Sunday, October 17, 2010

Engaging Vocabulary Activities (Mohler)

Many thanks to Dr. Geri Marshall Mohler for sharing her engaging word-learning resources with us. Geri currently serves as an education consultant for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, working with accreditation and on standards development for reading and library specialists. Previous to her work at CTC, she worked for two years at the California Department of Education in the Reading/Language Arts unit and for five years as a professor of reading/literacy at California State University, Bakersfield. Before coming to California in 2002, she taught English and reading in Nebraska middle and high schools for 18 years. Her major area of research is preschool literacy (see

In this post, I offer cognitively engaging activities for promoting word knowledge in the classroom. Prior Vocabulogic posts have made a strong case for the value of teaching vocabulary and morphology. Some of the best thinkers of our time speak to this, as illustrated in the collection of research-based quotes posted by Susan Ebbers. With such research in mind, I use this post to introduce "hands-on" activities for teaching dictionary skills, vocabulary and morphology. These activities are described in my Hands-On Vocabulary Activities packet, provided in pdf format and in Word format. These activities can be used in any content area and adapted to most learning levels (3rd to adult). Feel free to download the packet, adapt it for your own use and share it with others, freely, with my permission. A more extensive article, which contains short explanations of each of the activities, was published in 7-8-9, Poetry, Song and Rhyme (Mohler, 2009).

Vocabulary development is a reading component that is ongoing throughout life. Other components, such as phonemic awareness and phonics, have received much emphasis in English/language arts standards and curricula, but each of these, once learned, rarely needs to be re-visited. Academic language is a literacy area currently getting a lot of press. Academic language is more than vocabulary; however, it includes facility with intricate terms, complex sentence structure and syntax, text organization, and the function of transitions. Extensive and efficient vocabulary acquisition is a good place to begin developing academic language because direct instruction in vocabulary develops comprehension of academic language more than any other factor (Bromley, 2007).

To increase vocabulary, morphological awareness is essential (see many previous posts). It allows for independent access to the definitions of many words, without a dictionary, and provides a means to better understand definitions found in a dictionary and to make connections with similar words. In fact, by sixth grade, the meanings of about 60% of the morphologically complex words in school texts can be inferred by analyzing word parts in context (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). These “translations” may only imply meanings, but they can often result in a comprehensible definition. Either way, it is important that students develop the skills and knowledge to independently decipher the meanings of words using knowledge of morphology.

Many English words contain cognates—a word in a language that has the same origin, or root, as a word in a different language. Spanish-speaking English learners, in particular, need to know about cognates. Many common words in Spanish, for instance, are sophisticated words in English. The English word farming is cultivo or agricultura in Spanish. Cultivate and agriculture are English words related to farming that are derived from Latin roots, like the Spanish cognates are. Spanish-speaking students need to be recognized for their inherent understanding of words that may be unfamiliar to English-only students. (Read more about Spanish-English cognates).

Using the “Hands-On” Vocabulary Activities Packet 
(click images to enlarge and download)

The intent of the activities in Hands-On Vocabulary is to provide students with a fun way to learn about words, so they will be successful in figuring out the meaning of new or unknown words and feel comfortable using sophisticated words in speech and writing. Activities include:
  • Activities 1-6: Dictionary use 
  • Activities 7-10: Spelling practice
  • Activities 11-24: Morphological analysis

The packet of activities includes mnemonics to help students memorize the meanings of many common prefixes and 10 root words. There are lists of affixes and root words alphabetized by word part and by meaning. Students learn how to use these resources to complete the activities. Examples of favorite activities are the “Affix/Root Word Scramble” (#18), “Sophisticated Sentences” (#21), and “Word Blocks” (#23). Each of these can be adapted for specific content area words and grow with the students’ increased knowledge of morphology.

I credit others (Ganske, 2000; Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, & Johnston, 2008) for the activities that are similar to word sorts, which are a great way to practice making sense of pronunciations and spelling, and to help students see connections in words. To save the time and paper required to make the cards for sorting, many activities in the packet are designed so they can be printed and placed in page protectors or laminated. For example, the prefix activity shown here is easily used with a page protector. Students use whiteboard markers to mark and write answers.

Students who have experienced the variety of ways that words can be dissected, manipulated, and discovered will become confident, competent and curious word sleuths. I have used most of these exercises with a variety of student levels and abilities, including teacher candidates and graduate students to prepare them to teach morphology and to improve their own command of English. The activities are predominantly at the word level—sound, spelling and meaning. Sentence level and contextual activities can be incorporated through additional, integrated oral and written assignments throughout the day and year. It is also important that you model the use of morphology skills and encourage students to apply them when confronted with unknown words. Overall, it is your enthusiasm and spontaneity about words and their foibles that will create students who are interested in and knowledgeable about words.

Try these activities and see how well you do!
Questions? Send me an email ( or post a comment. 

Works Cited

Bear, D. R., Invernizzi, M., Templeton, S., Johnston, F. (2008). Words their way: Word study for phonics, vocabulary, and spelling instruction (3rd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Bromley, K. (2007). Nine things every teacher should know about words and vocabulary instruction. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, 50(7), pp. 528-537.

Ganske, K. (2000). Word journeys: Assessment guided phonics, spelling and vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford.

Mohler, G. M. (2009). Hands-on vocabulary: Activities to develop word knowledge. In S. Neufeld & J. Sawkey (Eds.), 7-8-9, Poetry, song and rhyme (pp. 36-46). Costa Mesa, CA: California Reading Association.

Nagy, W., & Anderson, R. C. (1984). How many words are there in printed school English? Reading Research Quarterly, 19, 304-330.


  1. Thank you, Geri, for sharing your packet of hands-on word learning activities. I have received several appreciative emails from Vocabulogic readers and you have had hundreds of hits already.

  2. It has been easy in many ways to teach at a private school, but my nagging sense that too many of my students were not really fluent readers has eventually led me here and I am very grateful, Geri. In particular, right now, I am working with a ninth-grader with very poor morphological skills, but a good number of my college-bound students need this kind of help as well. It seems a great gift to have this practical and thorough resource, and I look forward to making use of it, both here and in Australia where I will "retire" in 2012.
    --Tom Dlugosch


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