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Teaching Vocabulary to High School Special Ed Students

By Lisa Pulsifer

When teaching a lesson, often the vocabulary words break down the concept to its simplest form. Therefore, it often becomes necessary to figure out how to teach vocabulary to high school special ed students. Doing so properly will allow them to understand a lesson in more concrete terms.


How to teach vocabulary to high school special ed students can be challenging, but is required in every academic subject. Depending on what is being taught, it often asks students to think in abstract terms, which can be a difficult task. Therefore, it is necessary for the teacher to figure out a way to present the words in a way that the students can understand and connect to something in their own lives.

Choosing Vocabulary Words

Although most textbooks will provide a list of the vocabulary words that are presented in a chapter or unit, these might not be the words that will be most beneficial for a student in special education to understand a concept. When figuring out what words to focus on, first think about what the overall concepts are that you want them to understand. For some students, this might mean going over prerequisite information that is necessary to understand what the lesson originally intended. Once what needs to be taught is clarified, try to choose words that link concretely into your students' life. For example, when teaching science lessons about ecosystems, relate vocabulary to what the students already knows. If they are familiar with the beach and ocean, use that as a focus when talking about food chains and food webs in an ecosystem.

Modifying Materials

When presenting vocabulary words, it is necessary to do so in a way that is visually appealing. Making graphic organizers is a way to allow the students to organize the information and work out matching the words to the definitions. There are many different ways to do this and what works best will depend on the needs of the student. For example, some students might learn best by writing out the words and definitions. Others might be overwhelmed with too much writing and will do better with a graphic organizer that involves cutting and pasting. For students with an IEP that has occupational therapy goals, this can provide an opportunity to work on them while learning academics.

Modifying Instruction

When deciding how to teach vocabulary to high school special ed students, provide tactile, visual and auditory ways to understand the words. This will insure that the students are being reached in a way that they are most likely to understand. Using the graphic organizer provides a tactile activity for the student to learn and afterwards a way to organize the information visually. Reading the words and having them tell you the definition can help them figure out how the definition will most make sense in their own minds. Having each student do so will also allow the students to hear how other students interpret the information which may be similar to his or her own.


Knowing what the student's IEP requires will also give some guidance on how best to present vocabulary words to a student. For example, if the student has a goal of inferring information from a text, giving them a word and having them determine the meaning based on the textbook would be a possible way to work on that. However, if they have a goal that requires them to simply match a picture to a word, using the textbook for information will likely be too difficult.


Graphic Organizers,

Visual Strategies for Vocabulary,

Vocabulary Games,