I'm a wife to my "Mr. Right". A momma of five. A maker of slow food and simple living. A collector of memories, a keeper of books, and a champion for books that make memories. An addict who likes my half-and-half with a splash of coffee. A fractured pot transformed by the One Who makes broken things beautiful. I heart homeschooling, brake for libraries, and am glad you're here with me on the journey! Be sure to subscribe to my monthly newsletter. Or, follow along with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Google +, Youtube, or Pinterest.

The GREAT Vocabulary Challenge {Learning Vocabulary Authentically}

The GREAT Vocabulary Challenge {Learning Vocabulary Authentically}

taciturn |ˈtasiˌtərn|

(of a person) reserved or uncommunicative in speech; saying little.

If you would've asked my children and me a few weeks ago what the word taciturn meant, we probably would've given you the "Can you please speak in English?!" look. We had no idea what it meant or how it was used in a sentence. But, thanks to our month-long GREAT VOCABULARY CHALLENGE, we can now use this and dozens and dozens of other new-to-us words in our written and oral expression.

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We extended our vocabulary and broadened our ability to weave words together. And we did it all authentically and naturally through The GREAT Vocabulary Challenge.

The GREAT Vocabulary Challenge {Learning Vocabulary Authentically}

Vocabulary Philosophy

Before I leap into the HOWs of The GREAT Vocabulary Challenge, I must first tackle the WHYs. 

I am a firm believer that vocabulary is taught best organically...in the context of everyday life and learning. Is it possible to get a child to robotically memorize a long list of unfamiliar words and their definitions each week during a formal "vocabulary" time?

I've seen it done and due to the nature of the curriculum standards of traditional schools, I've done it.
I've also seen how those same set-to-memory lists of words are memorized for one week and forgotten the next. 

Because when children are given a hoard of completely disjointed, arbitrary words outside the context of their normal usage, they tend to only know what those words mean in theory. They don't really ever learn what those words mean TO THEM! 

Introducing an unfamiliar word in a real-world context (as in a book or in conversation) gives that word value. A child is more apt to "own" the word and actually use it himself if it has a natural relevance in his life. 

Because my children heard the word taciturn being used to describe a tight-lipped, reserved character in a book I was reading, they were all able to create a very accurate mental picture of a taciturn individual.

While I find definite value in introducing vocabulary roots to my children with the help of curriculums such as English From the Roots Up, I have never forced them to memorize a random list of weekly vocabulary words. Learning a root gives you the tools to dissect unfamiliar words later on. Memorizing a word gives you nothing but ONE memorized word.

Vocabulary built through quality reading material is, in my opinion, much more authentic.

The GREAT Vocabulary Challenge {Learning Vocabulary Authentically}

The Challenge

Like all children, sometimes my kids get into the lazy habit of skipping over unfamiliar words in their reading. While they might be able to phonetically sound out these difficult words, they do not always comprehend what they mean. To encourage a slower, more purposeful look at the words on the page, I put forth a challenge to my kids. 

The Backstory

In November, my children knew we were scheduled to take a cross-country trip at the end of December. They also knew that I had already purchased and wrapped up a new travel game for the entire family.

But, since there was only one gift to open and five children who would naturally want to be THE ONE to open it, I decided to organize a month-long vocabulary challenge to determine WHO would be the lucky unveiler. (I realize OPENING a gift that everyone was going to get to share doesn't seem like a huge "carrot" at the end of a month-long challenge. But, my kids were all over it...because I threw the word "challenge" into the title. What is it with boys and the word "challenge?")

By offering up a small incentive in the form of a "challenge", I was hoping that my children would not only be willing to seek out the meaning of unfamiliar words, but also begin to see HOW MUCH their vocabularies grew each day just by reading great books.

The GREAT Vocabulary Challenge {Learning Vocabulary Authentically}

The Rules

Color-coded slips

My oldest four children began the challenge shortly after Thanksgiving. I cut out colored slips of paper, assigned each child to a particular color (because life just goes so much better around here with color-coding), and placed all of these slips in a glass jar along with a stapler and a few pencils. I also appointed a color to myself...proving that vocabulary building is a life-long process. (Even momma learns new words through reading!) Since so much of our school-time reading is done together, I designated an additional color to represent all of us.

Definition of an unfamiliar word

As my children came upon an unfamiliar word in their reading, during a church sermon, watching a Netflix show, or whenever, I encouraged them to find out what the word meant. Sometimes that required them to look it up in the dictionary. But, more often than not, it meant that they just simply asked me for a quick easy-to-understand definition. (I didn't get too hung up on saying "go look it up". The point of the challenge was to build vocabulary, not dictionary skills.)

Often, they each could formulate a rudimentary definition of the word by using simple context clues such as how it was used in the sentence, how it related to the illustration on the page, or how it fit into the main idea of the paragraph.  


When a child (or momma) had a firm grasp of the definition of a newly acquired word, he would write that word down on one of the slips of paper that was in his assigned color. Then, he would form that slip into a circle and staple it onto the growing chain of slips that was hanging in our dining room.

If we ALL learned a word together, one of us would write that word on an orange slip (the color designated for group words) and attach it to the chain.

Simple review

Every now and again, someone would pull down the chain and begin calling out the words written on the links. The "owner" of a particular word would quickly recall its simple definition by remembering how it was used in the context of everyday life.

And the winner is...

By the end of December, we had a very lengthy chain...a colorful exhibition of our growing vocabularies. We all counted our colored links. Orange links were counted by everyone since those were the words we all learned together. My middle son came out the victor and was awarded the privilege of unwrapping the group travel game for our upcoming trip. 

But, if truth be told, we were ALL the winners of this challenge and we all received a huge reward...
a cache of newfound words.

cache |kaSH|
a collection of items of the same type stored in a hidden or inaccessible place: an arms cache | a cache of gold coins.


  1. I really love this idea, and I can't wait to use it this coming school year. Thanks for this great idea.

  2. Sounds like a lot of fun! I’m curious, what was the travel game? We have several long road trips coming up this summer!!

    1. It was The License Plate Game by Melissa and Doug.