How to Assess Vocabulary: Ideas for Measuring Progress

Having a strong vocabulary allows you to communicate well with others and to succeed on standardized tests. Teachers teach vocabulary to students in their first language as well as to students who learn a foreign language. Methods of assessing vocabulary differ depending on your aim in testing the vocabulary knowledge. Learn how to assess vocabulary so you'll be able to know how well your students are progressing.

boy writing chalkboard assess vocabulary boy writing chalkboard assess vocabulary
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Basic Options for Assessing Vocabulary

There are a number of ways to assess vocabulary in the form of tests and quizzes. It's ideal to use multiple assessments because each one has limitations on its own. Discover some of the most basic options you might start using as part of your assessment process.

Define the Word

One way to assess vocabulary is to ask a person the definition of the word. This means that if a teacher assigns students a list of vocabulary words to learn, the easiest way to assess whether a student has mastered these new vocab words is to give them a closed book test in which they must provide the definitions. Depending on grade level, this could involve writing the definition of each word, matching each word to its definition, or reciting the definitions of words shown on vocabulary flashcards.

Choose the Correct Word

Once students know what a word means, they can apply that knowledge to select the correct word between multiple options. Assessments that require students to choose between similar words can be a good way to assess vocabulary mastery. An assessment like this commonly confused words worksheet can reveal if a student knows a word's definition well enough to discriminate between it and a similar term.

Fill in the Correct Term

Rather than have students choose between two words to complete a sentence, you can also test vocabulary with a basic fill-in-the-blank activity that requires students to complete sentences with a vocabulary word. For example, when your students are learning adverbs, these fill-in-the-adverb worksheets can help you assess their skills. This doesn't have to be limited to a particular part of speech, but can be done with any list of vocabulary words.

Use the Word in Context

The true value of knowing a word is being able to use it in context. Evaluating whether a student can use a word properly in context provides insights into whether they can apply their knowledge of the definition. One way to do this is to encourage students to write simple sentences using vocabulary words, then review their work to determine if they are properly using the terms.

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Identify the Opposite

To really push students to higher-order usage of vocabulary terms, test their knowledge of vocabulary words by using antonyms. Instead of asking students to simply define vocabulary words, provide them with terms that are the opposite of the words they're learning. Their task? Upon being presented with a word's antonym, they'll need to tell you which vocabulary word means the opposite. For example, if one of the vocabulary words is "used," provide students with the word "new" as its antonym. This assessment can be done verbally or as a written test. These examples of antonyms for kids can help you come up with words to use.

Creative Ways to Test Vocabulary

Sometimes it's great to go beyond basic vocabulary assessments to incorporate some creative options to evaluate student performance.

Illustrate Vocabulary With Art

If you're looking for a creative and fun vocabulary assessment, incorporate a drawing activity that students are sure to love. After giving students a list of vocabulary words to study, call out words from the target list one at a time and ask students to draw a picture that represents the word. This works really well with sight word lists. It's also a great way to coordinate vocabulary learning with sight word reading activities.

Identify Examples and Nonexamples

Rather than having students fill in the correct word on a written worksheet, have them use their critical thinking skills to respond to auditory examples of sentences with vocabulary words used correctly and incorrectly.

  1. Come up with two lists of sentences — one with correct usage of vocabulary words and one with incorrect usage.
  2. Read each sentence aloud, pausing between each one so that students can identify the vocabulary word and determine if the word is used correctly or not.
  3. You can have them respond verbally with "correct" or "incorrect" or manually with a "thumbs-up" or "thumbs-down." Alternately, students could make a list of their responses to score and tally at the end of the activity.
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Brainstorm Words in Categories

Another option for assessing vocabulary is to provide students with a specific category, then have students list all of the words they know that could fit into that category. For example, you could ask kids to list all the words that describe feelings that they can think of. For a more concrete activity that links to science class, you could ask them to write a list of ocean and sea-related words. Review their lists to identify any words that don't fit the category, then count what they came up with to assess their knowledge.

Create a Skit

To help assess whether students can actually use vocabulary words in their writing and dialogue, assign students to create a skit or short speech that uses vocabulary words to act out in front of the class. Students can do this on their own or in pairs or small groups. The most important rule will be to work in a certain number of vocabulary words, being sure to use them correctly and appropriately. Assess if they fit in the correct number of words and if the way they used the words demonstrates an understanding of what they mean.

Come Up With a Title

Challenge kids' creativity by assigning them to come up with unique titles for their favorite types of entertainment that feature words from their current vocabulary list. Let them decide if they want to come up with the title of a song, book, movie, TV show, video game, or website. The caveat is that the word can't be used ironically or nonsensically. Their title has to demonstrate correct word usage. If they're working on a long list of vocabulary words, you may even want them to create one of each.

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Common Mechanisms Used in Schools

Problems can arise in vocabulary assessments because it's not easy to identify what it means to know a word. Some of the assessment mechanisms schools commonly use include:

  • observational data (What can you determine about the person's vocabulary from having a conversation with them?)
  • vocabulary games
  • teacher created tests
  • word journals (journals where students keep track of the words they have learned and definitions)
  • standardized tests (The Peabody Picture Vocabulary test is one option, but other more advanced standardized tests such as the SAT, GRE and GMAT all encompass a vocabulary portion as well.)

Some of these mechanisms are better than others. In general, the best assessment is one that gives you a true picture of the number of words a person knows, as well as an understanding of how developed the individual's abilities are to determine the meaning of the word from context clues.

Many Options for Assessing Vocabulary

Assessing vocabulary can be difficult because the true measure of a person's vocabulary isn't just whether they have memorized a list of words, but is instead how many total words they know overall and use in everyday conversation and writing. Consider reviewing these summative and formative assessment examples for students to learn more about how to evaluate learner progress. Then, if you want to up your game when it comes to teaching vocabulary, check out these games to play with children to build vocabulary.