17 Reps to Build Vocabulary Muscles

Exercise Vocabulary Muscles through Repetition

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While technically not a muscle, a student's brain benefits from regular daily exercise. Where there are health and fitness experts who design routines and make recommendations for building specific body muscles using repetition (reps) in sets, there are U.S Department of Education experts who recommend the learning of vocabulary through repetition (reps) or exposure to a word.

So, just how many repetitions do these education experts say are necessary?

 Research shows the optimum number of repetitions for vocabulary to go into the long-term memory of the brain is seventeen (17) repetitions.  These 17 repetitions must come in a variety of methods over planned periods of time.

The Brain Needs Seventeen Repetitions 

Students process information during the school day into their neural network. The brain's neural networks form, store, and re-form information into long-term memory that can be recalled like files on a computer or tablet.

In order for  a new vocabulary word to make the journey into the brain's long term memory, a student must be exposed to the word in timed intervals; seventeen timed intervals to be exact. 

Teachers need to limit the amount of information presented per unit of time and repeat it cyclically throughout the day. That means students should never be given a long list of vocabulary words for one exposure and then be expected to retain the list for a quiz or test months later.

 Instead, a small group of vocabulary words should be introduced or explicitly taught for several minutes at the beginning of a class (first exposure) and then revisited, 25-90 minutes later, at the end of class (second exposure). Homework might constitute a third exposure. In this way, over the course of a six days, students can be exposed to a group of words for the optimum number of 17 times.


The experts from the US Department of Education also strongly suggest that teachers dedicate a portion of the regular classroom lesson to explicit vocabulary instruction. Teachers should also vary this explicit instruction by taking advantage of the way the brain learns, and include a multiple instruction strategies that are auditory (hear the words) and visual (see the words). 

Seventeen Sets of "Reps" to Build Vocabulary Muscles

Just like a body workout, a brain workout for vocabulary should not be boring. Doing the same activity over and over will not help the brain develop the necessary new neural connections. Teachers should expose students to the same vocabulary words in a variety of ways: visual, audio, tactile, kinesthetic, graphically, and orally.  The list below of 17 different types of exposures follows the design of the  Six Steps for Effective Vocabulary Instruction, a set of recommendations by education researcher Robert Marzano. These 17 repeated exposures begin with introductory activities and then end with games.

1. Have students start with a "sort" by having them separate out the words in ways that make sense to them. (Ex: "words I know vs. words I don't know" or "words that are nouns, verbs or adjectives")

2. Provide students with a description, explanation, or example of the new term. (Note: Having students look up words in dictionaries is not useful for teaching vocabulary. If the vocabulary word list is not associated with or taken from a text, try and provide a context for the word or introduce direct experiences that can give students examples of the term.

3. Tell a story or show a video that integrates the vocabulary word(s). Have students create their own videos using the word(s) to share with others. 

4. Ask students to find or create pictures that explain the word(s). Have students create symbols, graphics or comic strips to represent the word(s). 

5. Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words. According to Marzano, this is an important "repetition" that must be included.

6. If applicable, use morphology and highlight the prefixes, suffixes, and root words (decoding) that will help students remember the meaning of the word.

7. Have students create lists of synonyms and antonyms for the word. (Note: Students can combine #4, #5, #6, #7 into the Frayer model, a 4 square graphic organizer for building student vocabulary.)

8. Offer incomplete analogies for students to complete or allow students to write (or draw) their own analogies. ( Ex: Medicine:illness as law:_________)

9. Have students engage in conversation using vocabulary words. Students can be in pairs to share and discuss their definitions.(Think-Pair-Share). This is particularly important for EL students who need to develop speaking and listening skills.

10. Have students create a "concept map"or graphic organizer that has students draw an illustration representing vocabulary words to help them think about related concepts and examples. 

11. Develop word walls that display vocabulary words in different ways. Word walls are more effective when they are interactive, with words that can be easily added, removed or rearranged. Use pocket charts, or index cards with peel-and-stick Velcro, or peel-and-stick magnetic strips.

12. Have students use the activities on mobile vocabulary apps: Quizlet; IntelliVocab for SAT, etc.

13. Cover a wall with paper and have students create word posters or graffiti the walls with vocabulary scribbles.

14. Create crossword puzzles or have student design their own crossword puzzles  (free software programs available) using vocabulary words.

15. Have students interview a word by teams as a class or small group activity. Give one team a word and list of interview questions. Have students “become” the word and write answer to questions. Without revealing the word, someone acts as the interviewer and asks the questions to guess the word.

16. Organize the activity "Kick Me": Students find answers to blanks on a worksheet by looking at the words that the teacher has put on students’ backs using labels.

  This encourages movement in the lesson thus increasing student focus, engagement, and retention of information.

17. Have students play games that are adapted for vocabulary words and definitions: Pictionary; Memory; Jeopardy; Charades; $100,000 Pyramid; Bingo. Games like these help teachers energize students and guide them in the review and use of vocabulary in collaborative and cooperative ways.