Strategies for “Sticky” Vocab Learning!

Header Image for Post, contains post title and a picture of a dictionary

If you could be a fly on the wall of an average classroom, it’d be pretty likely that you’d hear something like “Don’t forget to study your vocab words tonight!” or “Remember to review your flashcards tonight!”

While there’s been a move away from the rote learning of yesteryear, most educators agree that having a firm grasp of content area vocabulary is still an important piece to the learning process.  I think that there are two important goals for learning vocabulary in content areas: (1) retention of the words (sticky learning) and (2) application of the words.

In Episode 34 of the Educational Duct Tape Podcast, I spoke with Dr. Jared Cooney Horvath, author of Stop Talking, Start Influencing, about both of these goals.

A week after that episode came out, I was joined by dozens of “Duct Tapers” in the #EduDuctTape Twitter Chat to discuss the podcast episode, including these two goals.

Below are some strategies that you can use in your classrooms to increase your students’ ability retain and apply their vocabulary learning.  Some come from the chat and others come from the episode.

Retrieval Practice & Spaced Repetitions

Though he doesn’t reference them by these names, in his book Jared explains why both retrieval practice (Jared refers to this as recall) and spaced repetitions (Jared refers to this as spacing) are important pieces to student learning.  Watch  the video below to learn a little more about this.

Shout-out to David Allan for creating this awesome video!

I also recommend the work that cognitive scientist Dr. Pooja Agarwal and her co-author Patrice Bain have done on these topics.  I found Pooja’s appearance on the Cult of Pedagogy podcast to be very informative.

In the episode, Jared and I discussed using the SuperMemo or Memrise to aide in this process.

Find the narrative

The third thing that Jared mentioned in the video above was to help students “find the narrative” or “find the story behind the words.”

In her response, Katherine Goyette shared about connecting the vocabulary to a shared experience or activity:

Sarah Kiefer shared about how, in teaching history, the vocabulary is often naturally tied to stories that can be leveraged.

In her response below, Susan Aplin shared about a handful of great tools for creating these stories with edtech: Storybird, AdobeSpark and Book Creator.

Decontextualize Concepts

In the episode, Jared shared about how learning is often locked to the context in which it was learned.  So, the more contexts that it is applied in, the more decontextualized it becomes, meaning its easier for our students to access & apply.

Quote: "Use the same skill in as many different contexts as you can so you decontextualize it and now you should be able to access it more freely."
Shout-out to Matt Meyer (@54Mr_Meyer) for creating this awesome graphic!

In the second half of the video below, Jared shares about how the “transfer process” can aide in this decontexualization and memory of the words.

Shout-out to David Allan for creating this awesome video!

Dr. Sonny Magana, creator of the T3 Framework and author of Disruptive Classroom Technologies, also shared valuable insights on decontextualizing vocabulary to make it stickier!

Ben Talsma shared some great–and fun!–ideas for decontextualizing the vocabulary:

The Fast & The Curious eduProtocol

Ever since The EduProtocol Field Guide Series co-author Jon Corippo appeared on the podcast this “eduProtocol” has been a favorite in the Duct Taper community.  Not familar with The Fast and The Curious eduProtocol?  Check out this overview of it from Matt Miller.

PearDeck Flashcard Factory

One of my favorite vocabulary learning tools is PearDeck’s Flashcard Factory.  On their site, PearDeck says “Flashcard Factory was designed to transform the way students engage with vocabulary. When you play Flashcard Factory students pair up and work together to create dynamic and engaging flashcards. Students collaborate to illustrate and define terms, making learning vocab an active and social experience! Flashcard Factory is free to use and works with
Google Apps for Education.”

PearDeck Flashcard Factory ➡️ Gimkit

From some of the insights that Jared shared, we know that it’s not enough to just create those definitions and visuals in PearDeck Flashcard Factory –  the students need to recall or retrieve that knowledge more than once to truly commit it to memory.  Along those lines, many Duct Tapers shared excitement about the ability to import Flashcards created in PearDeck’s Flashcard Factory into Gimkit.  You can learn about how to do this in this blog post by Mike Mohammad.

Creating Visual Representations

We know from the dual coding theory proposed by Allan Paivio that “Recall/recognition is enhanced by presenting information in both visual and verbal form” (source).  We also know, from what we’ve covered above, that giving content more contexts deepends our learning.  In line with both of those points, some Duct Tapers suggested creating visual representations.

Krista Hachadoorian suggests using Google Drawings:

Jenny Ellison suggested a tool that was new to me: Adobe Fresco.  I’m eager to check this one out!

Along with a few other suggestions, J Hamilton suggested using Google Slides.

The Frayer Model

In line with the mentions of Google Slides and visual representations above, Craig Klement recommends using Slides to have students create Frayer graphic models, which combines 4 different ways for students to connect with the word.  You can learn more about the Frayer model in this post from Teacher ToolkitEric Curts provides a great Frayer model template in this post.


Quizlet is a great, tried-and-true tool for creating and reviewing digital flashcards.  The great thing about is that it makes the retrieval practice and spaced repetitions that we mentioned above convenient.

Nearpod VR

Want it to be sticky?  Angela Grene says to let the students experience it with Nearpod VR, which is a virtual reality instruction tool that works on any device.

The Sticky Back Strategy

If you can introduce vocabulary words or concepts through a video, audio segment or reading passage, the Sticky Strategy that Lindsay shared could be super useful!  Learn more about it here.

Sign Language!

Jenny Ellison shared an idea (below) that could enhance learning through a novel & kinesthetic experience!

What tools or strategies are your favorites?  What ones are we missing?  Comment below!

Published by

Jake Miller

Jake is the host of the Educational Duct Tape podcast, the #EduGIF Guy, a Tech Integration Coach, speaker, Former STEM, Math & Science Teacher, and a presenter.