National Writing Project

Book Review: Teaching Vocabulary: 50 Creative Strategies, Grades 6–12

By: Darcy Nickel
Date: December 18, 2009

Summary: Teaching Vocabulary: 50 Creative Strategies, Grades 6–12 provides a potpourri of instructional strategies presented by many teachers and researchers.


Providing meaningful vocabulary instruction that has transferability can be a daunting task. In Teaching Vocabulary: 50 Creative Strategies, Grades 6–12 , Gail E. Tompkins and Cathy Blanchfield—both with the San Joaquin Writing Project in California—offer teachers a variety of instructional approaches along with useful information about vocabulary research.

The idea for the book developed from an informal focus group of teacher-consultants at the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project who were interested in improving their vocabulary instruction, especially with English language learners.

In too many classrooms, vocabulary learning is rote, and might I say boring. Research indicates that the typical practices of copying definitions are ineffective. This book encourages teachers to actively engage students in developing an understanding of words.

The book is divided into six sections: "Collecting and Sorting Words," "Exploring Definitions," "Working with Meanings," "Expanding Writing Vocabulary," "Investigating Word Origins," and "Playing with Words." Within each section there are many instructional activities to choose from.

Robust Replaces Rote

In too many classrooms, vocabulary learning is rote, and might I say boring.

According to the authors, robust vocabulary instruction is important in order to "advance student mastery of words and meanings." This process starts with choosing rich words that are widely read and continues with instruction that provides students with a variety of experiences with those words. Through these experiences, students develop a deeper understanding of the words.

One of my favorite activities in the book is "word clusters." These exercises require students to examine the multiple shades of meanings in words with images, definitions, and sentences.

Another activity presented is individual "word walls," which I have used for both spelling and vocabulary. I noticed that the word wall made students take some responsibility for their learning because they needed to select those words that were giving them difficulty.

According to research, creating visual representations of words can be tantamount to understanding, particularly with students who have limited English skills. This book presents many activities that require students to create visual representations of the word being studied.

For instance, in one activity called Vocabulary Crib Books, students create an accordion-type book that contains vocabulary words, each with a picture and a sentence underneath. In another activity, students draw side-by-side representations of homophones.

While the book is geared toward 6th through 12th grade students, most of the activities are easily adaptable to most elementary grades, and many provide for the individual needs of a student. I successfully used several of the activities in my 5th grade classroom this past year.

This book seeks to elevate the level of vocabulary instruction teachers provide their students, focusing not only on the "what," but also the "why" of robust vocabulary instruction.

About the Author Darcy Nickel is a teacher-consultant with the Chicago Area Writing Project.

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