Vocabulary Mastery

We’ve had copious triumph with our handcrafted modus operandi for vocabulary.  Sorry, I got a little carried away.  We ditched the vocabulary workbooks and came up with a more natural system that fits us very well.  Here’s what vocabulary looks like at our house:

The Basics

We start the year with 180 vocabulary words.  I get these words from internet vocabulary lists, curriculum vocabulary lists, Latin and Greek roots, or my own brain in some cases.  Then, each of these words get written on a color-coded card.

Each day, at vocabulary time, my kids get a new card.  They write the definition(s) on the back of the card, and in to their vocabulary box it goes, ready to be used to the daily activity.  The vocabulary box is just a simple plastic box we use to house the cards that are ‘in circulation’ at the moment.

Our daily activity can vary from fun games, to copy work, to anything in between.  The activities can use every card in the box, or just one.  I have tried to come up with as many activities as I can to help keep things fresh.

When my kids demonstrate understanding of a word during an activity, without reading the back of the card, the card gets a punch.  After five punches, the word is considered mastered and graduates from the box.  Naturally ‘harder’ words stay in the box much longer than ‘easy’ words.

Mastered words go in a separate collection.  Mastered cards get pulled out occasionally for their own games just to keep them from being forgotten.

When we encounter a word we don’t know, we make up a card for it, so by the end of the year we end up with many more than the 180 cards we started the year with.

The Details

The words are divided into five colors; red for Latin and Greek roots, orange for words from history, green for science, yellow is for general vocabulary, and blue is used for ‘encountered’ words we don’t know.  The color coding is strangely helpful in improving retention.  We can also use the colors for some of our games.

The cards themselves I make out of card stock paper.  I found this to be way more cost effective and customizable than buying index cards (and the paper is much thicker).  I simply print a template with the definition lines and punch area on a sheet of card stock and cut into eight pieces.  I buy a big pack of colors and I’m set for a few years.  The only trick is getting colors light enough to see pencil on.

Activities are limited only by my creativity.  We do round-robin stories that require a vocabulary word in each sentence (they get very silly), a definition game show, bingo, crosswords (online crossword generators are awesome), we do illustration games, illustrated dictionary pages, and all sorts of other activities.

Also, when the boxes start getting too full, it’s easy to simply start doing activities that give more chances for earning punches.  When the boxes thin out, I can start doing more activities that only earn a few punches.  This serves as a built in way to keep the boxes with a good number of cards.

Retention, the all-important metric, seems vastly improved too.  While I can’t claim that words never get forgotten, most of the mastered words are remembered when they are later reviewed.  Words that my kids struggle with are in their boxes for a long time, but this gives them plenty of chances to review the word.  Meanwhile, words they learn quickly don’t waste much time, they are in and out of the box in a week or so.  This customization really helps their success.

As a huge bonus, my kids actually enjoy this program.  My youngest covets his mastered cards and will brag to anyone about how many mastered cards he has.  The kids get into contests to see who can master the most words, and they even enjoy finding new words to add to their box so they can eventually have another mastered card.

This has been such an improvement over our old workbooks.  Retention is improved, money is saved (several years worth of cards was the cost of one workbook), and enthusiasm is through the roof.  We will be sticking with this for a while.


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