Multisensory Vocabulary Instruction: Guidelines and Activities

Vocabulary is a weak area for many students, but much "vocabulary instruction" ends up being handwriting practice.

Edwin Ellis and Theresa Farmer describe the situation eloquently in the introduction to their clarifying strategy to teach vocabulary. To quote:

When you think of vocabulary, there is a good chance that you think of long lists of words from social studies or science textbooks, spelling word lists, or even the humongous lists of terms to study for college entrance exams. Zillions of flash cards also may come to mind. No doubt you share the common childhood experience of having to "go look up the words in a dictionary, write the definition, and then write a sentence using the term" – but how much of that vocabulary do you remember now?

In other words, many of the traditional techniques teachers and students use to learn vocabulary does not work because most students, not just those with learning problems, rarely remember the meanings of new terms beyond the test. This raises a very disconcerting question: If students don't remember the definitions of new terms after the test, why bother requiring them to memorize those definitions in the first place since it seems to be a waste of time?

Given a list of words to learn, many students will complete the assignments given, but will not have the time to actually learn what the words mean. "Vocabulary enrichment" becomes yet another set of compartmentalized pieces of information that a student is "exposed to," tries to spit back on a test, and forgets.

Developing vocabulary as part of knowledge structure requires much more energy and focus than memorizing terms. Many students will have habits of passivity that will need to be broken. Others will be convinced that these aren't words people normally use, even if in fact they've heard them many times before – but didn't remember because there was no meaning attached to the word.

Keep in mind, also, that there is more to developing vocabulary and language comprehension than learning new words. Some other skills to consider at the single word and phrase level are:

  • figures of speech,
  • confusing words such as "indifferent,"
  • words with multiple meanings, and
  • "signal" words such as but, however, and while.


  1. Have structure and organization behind the words you present

    Rather than randomly selected words "at their grade level," present words in related groups. Examples: Present words about feelings, and make a poster with the students, with different words to describe being "afraid" or "happy." Students can discuss the degrees of emotion (is terrified more than nervous or anxious, ecstatic better than pleased), and the differences between the words (how is snicker different from guffaw, terrified different from horrified?). Another option is to study word parts: have the students learn that ject means throw, and then tackle projectile, reject, and trajectory.

    An advantage to grouping words this way is that it lends itself to individualized instruction. Students can all be tackling words from the big ject list – but one student may be learning subjective and abject while another learns project and projectile. (As with any strategy that differentiates between students, you will need to deal with the "why is he doing something different" issues and determining how and how much to differentiate – but with these activities the differences between students are not as obvious.)

  2. Incorporate multisensory learning from the beginning

    Many students gain a lot if an illustration or demonstration is presented first. Later, when the word is used or its meaning discussed, they have an image to associate it with, and are more likely to learn from the discussion as well as from the visual presentations.

  3. Model the activities first

    Demonstrate these activities with vivid, familiar words first. Once you've modeled an activity with a word, do it with student input next, and finally, have the students do it on their own – perhaps in groups before working individually.

  4. Most work with vocabulary should be done with the meanings available

    If the activity involves expressing the ideas in a different form than the definition, then the student has to think about the meaning and interpret it. If the student doesn't use the right meaning, they're worse than wasting they're time; they're learning the wrong things. In addition, students may commit a simplified meaning to memory, but if they have a more developed definition they will be able to think about that and use it.

  5. Keep an ongoing list prominently posted

    If the words are visible and accessible to students, they are more likely to see them, think about them, and use them. It's up to you to remember to take the lists down when you give tests or quizzes, unless you are using word banks already. (Don't rely on a list on the board as a word bank, however; some students have significantly more trouble reading or writing from a distance than from the paper they are working on.) If you've got different students learning different words, put them all up there, but be sure each student knows which words s/he is responsible for knowing.

  6. Go beyond the definitions of the words

    Include the connotations of the words and the ways they are most likely to be used. Don't limit this exploration to the "discussion" of words. When students are drawing or acting out words, encourage them to incorporate the connotations or the more subtle aspects of the meanings of the words.


