Strong 1st grade words for vocabulary you didn’t know existed

picture of kids studying vocabulary
These thematic vocabulary words during activities for morning meeting will engage your 1st grade students.

What words for vocabulary am I missing?

I know that if you are like me and teach primary grades, then you may not have thought about actually teaching words for vocabulary, especially for science or social studies. I know I started my teaching career with focusing on just the vocabulary in the reading books until I began noticing distracted students. You know that look you get, “the deer in the headlights look”

About midway through my career, my classroom shifted to over 50% ELL students. This was a new experience for me so I was clueless on how to provide what they needed. No matter what I tried, they still weren’t connecting. I continued in this fog for awhile until an umbrella changed everything.

My big aha moment happened during one of our content area lessons when I was going over vocabulary. I would go step-by-step through each word, but if it was something that was pretty common, I just glossed over it. I stopped in my tracks when one of my students asked, “what’s an umbrella?” After doing my best to mask my surprise, I quickly explained the concept of umbrella. Not long after, as we continued with vocabulary, another of my students asked, “what’s a chicken?” I was completely in shock!

picture of confused teacher
I did not know what to do for these words for vocabulary.

So I decided to shift my mindset and look at what I needed to give my students. What I came to learn was that my students needed more context. Some of my students didn’t have the background knowledge necessary to connect to what I was teaching and without that connection, they were left to flap in the wind. Research says:

English language learners who experience slow vocabulary development are less able to comprehend text at grade-level than their English-only peers. Such students are likely to perform poorly on assessments in these areas and at risk of being diagnosed as learning disabled(Critical Role of Vocabulary Development). 

I knew I had to make a change and be intentional about teaching content vocabulary. I decided the best way to incorporate vocabulary words for science and social studies was through a thematic approach to teaching.

Introducing vocabulary during activities for morning meeting

We started our day on the carpet together as a class. I began this routine on the first day of school to set a classroom culture, so I thought to myself, “Would introducing this thematic vocabulary during activities for morning meeting work for my diverse population?” For me and my first graders, the answer was an easy “YES!”

picture of kids during morning meetings
These vocabulary activities for morning meeting will increase vocabulary development.

How to choose strong 1st grade words for vocabulary

I decided to build vocabulary by choosing words that went with our units for science and social studies. Another great thing about focusing on these words is I know my students will get science or social studies every day, even if we run out of time at the end of the day to teach it. Many days we didn’t even get to the science or social studies because we just had too much to do!  As a K1 teacher, I know you know what I’m talking about. My kids loved seeing what the new theme was every week and they enjoyed the activities for morning meeting I did with the words each day. Even my more distracted students began to make connections and even better, get excited about them.

Turn and Talk will Revolutionize Lesson Time

One of the hands-down easiest ways to engage your students is with turn and talk. Raise your hand if you are a fan of asking a whole class question and calling on hands? That’s a great way to engage them, right? Yes, it is a good first step, now you can take it even further. Here’s why:

  1. Your shy students will be very hesitant to raise their hands, even if they have the right answer. You will be very unlikely to hear from them
  2. You will spend a LOT of time calling on your students, hearing tangents, or navigating friends who like to tell very long stories

Sound familiar? Instead, utilize Turn and Talk. As you’re delivering your lesson (using your core vocabulary of course), pause and ask your students to discuss. Give them 2-3 minutes to chat. When you get really good at this, you can walk around, participate in conversations, get an even clearer picture of which of your students really understand the material.

Your students love it because everyone gets to talk and feel heard. Every student is engaged simultaneously instead of a few at a time while others sit and listen. Once all your students have had a chance to chat, you can always use extra time to call on individuals if you’d like.


Transforming activities for morning meeting with vocabulary

Now, I like to display word wall cards for my theme each week with real images and I ask my students what all the words have in common. They get excited when they guess some of the themes we are going to study like maps or bugs. I take one word, discuss it and focus on it for the day.

Using phonics with content area vocabulary gets amazing results!

We clap the syllables and break the word into chunks. For example, one of our themes is maps. One of the words is globe. The first thing I ask is what they see in the word globe. Now, because I do this at every morning meeting, my students can point out blends like the “gl” in globe. I love to watch the progress my students make at finding word parts throughout the year.

picture of maps word wall cards
These thematic vocabulary cards with real photos increase vocabulary and writing skills.

It is also fun when kids get excited about discovering something about the words. For example, one of the words was honest when we were studying Abraham Lincoln, and one of my students said,”I see the word nest!” Another student pointed out the blend “st”.  This daily exercise has gotten the children to look at words more closely, and that has also helped them in reading words that are more difficult. You can read more of my story here and see a video of how we broke the word honest into parts.

I review the words each day and we talk about how they are connected. It is amazing how this daily routine has strengthened my students’ vocabulary development, as well as increased phonics skills. My students also write about these words in their journals and we create thematic class books using these words. I noticed how the writing skills have improved over the year. The kids have built up a confidence in their writing and these words have helped them to stay on topic. Words can be very powerful.  Read my favorite story about “Positive Juan.”

This little girl wanted to make sure she used all the words for our study about Earth Day, so she wrote them at the top of her paper and checked them off as she used them. How great is that!

picture of student writing for Earth Day
This is an example of an Earth Day writing that one of my ELL students did using this thematic vocabulary.

Boost your strategies for independent learning with this essential vocabulary resource

Another resource that I like to use to reinforce these words are Boom cards. We’ve found this digital product is such a fun way to reinforce content area vocabulary and practice phonics. These have been great for reaching my disconnected students because they are totally interactive.  There is audio for early readers and TONS of tactile options for fidgety fingers.

There is even a writing activity at the end if you want students to write. Students can use it in centers, and not interrupt you in your guided reading groups because of the audio, or you can use it as an instructional tool on your Smartboard. I love them because they are self-checking, provide data and the kids love them!  They see them as a fun game to play. Boom cards are great for differentiation of instruction because each student’s account can be customized to their needs, PLUS they are self-checking to take the guesswork out of assessing your kiddos.

You can try them out for free HERE!

Come back next Sunday and read about other resources I use to reinforce this very important thematic vocabulary and get more hacks on reaching those disconnected students.

Share this with other primary teachers. Comment with your vocabulary strategies.


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