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Vocabulary Builders

by Kristi Reyes

by Kristi Reyes, MiraCosta College Community Learning Center, Oceanside, CA Posted June 2009

Ah... summertime - barbecues, long afternoons, vacation. What a great time to build one's repertoire of word knowledge. That's right. Encourage students to learn 100 new words this summer. Here are some ways to get started.

Synonyms & Readability Stats

Did you know that in Microsoft Word, a reference library, translator, and a list of synonyms are only a click away? Here is what to do using an IBM compatible PC:

  • Right click on a word to see a tool box with the option to Look Up, which provides automatic access to dictionary definitions and a translator that will translate to or from English and a selection of other languages.
  • Choose Synonyms, and a list of words as well as a thesaurus link are given.
  • Click on the synonym to replace a word.

A good exercise for students is to provide a list of words that they find synonyms for. Then discuss the subtle differences between the words.  Also useful is to have students turn on the readability statistics in Word for a paper they have typed. Here's how:

Word Readability  Stats dialog box
  • Select the Office button in MS Word 2007.
  • Click the Word Options button.
  • Select Proofing.
  • Under the When correcting spelling and grammar in Word section, check the box for Show readability statistics.
  • Explain to students the results, which are displayed after spelling checking a document. (To spell check select the Review tab and look for Spelling & Grammar in the Proofing section, or by pressing the F7 key on the keyboard) . An instructor could tell students to revise and check spelling and grammar again until their writing reaches a given grade level.

Visual Word Maps

To learn about word collocations these two Web sites"map" word associations:

Visuword's Graphical Dictionary

Web Workbooks

Web Workbooks screen shot

Web Workbooks is a site with sections that provides word etymologies and illustrative sentences; word drills for vocabulary study; roots, suffixes, and prefixes; words that are commonly misused and misspelled, and interesting anecdotes about word origins.

Word Definitions

Lingro logo

Three Web sites that students can use when they are using the internet and encounter words that they do not understand or that they want to pronounce are Lingro, and Voycabulary, and VozMe.

With Lingro, copy and paste a URL, and the words on the Web site become links that can be clicked to get definitions, hear pronunciation, and translations. Registered users can create word lists that are converted to flashcards to study.

Voycabulary similarly converts words on a Web site to links that with a click can be looked up in many types of online dictionaries, including a thesaurus, an antonym dictionary, Wikipedia, even a medical dictionary.

With VozMe, copy and paste words or type in entire passages to hear pronunciation (though it is a computer voice). The site also gives the option of downloading the text as an .mp3 sound file.

Word A Day Sites

Daily Buzzword logo

Get new words emailed daily by subscribing to A.Word.A.Day at The words are based on weekly themes, and emails often include links to Web sites about linguistics, language issues in the news, and more. Similarly, Merriam-Webster's Word of the Day and Word Central Daily Buzzword each feature a different word each day, listing a definition and part of speech with an audio file to hear each word's pronunciation.

L10 is a site that sends registered users ten words every day in English and one of 20 other languages. With the free sign-up, users can learn the lists, take tests, listen to the words, see translations, and record their own pronunciation of the words via telephone. The L10 widget can be embedded on a Web site or blog.


For fun, try’s Internet Anagram Server. When "I want to improve my vocabulary" was entered, the result was a list of 38,462 anagrams including "Cube Vinyl Vomit Wormy Port," "Bionic Vet Portly Rummy Vow," and "Vincible Mop My Tour Vow Try." Have a contest for the funniest anagram or use the anagrams for writing prompts.

Picture Dictionaries & Flashcards

Someone cooking

Picture dictionaries and flashcards are useful for beginning literacy and ESL students to learn vocabulary with visual support. has a large selection of beginning-level vocabulary flashcards that can be downloaded, available even to non-subscribers. While there, check out the one free lesson in the Lesson Plan Library to see if this would be worth the cost to you.

Merriam-Webster Visual Dictionary and The Visual Dictionary are free online picture dictionaries.

Fleshy fruits - mandarin, grapefruit, lemon

Grammar and Usage Tool  has a "Check a Word’s Grammar and Usage" tool. When the word "summer" was entered, part of the information provided was the following:  "Length: 6 characters; Syllables: 2; Lexical Information: Calendar Vocabulary; Weather Vocab; One of the 850 words in Basic English; In the top 2,000 words in the Brown Corpus; Common word- this is one of the thousand words most frequently used in English; A list of about 3,000 words defined as easy for the Dale-Chall Readability Formula."

The tool also lists similar words, including lists of words with the common root. Their site also contains links to numerous word lists including an Academic Word List, Basic English list, and Business English Verbs, but you have to complete their free registration to see the word lists. The site’s English Language Reference section includes a glossary of English grammar terms. There is a lot more at the site to explore.

Online Games & Quizzes

Online games and quizzes are an amusing way to learn, practice, and reinforce new words. A site that has been featured on the national evening news is The developer of the site has secured sponsorship so that for each word that visitors to the site get right, 20 grains of rice are donated to the United Nations World Food Program.

Free rice screen shot

Free English has six interactive vocabulary games including one for matching slang expression to meanings, one for understanding differences between near-synonyms, and a reverse idiom dictionary game.  The games are free, but registration is required. There are also grammar, listening, and spelling games. 

A site with interactive games for beginners is Learning Vocabulary Fun. There are word searches, crosswords, and matching and scrambled word games.

Reverse Dictionary

Ever have an idea or concept in mind but can’t think of the word? OneLook Reverse Dictionary may help. Type in a description to get a list of words. You can also explore related concepts, generate a list of words in a category, even cheat on crossword puzzles by typing in puzzle clues and finding words if you only know some of the letters.

Other word-learning related sites:

To make word art
Students can demonstrate comprehension of new vocabulary in creative ways, by writing original sentences, paragraphs, stories, or poems and illustrating them with these sites.

Wordle screen shotTypo Generator screen shot

  • Wordle and Typogenerator (word art)
  • Shockedpoetry (fridge magnet poetry)
  • Phrasr (pictogram from Flickr images
  • and to make animated text for PowerPoint slideshows, for example, try 3dtextmaker

To find meanings of the latest slang on the streets

To learn vocabulary for the human anatomy and workings of the body

Interesting related sites

  • The Visual Dictionary project is a catalog of more than 7500 images represented more than 4000 words, contributed by the public; sign up to contribute an image
  • 80 Million Tiny Images is a semantic image map that must be seen to be understood. Click on any of the tiny pixels to see a grouping of images that are related in meaning.


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