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Tools to Boost Students’ Vocabulary Knowledge

by Dr. Bruce Ellis

Helping students broaden their vocabulary skills is crucial for them to be better readers. Even proficient students that have 80% comprehension can miss details that better readers take for granted. That is huge, regardless of what content and grade level you teach! At first you might think that 80% word knowledge is great until you experience what that feels like (see quote below). As adults, we have better skills than students when it comes to using inferencing skills and context clues, so imagine what your students might experience reading the same passage quoted. Hopefully you have (if not had prior to reading this) an “aha! moment” to realize how empowering good vocabulary knowledge is to student success. And reading comprehension plays a critical role in students’ success in science and math.

Here is what 80% comprehension looks like: “Bingle for help!” you shout. “This loopity is dying!” You put your fingers on her neck. Nothing. Her flid is not weafling. You take out your joople and bingle 119, the emergency number in Japan. There’s no answer! Then you muchy that you have a new befourn assengle. It’s from your gutring, Evie. She hunwres at Tokyo University. You play the assengle. “…if you get this…” Evie says. “…I can’t vickarn now… the important passit is…” Suddenly, she looks around, dingle. “Oh no, they’re here! Cripett… the fribWasple them ON THE FRIB!…” BEEP! the assengle parantles. Then you gratoon something behind you…

All Things Linguistic (access March 2, 2021)

Now that we have established the value of good word knowledge, let’s take a look at a few strategies and tools that you can use to help build vocabulary skills in your classroom. As you read through these, think about which ones would work best with your students. This list isn’t an exhaustive list, so be sure to comment below and let us know which strategies and tools you would add to the list that you have found helpful, either personally or with your students.


This extension, available for Chrome and Firefox, is designed to adapt a web page article into a quiz. VocabBoost, which is currently in beta mode, will remove various words on the page and provide a blank space in its place. The user has the option to type in the missing words or drag-and-drop from a curated list at the top. After installing the appropriate extension, you are now able to create your first test. Do so by following these steps:

  1. Open a website. Be aware that not all websites will work. Verify with specific websites you are interested in before using with your class.
  2. Select the text with your mouse.
  3. Right click.
  4. Choose VocabBoost –> Make random test OR VocabBoost –> Make less common test.
  5. If you think the test is too hard, click “Show options.” You can drag the words into the test and drop them into their appropriate missing area.
  6. Once you are ready to grade, click “Check answers.”
  7. If you want to see all answers, click “Show answers.”
  8. To make a new test, please refresh the page.

This extension may be best suited for ESL/ELL students since it offers a wide variety of words – not just ones that are higher level vocabulary. Note that the space for the missing word is not in proportion to how many letters it has. (I.e.: spaces for the word “it” and “continue” will be similar. Hopefully the developer will add an underscore to the space to make it visually clearer where the missing words belong.) Keep an eye on this extension as it has great potential.

Vocabulary Highlighter

If you have higher-level students who are reading at least at the eleventh grade level, then you might find this extension handy. Vocabulary Highlighter will identify words on the webpage from Magoosh’s GRE Vocabulary (~1000 words), Hong Bao Shu (红宝书/紅寶書, ~6500 words), or Barron’s GRE Word List. Note that it currently does not auto highlight all the words on either of these lists. If you use this extension and would like to provide feedback, you are encouraged to reach out to [email protected]. To auto highlight any words from the list, begin by clicking the extension icon, clicking the Extension Option link, and then selecting which of the three lists you want to user. If there are words that are on the selected list, you will notice them highlighted on the page.

Vocabulary in Context

Vocabulary in Context is an extension for Chrome and Firefox. You will need to create a login by using just your email address (no password needed); because of that, this extension is recommended for students 13 and older. You can pull sentences/paragraphs from any website and add them to your vocabulary list. Once you install the appropriate extension, do the following:

Highlight the vocabulary word as shown above.
  1. Go to the website that contains the vocabulary word used in context.
  2. Click/drag your mouse to highlight the sentence or paragraph. Then copy the sentence by using Ctrl+C (or Cmd+C on Mac).
  3. Click on the extension icon. In the textbox area, paste the text. Highlight just the word(s) that are the vocabulary being learned in this sentence/paragraph. The highlighted word(s) will become the identified vocabulary while the rest of the text will be context. The image to the right shows a portion of text from The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst (one of my all-time favorite short stories…good enough to make you cry). Notice that infallible has been highlighted to identify it as the vocabulary word.
  4. Click on the Save vocabulary in context button to add it to your list.
  5. Continue adding to your list as needed.

In your profile, you can adjust the number of entries per page, customize the popup link, and set how many days between practice for each word. When you practice a word in the Memorize tab, it will disappear for the number of days set and then reappear for practice. The Quiz tab will allow you to read the context with the vocabulary word removed. To check to see if you were correct in identifying the vocabulary word, mouse over the missing area. While mousing over the word, you can also select from the identified popup links (in your profile) to jump out to the web for more support on the vocabulary word.

Link to Text is a Chrome extension provided by Google. You can highlight a text on a web page and then create a link that you can share. When someone clicks on your link, they go to the website AND the text that you had highlighted will be highlighted for them. This is an awesome tool if you are trying to differentiate within a Google Doc or HyperDoc, but want to keep the main document simple. You can now link out to more specific information that is already highlighted for your students. Once the extension is installed, just do the following to use it:

  1. Go to the destination website and highlight the text you want to share.
  2. Right-click the highlighted text and then select Copy Link to Selected Text. The highlighted text should flash yellow and then back to normal highlight color. The link to this text has been copied to your clipboard.
  3. Share the link wherever you need to. When the user clicks on your link, they will go to the designated page and the text you highlighted will be highlighted for them.

For an example of Link to Selected Text, click on the image below (or click here) to see the Captain’s passage as it was originally written by Shakespeare and in modern English.

Try out these extensions and let us know which you prefer. And if you have a tool that you find helpful in supporting students learning vocabulary, share it in the comments section below. Here are a few other TechNotes blog entries that have been tagged as being about teaching vocabulary.

Semantic Maps Made Easy
Using Google Translate in Sheets to Differentiate
Hacking the iPad for Vocabulary Growth
ELL Strategies: Digital Phrase Walls and Anchor Charts

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