5 Fun Ways to Teach Vocabulary Words with a Picture Dictionary
No matter what language we speak, we learn and absorb information more effectively when the information is presented visually. In fact, our brains process visuals 60,000 times faster than text. Additionally:
- 50% of our brains are active in visual processing
- 90% of information transmitted to the brain is visual
- 40% of people respond better to visuals
Giving all students in your classroom access to visual learning opportunities can help reinforce your lessons and ensure retention of information. Teaching ELL students is no different. A picture is worth a thousand words and visual clues are essential in helping your ELL students take in more information than they would from written or spoken instruction alone.
Getting Started: Using a Picture Dictionary to Teach Vocabulary Words
One of the best tools for teaching your K–8 students new vocabulary words is a picture dictionary. Broken into general categories like time and weather, people and families, animals, food, and community, it includes colorful images that help students associate new words with what they visually represent.
As you introduce new vocabulary words, identify the objects within each category, and pronounce the words on the page. Allow time for your students to share their experiences and previous knowledge about the pictures and words in the category.
From this discussion, you can identify areas of misunderstanding or ideas that may need clarification before proceeding. You can also use this to build your students’ background knowledge before beginning a lesson.
There are lots of games you can implement into your lesson plans as fun ways to teach vocabulary words using a picture dictionary.
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5 Picture Dictionary Games for Vocabulary
1. I Spy
Not only is I Spy on our list of fun ways to teach vocabulary words, it also helps students become comfortable with using a dictionary and navigating its layout. Through the clues you give, you can guide your students through the dictionary to find the “mystery” picture. Starting with a general clue like, “I Spy a piece of food,” encourages students to use the Table of Contents to find the appropriate pages. From there, your clues can become more specific such as, “I Spy a vegetable,” or even more detailed like, “I Spy a red vegetable.”
2. Dictionary Dig
Similar to “I Spy,” for “Dictionary Dig,” you will provide students with clues and have students search for a word.
In this game, however, your clues will be open-ended so that more than one word could be a correct answer. For example, you might ask your students to find a word that begins with the letter “p” and can be found in the classroom.
Students can also practice categorizing words, which can help them with spelling patterns and pronunciation.
3. Secret Word
This twist on the old-school guessing game begins with the teacher or a student writing spaces for each letter of the word they selected. Students guess what letters are in the word. For each incorrect guess, the teacher or student draws or reveals a tiny detail of the picture in the book to give them a clue.
Once someone has guessed the word, have students practice locating the word in their picture dictionary.
4. Four Square
Use the classic recess game to introduce new vocabulary words to your students. Using their picture dictionaries, students should provide a definition, write a sentence, draw a picture, and brainstorm synonyms for each new word. You can download this simple worksheet to play Picture Dictionary Four Square with your class.
5. Crumple & Shoot
Crumple & Shoot is not only a fun way to reinforce vocabulary words, but it also gives students the chance to get up and get moving. Here’s how to play!
Divide your students into teams of three or four and provide each team with a picture dictionary. Have a smaller class? This activity works with individual students or pairs as well. Pose a vocabulary question: “What is the word for a person who cooks food in a restaurant?” and have the team or individual student write their answer on a square of paper and hold it up. If the team gets the right answer, one team member can go to the front of the room, crumple the paper, and shoot it into a wastebasket.
The Cult of Pedagogy blog provides a complete description of the game.
What Does the Science of Reading Say About Vocabulary?
Vocabulary and reading comprehension research shows that a strong vocabulary is fundamental for comprehension skills.
Evidence from the Science of Reading demonstrates that vocabulary and oral comprehension instruction are key to effective reading instruction. Vocabulary has been identified as one of the five pillars of literacy. The more words that students can recognize and understand, the better they’re able to comprehend increasingly demanding text—the importance of vocabulary in reading comprehension cannot be overstated.
The National Reading Panel has identified the following eight research-based Science of Reading vocabulary strategies:
- Restructure vocabulary tasks as necessary.
- Provide direct vocabulary instruction for a specific text.
- Use repetition and multiple exposures to new words.
- Teach high-frequency vocabulary words.
- Help students understand how words function in different contexts.
- Use technology to deepen understanding of words and their meanings.
- Provide vocabulary instruction in multiple modalities.
This blog was originally published on May 30, 2017. It was updated on September 6, 2023.