Vocabulary for High School Students

You can teach vocabulary for high school students without boring them. Here are vocabulary methods for secondary students.

Creating meaningful vocabulary for high school students. Hmmmm.

It’s tough, and I believe it’s because students are jaded against vocabulary lessons. I don’t have all of the answers, but I can be honest about methods I’ve found meaningful. While researching this post, I discovered other methods worth examining. I’ll include links to those ideas later. Hopefully this post serves as a resource as you examine and implement vocabulary methods, discovering the most effective for your students.

(Working on vocabulary methods for high school students? You might want to bookmark this page.)

Vocabulary activities can be meaningful and engage students. Try these vocabulary lessons to support students. #VocabularyLessons #HighSchoolELA #MiddleSchoolELA

Let’s examine some methods of teaching vocabulary for high school students.

1. Ask students to choose their words.

Students will choose words to study from a reading assignment, most often a novel.

This method takes extra work because you won’t have a master for grading. I’ve also found that it’s labor intensive. Guiding students and encouraging them to uncover difficult words requires circling amongst students. Grading can be a completion check or quick overview of words. Another option is to compile the class’ commonly listed words and study those. This means that the work won’t be done ahead of time, which creates extra prep work for you.

Still, this is the vocabulary instruction I commonly use for my high school students. It gives them ownership, and I sense less grumbling from students. At times, I provide structure and require certain words be included. They overall choose the words, and I merely serve as their assistant in learning.

When students choose their vocabulary words, this can flow into writing assignments. For high school students, you can have them write a sentence using a vocabulary word. Another option is to find a theme among the words and have them write a story based on the words’ message: gloom, excitement, destruction, promise.

2. Choose the words and have students attempt the definition from a text.

When reading fiction or nonfiction, choose vocabulary words ahead of time. Give students the list and as they read, ask them to derive the meaning from the context. After finishing, students can correct their words with each other, a dictionary, or as a class.

Students will practice using context clues. Furthermore as you review, you can explain the parts of speech, showing students how grammar is part of what they read. To take it a step more, examine why the author used specific language. For instance in The Great Gatsby, we analyze Fitzgerald’s writing style through a linguistic lens.

3. Teach a word of the day.

Floating around Pinterest are dozens of “words every high school graduate should know” and “ACT prep vocabulary words” lists. Grab a list, modify it if necessary, and add vocabulary. Teach one word per day. This can be in a no-stress way, by simply posting the word and reading it to start class. Students will remember those words, especially if you use them throughout the year in your lessons.

Many schools are creating lists for the entire school to focus on. Your school may soon have such a list, and all teachers will incorporate those words in some manner.

To review, grab sticky notes and ask students to create a picture, sentence, or note that helps them remember the word and its definition. Combine the sticky notes and complete a gallery walk with your class.

4. Teach from a series.

This is a bit like #3, but with more pre-made activities. If you are new to teaching vocabulary or need quick instruction, the web is full of vocabulary series with accompanying activities. Experiment with what your students enjoy and with what helps them learn the best. Create your own vocabulary activities to supplement, or branch out with the above ideas.

Teaching from a series shouldn’t be the end-all of your vocabulary teaching, but can be a starting point.

5. Word walls.

Yes, secondary students enjoy word walls. Ask students to assemble adverbs and adjectives from their vocabulary lists. Hang the words and discuss their meanings. As students created this visual, they will interact with it, especially if it becomes part of a bulletin board. The goal is for students to review their vocabulary in multiple ways, study it multiple times, and to take ownership of the words.


Like I previously mentioned, when I began writing this blog post, I researched best practices for vocabulary instruction. During my teaching training, I was taught that students needed to identify words for the instruction to be meaningful. I see validity with that point and most often use some variation of that when teaching high school students vocabulary. However, I have experienced students avoiding words that intimidate them. The words that could create growth? Students ignore them.

One could argue that students are still studying, but are they truly expanding their vocabularies? Teacher involvement is a requirement – involvement that uses the vocabulary orally and in writing. In “Research-based Practices in Vocabulary Instruction,” the authors say this:

Research recommends that students learn fewer words but that they know how words and the English language work so that they can infer the meanings of new words. Effective vocabulary instruction is characterized by deliberate selection of words to be taught and frequent opportunities for students to interact with the words in meaningful contexts. Interacting with words in multiple ways and in varied contexts results in durable word learning.

From reading “know how words and the English language work,” I take that to mean conventions, grammar, studying language. I’ve written about teaching grammar alongside vocabulary, and how students benefit from learning words associated with an English class, just as students use algebraic terms in an algebra class.

The study quoted above is not long, and contains links to other resources. If you teach with ‘tiered’ words, Edutopia has tips for that vocabulary instruction.


Teaching vocabulary for high school students is a must, and the variations will depend upon your classes’ needs and your experience. When I reflect upon my first years teaching, my vocabulary instruction was weak. Over time, I learned new methods and grew in my confidence in allowing students to participate more. Passive learning of vocabulary will not grow students’ vocabularies. Research different approaches, and experiment. Collaborate with other teachers and learn vocabulary alongside your students.

Would you like a free vocabulary activity for secondary students? Grab the editable vocabulary activity:

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