Language arts teacher Erin Vanek created a quick, clever vocab-based guessing game to spark her students' curiosity about a book she was about to assign. The result: students who are curious about the story and familiar with some of the key terms they'll see when they read.

As a language arts teacher, I am constantly searching for ways to excite my students about reading. The old, "Okay students! Here is our next book!" is often met with groans, or worse yet, declarations about how reading is boring. Or stupid. Or a waste of time. (Unfortunately, I've heard all of these.)

For the memoir I recently started teaching my sixth grade class, I decided to use Vocabulary.com to flip the introduction process. Instead of presenting students with a book and then trying to get them excited about reading it, I decided to present them with the memoir's vocabulary and then let them make predictions about the text based on that set of words.

Preparing for the Activity

Red Scarf Girl is not an extremely popular text, and I was admittedly doubtful when I typed the title into the Vocabulary.com "search lists" box. Lo and behold, not just one, but seven lists popped up! Here were seven pre-made lists full of vocabulary terms straight from the text, including one made by Vocabulary.com!

I reviewed a few of the lists before deciding on one to use. After I clicked on it, I was taken to that list's home screen that featured a row of tabs. I chose the "Assign" tab and there were all of my classes. I picked "6th grade Language Arts" and clicked the green "Assign" button and just like that, the list was assigned to my students.

Using the Activity in Class: Part One – Individual Practice

When my students come into class, I have them log in to Vocabulary.com and there is automatically a notification in the corner of their screen telling them about their new assignment. When they click on it they are taken to the list I found and I tell them to click on "Learn this list." At this point they are prompted to log in, and after they do I tell them to select the "Practice" tab to start practicing questions based on the words.

A few of my students look up at me with confusion. "But – I don't know these words!"

"That's okay. You don't have to get them all right. I just want you to have fun with this list, see if there are any you can figure out!"

When I reiterate that there will be no penalty for not knowing words, they are more eager to start. Another way to alleviate any anxiety students might feel would be to allow them to work with a partner.

I set a timer and let them practice for around ten minutes. When the ten minutes are up, I have them put away their computers.

Using the Activity in Class: Part Two – Think-Pair-Share

"Okay, take out a piece of paper and write down how many words you can remember." I walk around, watching as students jot down three or four words.

When a few students remark that they're having trouble remembering the actual words, I decide to turn this into a Think-Pair-Share activity. I have each student join a partner and work together to define the words they can remember. And, just to throw in a little incentive, I add a candy prize to the group that has the most correctly-defined words from the list.

Again I set the timer, and then I watch their lists grow. It is amazing how much better they are at recalling the words when they can discuss the practice questions with one another.

"Did you get that one question that talked about fellows?" One student says.

"Oh yeah! That was for comrade! That was a word!" His partner adds comrade to their list.

"For one, I clicked on a picture of an umbrella…" Another student is saying

"Parasol!" Her partner eagerly nods.

I set a timer for this activity too, because with a list that started with 69 words, I know that they students could keep at this for a while.

Lastly comes the "Share" part. The partnerships trade lists and then began reading off words and their definitions. I have to keep extending the screen on the Smartboard to fit all of their words!

"I bet that's over twenty-five words!" one of them says.

Our final list has thirty-one words. That means before even opening the book, thirty-one of the vocabulary words have already been learned by most of my class.

Using the Activity in Class: Part Three – Fiction Prediction

Now comes the final step – tying the vocabulary learning to the content of the memoir.

"Rebel. Ablaze. Counterrevolutionary. Wield. Sinister. All of these words have come straight from the memoir we will be reading. What I want you to do now is to predict what the story will be about. You don't have to write a paragraph summary, just a quick fiction prediction based on the book's vocabulary."

Students begin writing down different predictions for the memoir, and I have a few write theirs on the Smartboard.

A girl that goes against the government.

War and rebellion.

A middle-class girl who rebels against things in life.

In reality, the book is about a girl growing up in Communist China and having to determine her own beliefs. The students are surprising close!

At the end of class, students are asking me for the book so they could start reading it early. "Does the entire city, like, catch on fire?" One of them wants to know, probably thinking of the vocabulary word ablaze.

I smile that secret smile that teachers save for when they see a student learning and growing without even realizing it. "You'll have to wait and see."


Erin Vanek has been working in the education field since 2006 doing everything from tutoring elementary students in Columbus, Ohio to teaching AP English to seniors in Cleveland. She currently teaches language arts at an Ohio middle school, where she works as the Gifted Intervention Specialist. When she’s not teaching, she is coaching young creative writers in Power of the Pen, advising students in Mock Trial and Model UN, and facilitating a love of words through WordMaster’s Challenge. Read more of her teaching ideas at creativeteachersclassroom.com.