn them this year. Success means students already have a basic knowledge of many of their words and their focus will be to utilize them more in their speech and writing, as well as find authentic examples of the words to share with their peers.

If teachers don't have access to a vocabulary program's diagnostic test they can use assessment charts to take inventory. These Vocabulary Assessment Worksheets are a great resource for pre-assessment and can be used again as a post-assessment to see growth. Get the worksheets in my Vocabulary Back-to-School Kit!


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Step 3: Daily Instruction

Once the first two weeks of school are complete, it’s time for the daily work of vocabulary instruction. The way I do it is simple.

Introduce the Week's Vocabulary Words

At the beginning of the week, we read the introductory passage from Vocabulary Workshop. The new words are embedded in a nonfiction passage giving students the experience of seeing these words in context. Students use their word knowledge and skills to identify meaning of unfamiliar words. I have the students write what they think these words mean in the margins, and underline the context clues that helped them decide on the meaning.

Then we discuss the first two vocabulary words…

The new Vocabulary Workshop series has two sets of 10 words. This is a very manageable instructional model. I choose to introduce two of the 10 words a day.

Each vocabulary word is presented with a student-friendly definition, along with an illustrative sentence with the word used in context. If the word has multiple meanings, each meaning is represented.

We focus on context clues to help us come to a conclusion regarding meaning. The students select the words or phrases in the sentence that helped them to understand the meaning of each word.

Review Words With Daily Vocabulary Charts

To complete this process, I have two different handouts that help students review the words of the day and write their sentence(s). The first is a more traditional daily vocabulary chart, and the second is a fabulous vocabulary progress ladder. I alternate which handout students will use to learn the week's vocabulary words. Both handouts are included in the Vocabulary Back-to-School Kit. At the start of each week, students get either the Vocabulary Sheet of the Week or the Vocabulary Ladder Chart. Every day, my students know that when they walk into my classroom the first thing they do is pull out their weekly vocabulary handout and get working on learning the two new vocabulary words written on the board.

Vocabulary Sheet of the Week

With the simple Vocabulary Sheet of the Week handout, students focus on learning two vocabulary words in context each day (as described above). They record the two vocabulary words that we review each day and make each word meaningful by writing a sentence that is relevant to them using the vocabulary words. Whether they are talking about a favorite TV show, book series, friend or family member, and so on, the more they can connect their vocabulary words to their personal lives, the more they will remember the words.


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Vocabulary Ladder Chart

The Vocabulary Ladder Chart is also designed to help students learn two new vocabulary words from their unit each day. What makes this handout different from the Vocabulary Sheet of the Week is that this Vocabulary Ladder Chart is designed so that it repeats previous words and adds on the new words each day. This repetition requires that students write new sentences for older vocabulary words after they've recorded and learned the two new words for the day.


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Provide Time and Space for Multiple Exposures to Words

The overall goal of vocabulary instruction is to solidify word knowledge and to provide time and space for multiple exposures to the words and opportunities to use them in a variety of contexts. Vocabulary instruction cannot be done with a “drill and kill” type method. Through enthusiasm and play, context clue study, classroom discussions, writing, and reading, students will begin to recognize and utilize new words.

Each week students should be given multiple ways to learn their new vocabulary words and be provided opportunities that will help them become aware of the plethora of language around them all the time.

Vocabulary Bookmarks offer one way to reinforce word knowledge and help students recognize the language around them. There are 15 slots on the bookmark where students track their vocabulary during independent reading as well as record any new words they want to learn. There is also a column where students can write context clues and page numbers! I encourage students to use Vocabulary Bookmarks during personal reading time to keep track of words and surrounding context clues. To earn credit, students can record on the bookmark either assigned vocabulary words or new words they want to learn.

Get the Vocabulary Bookmarks when you download the Vocabulary Back-to-School Kit.


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Step 4: Assessments

The final stage of vocabulary instruction is providing students with the means to test their word learning and comprehension.

As easy as it is to grade a multiple choice vocabulary quiz, a differentiated weekly vocabulary assessment allows teachers to see the depth of each student's vocabulary knowledge. Each week, I have all students take the alternative assessment test that requires them to use vocabulary words in sentences and to understand the context clues they use. This test consists of the current vocabulary words being studied as well as some of the previous units’ vocabulary words. Through these assessments, students see how much I value their ability to not just memorize meaning by rote, but rather to embed their vocabulary in their written communication. By using the previous unit’s vocabulary words, I emphasize that all of the vocabulary words we learn are important for their reading and writing development.

Additionally, I differentiate their grading based on what I know of each student’s vocabulary prowess and growth. Download the Differentiated Weekly Vocabulary Assessment Handout now.


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Finally, I have all students in Grades 9–12 take a summative SAT/ACT test to measure their growth of word knowledge and context clue usage. This data, along with the weekly alternative test data, allows me to see the progress each of my students is making toward understanding context clues, understanding vocabulary, and integrating the newly-learned words into their lexicon.

I use the Vocabulary Assessment Progress Chart to keep track of students' progress and adjust instruction accordingly. This chart allows me to help students expand their vocabulary and cultivate skills that contribute to success on the SAT® and ACT® exams.

I use the Vocabulary Assessment Progress Chart to keep track of students' progress and adjust instruction accordingly. This chart allows me to help students expand their vocabulary and cultivate skills that contribute to success on the SAT® and ACT® exams.

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In Summary

Don't panic about the new school year. Implement strong vocabulary instruction one step at a time. Start by creating a classroom space that fosters word consciousness. Next, make the most of the first weeks of school and get to know students, establish classroom community, and assess students' previous word knowledge. Then, focus on daily vocabulary instruction. Finally, assess students' progress and use the data to adjust teaching.

Download the Vocabulary Back-to-School Kit now!