  1. Illustrate the words

    Show pictures or video clips that demonstrate the meaning of a word. Have students draw and label something illustrating the meaning of the word. This is not limited to concrete nouns – a grim expression, a contemplative person, or absurd conduct can also be drawn. The labels explain how the word and drawing fit. Drawing skills are not important; stick figures with accurate labels can succinctly express an idea as well as finely crafted caricatures. The infamous "flashcards" can be made more meaningful with illustrations, as well. Be sure, though, that the student doesn't replace an abstract idea with a concrete example of it. This can be done by showing different ways that the idea is expressed and having the students discover what makes them valid illustrations – for instance, could news be grim? How?

  2. Play "Quick Draw"

    This doesn't have to be competitive, but it can be. See how quickly students can convey the essence of a words meaning on the board – without words. This works especially well with words describing visual concepts, like many geography terms. Again, make sure students don't oversimplify things – if you play this game repeatedly, make sure the students are using different ways to draw the words.

  3. Play "vocabulary charades"

    Have students draw a word from a hat and act it out.

  4. Give credit for finding the word used in the real world

    Provide extra credit if a student hears or sees a vocabulary word anywhere outside of the vocabulary exercises. To get the points, the student has to write down the word, what it means, and where s/he heard it. Sometimes the students will purposely use the words so someone can say they heard it – which just means they are incorporating it into their oral vocabularies.

  5. Use the words yourself

    That prominently posted list can be your cue to slip words into other classwork or discussions. Students may not even need the incentive of extra credit to start listening for them.

  6. Have students answer questions that use the words

    For example: "What are three ways you could tell a person had just received grim news?" "What are three things an impertinent person might say?" "What are three things that would disconcert you?" Doing this while the student has the meaning available gives the opportunity to process the meaning instead of guessing at an answer.

  7. Have students generate examples and non-examples for words

    This can be done with visual or kinesthetic illustrations as well as verbal descriptions. Have students explain whether something is a good example of a word or not, and why they think so. For most groups, this activity should be practiced with familiar, concrete words first. It can be used to lay a solid foundation for "comparing and contrasting" and defending ideas in essays, especially if you encourage the students to use precise language and good sentences.

    When you ask students to generate examples, if someone comes up with a "wrong" answer, it can be used as "a good non-example" to help clarify the meaning of a word. Remind students that learning is not about proving what you already know, but about asking questions to change what you don't know into what you do know.

  8. Use "fill in the blank" exercises before you expect the students to use the words in sentences themselves

    This is also a good way to test students, or to make the transition between working with the definitions available and recalling what the words mean on their own. Have a word bank with five vocabulary words and five sentences with blanks, and have the students decide which word goes in which blank. Your challenge will be constructing sentences which only match with one word, so small groups of words are better. These exercises are also opportunities for you to give a wider scope to a word, and discuss how that word fits into a sentence that the students might not have considered.

  9. Compose with the words

    Only after a student has heard and read a word used correctly many times should s/he be expected to compose something original with the word. This can be a fun class activity, though, once a sizable list has accumulated. Students can take turns picking words from the list to add a sentence to an ongoing story – students will get a chance to hear the words they weren't sure of used by other students, and the sentences can be revised if the words are not used correctly. Eventually, students may enjoy composing absurd tales using the words.

Reprinted with permission from The Resource Room (

Tags: Vocabulary


Vocabulary building is important if students could use the terms in "real-life" and not just in the classroom. This is especially important to ELL students who may need more language vocabulary than a phonics lesson. It was a great article. It helped to stress the essential aspect of vocabulary building. Thank you.

I need to monitor 5 special ed students weekly, graph the results and adjust. etc-any ideas or a web-site would be most welcome.

Most of our learning of vocabulary is musical terms which are in Italian. But the other day there was the word "timbre" and we compared it to our English word of "timber". 3rd graders will be starting their raps soon so we will use words in a rhyming fashion.

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