25+ Strategies for Teaching Terminology

"Why Teach Vocabulary? 1. Best predictor of academic success, 2. Vocabulary development is an attainable goal, 3. Extends across all curriculum areas, 4. Direct instruction can improve comprehension.


Most areas of study require students to master an often extensive field-specific vocabulary, and students often both struggle with and resist this necessary mastery.

  • Below are a list of suggestions that will hopefully make the task easier for instructors and less onerous for students -- and so result in better learning experiences for everyone.

I. General strategies that work well are as follows:

  • Specific word instruction and active engagement with words and meanings
  • Word-learning strategies (dictionary use [meanings, contexts], etymology/morphemic analysis [roots, prefixes, suffixes], contextual analysis [context clues])
  • Word consciousness (an awareness and interest in field-specific terminology via diction, usage, word play, etymologies, etc.)
  • Multiple exposures in multiple, rich contexts
  • Computer technology for game-based learning (see II.A.1 below)

II. Select Specific Strategies

A. "Tips on How to Teach Terminology and Definitions"

1. (Online) Games and/or Flashcards

  • Useful tool: StudyStack -- entering data once allows students to practice content endless times through a variety of embedabble "game" formats (flashcards, Concentration-like matching game, crossword, hangman, quizzes, tests, word scramble, word chop, Bug Match, Hungry Bug, etc.)
  • Useful tool: Quizlet -- entering data once allows students to practice content endless times through a variety of embeddable "game" formats (flashcards, self-testing, writing terms out, practice spelling terms, practice test, Mahjong-like matching game, Gravity [as asteroid-blasting-a-planet game])

2. Hyperlinks and/or Glossaries 

  • "[U]se hyperlinks to have the definition appear as a pop up" or "provide a glossary link on the page."

3. Etymology

  • "[Break] up the words and us[e] games, etc. to learn the roots words and then combin[e] them into more complex words."

4. Scenarios

  • "[P]ut the terminology into context using scenarios and offer inline glossary or a downloadable cheat sheet."
  • "Envelo[p] those terms in the most meaningful (preferably motivatingly consequence-laden) context[s]."
  • "Make it memorable, give them a chance to practice the terms in context, and you should be golden." 
  • An "aid/reference point/takeaway is also essential."

5. Pronunciation Guides

b. "[H]earing the word pronounced properly and then used in a (hopefully, fun) sentence really helps with comprehension and understanding."

  • "[I]nclud[e] audio that technically explain[s] the term, then ad[d] a scenario with visuals that carr[y] through the entire terminology section to connect it to something they already understand."

6. Association

  • "[A]ssociat[e] images and graphics to words that have been defined."
  • "[C]reate word associations with things [they] already know or have the learner come up with something they relate to when they hear and understand the term."
  • "Create a story around the term ... They will learn the term and also understand its relevance to real-life situations."

7. Cheatsheet

  • "Printable cheat sheet is the way to go ... Give them something to reference whilst doing the module."

B. "Effective Vocabulary Instruction: Five Best Practices for Teachers" (post)

1. "Create a Word Map"

  • "[G]raphic organizers based on the Frayer model ... help students learn new words by associating it with its antonyms, synonyms, writing their own definition or using the word in their own sentence."
  • This "allows students to think about vocabulary in several ways, and further make connections with each word in relation to other words they already know."

2. "Music for Memorization"

  • "Catchy beats and hooks often make vocabulary retention and recall stickier for students. It allows students to memorize at their own pace."
  • Many field-specific vocabulary songs exist online, but adventurous instructors can make their own.

3. See "Etymology" above.

4. "Personalized Lists"

  • "[S]tudents ... build their own vocabulary lists ... [as they] come across new words they don’t know ... in readings and discussions."

5. "Use Context Clues"

  • "[P]rovid[e] reading passages or sentences with new vocabulary words embedded in them. Students then attempt to guess the definitions."
  • "Teaching vocabulary through context clues encourages critical thinking skills and helps them make connections to the word, ultimately helping them remember its meaning."

C. "Tips for Teaching Medical Terminology"

1. Class Activities

  • Peer Instruction: "[A]ssign to each student a term written on the board to analyze and define. Review as a class after taking attendance."
  • Pre-Testing: "Begin a new chapter by having the students take a pretest.Once completed, go over the answers in class, then allow the students to keep it. It can be reviewed at the completion of the chapter to demonstrate to the students how much they have learned." 
  • Pronunciation Practice: "Pronounce each term in the word list ... [and] then have the students, as a group, repeat them" and/or "Ask the students to volunteer to read a sentence aloud until all content is hear ... [for the] opportunity to pronounce and hear terms in the context of medical writings."
  • Student Presentations: "[A]ssig[n] ... a[n] [interview] or [have students] write case studies" and then "schedule them to report their results to the class" to give "students practice ... using terms in context while sharing information." 
  • "Lightning Round of Significant Learning": "Ask each student to give voice to their significant learning from the class time. Require everyone to speak." This "provides an opportunity to move information from short-term memory into long-term memory through the focus of attention required to select and remember significant learning and through the relational aspect of speaking with others."

2. Small Group Activities (groups of 3-5)

  • Flashcards: Have "students ... use their flashcards to review the word parts ...by having one person hold the card and the others give the meaning.... [H]av[e] students group cards by the types of information they convey, such as anatomic structure, descriptive, pathology, surgery, and diagnostics."
  • "Textbook Chapter Exercise": "Assign the groups a textbook chapter exercise to complete in a given amount of time. When time is up, ask the students to take turns reading the terms and the definitions aloud and/or, if analyzing exercises, have the student use the whiteboard to analyze the terms.... Students may be reluctant to pronounce medical terms aloud so to ask the class as a whole to pronounce the term is a good idea."
  • Reading: "Assign a medical record [or other text and] ... [p]roject [it] on a screen or have students use their textbook or devices. Direct the students to practice reading the [document] within their group. Extend the activity by asking students to conduct informal internet research on a medical term used in the document by using their phones, laptop, or tablets. Have the students take turns reading portions of the document to the class at large and share what they learned through research."
  • Writing: "Give each group five terms. Instruct them to write sentences using each term. Have the students take turns in reading their sentences aloud to the class.... This activity gives the students the opportunity to use the terms in sentence form."
  • Games: See A1, "(Online) Games and/or Flashcards" above.

D. Other Options

1. From "Teaching English Vocabulary"

  • Recognizing New Words: Bingo, Matching, Fill in the Blanks (with options - "Hand out a piece of written text ... with blank spaces that must be filled in from a list of words")
  • Producing Vocabulary: Descriptions, Fill in the Blanks (with no options), Mind maps or Brainstorming, Guess What I'm Thinking game

2. See also "21 Ideas for Teaching Vocabulary"

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