3 Steps to Creating Word Nerds

When I started teaching AP Lang, we did a lot of vocab. I gave a monstrous list of “tone words” and students learned 20 each week. I quizzed them weekly, and then we marched on to 20 more.

It was not good.

Some kids adored it. It was concrete, and they could pad their grades. Other kids?  The subtle differences between the words (apathetic vs. aloof vs ambivalent? yeesh) blew their minds, and they tanked their grades.

I tried some different things–more direct instruction on the words,retakes–and eventually got to a place where they mastered the quizzes, but they weren’t using the words in their writing, or if they were, they were using them in hilariously awkward ways. I knew I was doing it wrong. They needed to be collecting words naturally from their reading and exploring vocabulary in context. So last year, we tossed the lists.

It was (also) not good.

The plan was to have kids find words in their reading and record them in their notebooks so they could build vocabulary more naturally.  A few kids embraced it because they were avid readers and already loved words. But most kids were just kinda ‘meh’ about it. I didn’t have a good way to hold them accountable, and they had no interest in becoming word nerds.

We (the three AP Lang teachers) were all frustrated, but we are trying one more new approach. One quarter of the school year down, and I’m happy to report: it’s good.

What did we do? 

3 Steps to Creating Word Nerds

1. Clear, Shared Expectations for Vocab Notebooks

This year when I introduced notebooks, I asked the students to reserve a spot for words they discover.  I didn’t give any requirements for how they recorded them, but I did take the time to discuss what it might look like.

  • What’s a reasonable amount of words per week?
  • What should we put in an entry?

They didn’t want to be forced to hit a quota. We did decide, though, that collecting at least five words from a class essay seemed reasonable. We also decided that they should have evidence of words collected from their independent novels or just life in general. They resisted putting a number on those, but said it should be clear that they’d been doing it all along. I was nervous about that –it felt too wishy-washy–but I wanted to trust their voices in the decision making process.

2. Constant Modeling of Vocabulary Acquisition

Once the year was underway, I realized that I needed to constantly model what word nerdery might look like. As we discussed texts in class, I’d point out words that might be unfamiliar and say “Put this in your notebooks!”, wait for them to flip to their vocab sections, and then talk through the word. It started becoming a daily thing–even when we weren’t talking about a text. We were working with counterarguments and I used the word “equivocation.”  I quickly realized many didn’t know it. “Get your notebooks out!” It sidetracked us for two minutes, but it was one more chance to show them how people who are curious about words build their vocab. The next day when I said “unfettered”, a hand shot up and a kid asked what it meant. Notebooks came out without me saying anything.

3. Language Conferences

This last step is the most important, though. Though I want to believe that all of my students have magically learned to love words, I know that that’s just not realistic. For many, there needs to be some outside accountability–at least at first. So, four weeks into the year, we had language conferences. We made a rubric that reflected the expectations we talked about early in the year, and they came to talk to me one on one about their vocab building.

They showed me places where they’d gone back to notebook entries and tried to up their vocab game and be more sophisticated. We talked about hits and misses. We laughed about funny words they’d discovered or times they’d busted out a word in conversation with their friends.

Don’t get me wrong; they weren’t all there yet. I had a few students who came up for their conference and rattled off a list of words they’d clearly taken from an SAT prep book. But this gave me an opportunity to redirect and revisit why we were building vocabulary. It’s not about memorizing words for a test. It’s about being a better writer. Some of those kids were a little frustrated with me, I know, but I’m okay with that, and I’m eager to see what they come up with for their next conference.

How do I know it’s working?

  • Parent Teacher Conferences: I was actually inspired to write this post after parent teacher conferences. As I talked about students’ progress with parents last night, multiple parents–I stopped counting–laughed and said “OH!  That’s why she keeps using all these big words!”  YES! Evidence that they’re becoming word nerds. Applying their vocabulary to everyday conversation?  Fantastic.
  • Their Writing: Even though I was inspired to write this post from their parents’ comments, I waited to actually write it until I saw their final drafts of their latest essays. I needed to see evidence of them experimenting with vocabulary. I was not disappointed. They’re not all there yet, but at this point in the year,  I’m not used to seeing so many students making such purposeful choices with their vocabulary. That’s evidence to me that we are finally on the right track with building vocabulary.


What do you do to build curiosity for vocab? Are there things you’ve done to create word nerds? I’d love more ideas to add to what we’re doing–reach out to me on Twitter to share @TeacherHattie or comment below!



  1. Again. Awesome.

    On Tue, Nov 7, 2017 at 11:01 PM, Moving Writers wrote:

    > hattiemaguire posted: “When I started teaching AP Lang, we did a lot of > vocab. I gave a monstrous list of “tone words” and students learned 20 each > week. I quizzed them weekly, and then we marched on to 20 more. It was not > good. Some kids adored it. It was concrete, and the” >

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