Frozen fractals. Ask any child to sing Disney's Frozen theme song and they will sing the part, "..frozen fractals all around!" This is proof that primary students (and even preschoolers) can learn to pronounce challenging vocabulary. Our job is to teach the meaning of those big words in a way that sticks, but how?

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It's as simple as us using the words on regular basis. It's in the revisiting and reviewing of the words on a regular basis. There is nothing wrong with testing at the end of the week, but it does not guarantee that our students will remember vocabulary long term. But how can we teachers remember to use the words and in what context? Here are the 5 keys needed to build those vocabulary muscles:

(1) planning, (2) content, (3) visual aids, (4) school environment, (5) motivation.

1.  Planning:

This is how I started with making vocabulary sticky. I had my list of words and looked at what was happening that week on my lesson plans and the materials I'd planned to use to teach first grade standards. Every year I explicitly teach one critical vocabulary word weekly. Certain words are a snap to teach because I use a reading program that already plots out certain points of the year to teach words like compare, contrast, infer, category, etc. So I first look through my curriculum map for those weeks in the reading program. After that, I then look to what is happening on a weekly basis. For example, October has Fire Safety. I have an activity that "analyzes" a picture inside of a home the safety issues in it. I make sure to say, "Let's analyze this picture to find the safety problems." So knowing what will be coming up on your lesson plans is a great start!

2.  Content

Know your content well enough? Then this is next level stuff! Flip through your standards as you find places to embed the critical vocabulary words that are appropriate for your grade level. Not sure where to embed them? Find synonyms in your content standards that could easily be replaced with the critical vocabulary. For example, if I want to embed the word "distinguish" I look for the words tell the difference between, contrast, or even compare. Key "details" is mentioned in many of the reading literature standards. For "details", during Earth Day I like to talk about the details on recycling. There are so many things that can be recycled and different containers designating such. Show a video about the details of the recycling process of certain materials, like paper.


3.  Visual Aids

Not only do students need to see the words posted on a regular basis, but teachers need them too. Right in front of our faces! Teachers have so much going on that we need constant reminders too. There's nothing wrong with that. One of the most popular visual aids is a word wall. If there is room on the word wall, go for it! Add them in. I suggest posting them so they are obviously different than the other words on the wall though: color-coded, add a small sticker...something. I've also started using one of my favorites: sticky notes. I've actually stuck these around the room to help myself, but my first graders are reading them as well. Win, win!

This student is keeping data on her completed math timed tests. It's just one category from our data sheets that we have students track.

4.  School Environment

Have an open mind and see how critical vocabulary can be used throughout the school day. Think about what we already do daily as a teacher. For one, we are always helping students to distinguish between making good choices and bad choices. Here are just some of the things I may regularly say to my class, with critical vocabulary embedded:

  • Let's analyze and check out if the floor is dirty or clean.
  • Everyone must demonstrate good handwriting all the time.
  • Cite where in the text you found your information.
  • Locate your pencil and eraser.
  • Identify whether this pencil goes in the sharp or dull container.
  • Analyze whether your desk needs cleaned or not.
  • Do you comprehend why we do not run down the hallway?
  • Which lunch would you suggest buying.
  • Analyze whether your desk needs cleaned or not.
  • Describe our playground, classroom or school.
  • Demonstrate what you know by making a map.
  • Determine which rules we need to work on today.
  • Distinguish and tap out the sounds in the word "tube".


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Anchor charts, lanyard badges and brag tags help keep the critical words in front of your students and you as well. Teacher "facetime" upgraded!


It is a constant reminder for me to use these words in my daily talk with students, no matter whether I'm teaching or just communicating with them. That leads me to the most important thing in making vocabulary sticky.

Facetime in teaching can be easily upgraded with the right tools and the same amount of teaching time.

5.  Motivation

Just as I need to be motivated to consistently expect my students to know rules and procedures, I need to be motivated to work on my own use of the critical vocabulary. Why? These critical vocabulary words are in 85% of standardized tests, and my students will come across at least one of these tests starting in 3rd grade. Knowing these words may help my students feel less anxious while reading questions on such tests. I want my students to feel the urgency to have a growth mindset in learning these words. That engagement starts with my own motivation to use these words.


Interactive Read Aloud with Sticky Notes:Here I show how I would engage students to hear a critical vocabulary word through the reading of this read-aloud from Ann Jonas, Round Trip. This book does not have the word "distinguish" in the text, but I show how I embed the word in my discussion of the text. This book is perfect for primary and upper elementary students!

Trust me when I say that I am writing these words for myself, as a teacher just like you. I am human and have days where I find things to skim or cut out simply because of a time crunch, special assemblies, music programs, fire drills, illness, or any other preoccupying thing an adult has to deal with in life. It's alright. We all have those moments. However, we know that learning critical vocabulary is best for them, because they will be more prepared. We can do this.

You might be asking, "So, where do I start?"

We are going to take one of the critical vocabulary words, and I'm going to help you through your first week. How?

How about 5 days of freebies, a supportive Facebook group with videos, and follow-up emails to keep you on track? Give me 5 days and I can get you on the road to making vocabulary sticky in your K-6 grade classroom too!

  • easy daily challenges and free resources emailed to you...a new freebie every day
  • an exclusive Facebook group for support, with how-to videos from yours truly
  • each daily challenge should take you only about 10-15 minutes each day!


That's it! Click below to get started with this free challenge, and to find out when the next one is scheduled. I can't wait to see you there!


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