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Differentiate Vocabulary Instruction

Vocabulary is the “V” words some students fear more than any other. Why? Because we often teach students to memorize vocabulary terms and definitions. The tried and true “drill and kill” method becomes one of our biggest resources but that’s just no effective. However, there are some great ways to differentiate vocabulary instruction to help all students truly learn their vocabulary instead of just memorizing it.

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Start with the Vocabulary Basics

Vocabulary words can be hard to teach because there’s not a ton of ways to introduce new words. Typically, we will give students the term and the definition or have the student look up the term in the text book or online. To help differentiate and give students a good handle on their new terms, you should use your word wall as a support.

Word Wall

Your word wall is probably a large part of your classroom. Teachers add to this wall throughout the year. Really, we should take pictures of the wall every so often to show how much incredible new language our students are learning! While I’m sure your word wall is off the hook, you want to make sure you are using You can differentiate vocabulary by using your word wall. Having the word or words displayed, is an easy reference for you and for your students.

Differentiate Vocabulary with Games

Once you introduce your students to vocabulary words, you’ll want to help them become familiar with the words and their definitions.

Vocabulary 4-Square

One way to do this is to use vocabulary 4-squares. When you use a vocabulary 4-square, you have a box that is divided into fourths. In the top left box, you put the vocabulary word. In the box on the top right, the student writes the definition of the word. You should encourage students to use their own words for the definition. In the bottom left box, students write a sentence using the word. Finally, in the bottom right box the student illustrates it.


This differentiates instruction by giving a variety of ways to use the word. It also builds from the basic understanding to the actual use of the word. You could do each box as a starter activity or put this activity into a center.

Matching Vocabulary

If you have students who are struggling with the basic definition of words, you can have them play matching vocabulary. Matching vocabulary is simply a memory game but you match the term to the definition. This can be used in centers as well as something for early finishers to complete.


Musical Vocabulary

Musical vocabulary is very similar to matching vocabulary but with music and movement. When you add different activities to learning, students make stronger associations to the words. With musical vocabulary, students move around the room until the music stops. Then, they find an empty work space and start putting the terms with their definitions. Once the music starts, they move again. This gives students a chance to see what others have put together. When I do this activity in my classroom, I have my students announce when they find a mistake. They read the mistake out loud and correct it. Then students at the other tables can look to make sure the same mistake is not in their work station.  

Differentiate Vocabulary and Make it Matter

Getting the basics is the baseline, but once your students have a good hold on the vocabulary, you need to make the vocabulary words meaningful. By making them meaningful, you are putting them into use which makes them become a tool for students.

Reading passages

One way to make the vocabulary words matter is by using differentiated reading passages. When going through the reading passages, students can see how they are used to check out context clues that may help them understand the word better. You can have your students do a scavenger hunt for vocabulary words. To take it to the next level you can challenge students to highlight the context clues around the word.

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Differentiate and Integrate

When students have an understanding of the words and their importance, they should work with them on their own. You can do this in learning centers and in writing.

Learning centers

Learning centers are a great place to integrate some vocabulary, and it’s an easy way to differentiate the material with your students. For students who are struggling, you might challenge to work on the vocabulary 4 square, others you might ask to write longer passages that incorporate the vocabulary words.


Writing is a great way to get students using the words on their own. This is the final “letting go” phase for teachers. You can differentiate this step by clustering the vocabulary words and have students write multiple passages.

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Vocabulary can be difficult for students, but if you differentiate and gradually release control, they will have a budding vocabulary in no time.

xoxo Farrah Henley
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