Teaching Vocabulary Using the I Spy Strategy


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Teaching vocabulary using the “I Spy” strategy is straightforward and fun, as well as being effective in getting kids interested in finding new words.

The I Spy strategy is a low-prep activity any teacher can use to increase word awareness and help kids feel like it’s fun, rather than a task.

? What is the I Spy Strategy for Teaching Vocabulary?

In the I Spy strategy, teachers give students a number or list of words to hunt for in a text. You can also ask them to “spy” any unfamiliar words.

Students can play individually or in teams.

It’s that simple!

If you want to up the game aspect a little bit, you can award points to the words based on different criteria (find the longest new word, find the word with the most consonants/vowels/syllables, etc.).

I spy with my little eye more ideas for using this strategy!

? Using I Spy as a Pre-reading Strategy

When students are going to read a text that has unfamiliar or unknown words, the I Spy strategy is an effective way to break the ice.

Really, it’s not as much as teaching vocabulary as it is about preparing kids to learn about vocabulary. You’ll do the teaching later. Right now, this strategy prepares them to be interested in learning the words.

To do this, look ahead at the reading they will be doing.

This may be in a textbook, on a website, or in a story they will be reading.

Glance through it to find words you think they may be unfamiliar with.

Don’t allow yourself to get caught in the trap of assuming that the words the textbook company put in bold are the words that are going to be the ones appropriate for your students.

You know them best, so go with your best judgment.

Before the class begins reading, tell them that there are x number of I Spy words to hunt for in the reading. You can also give them a list of I Spy words, if you prefer.

? Use Props to Make I Spy Even More Fun

One of the things my students love to do (Who am I kidding? I love it, too!) is to use magnifying glasses when we’re using the I Spy strategy.

I bought these magnifying glasses at a dollar store, and I have a class set of them. Are they the best quality in the world? Um, no.

But my students (ahem) love them, and they work just fine for our purposes.

Whenever I pull these out, the students start bouncing in their seats because they love props, and they know that there is some kind of prize coming their way.

? Should You Give Prizes When You Use the I Spy strategy?

Giving prizes is optional. I don’t do it every time, but I always make it feel like I did. Here’s what I mean.

If I’m going to give a “real” prize, I’ll award something like:

  • a sticker
  • a coupon for a couple of points on a quiz
  • a snack (I like to keep snacks in class. Lots of times I’m just giving them out, but they also work well as prizes.)
  • an eraser
  • some cheap thing I got at Oriental Trading Company (you know what I mean)

If I’m going to give something that feels like a prize but isn’t a tangible item, I’ll give them something like:

  • I’ll list their name on the board as the “Spy of the Day”
  • If they’re playing in teams, I’ll list the team as the “Spy Ring of the Day”
  • five minutes of my playing the game of their choice at recess
  • the class will give a cheer or a chant
  • a high-five

I adjust what I’m giving prizes for, too.

Sometimes I’m looking for finding the words themselves, but sometimes I’ll add other criteria.

I may give a special prize for finding a word that has a certain suffix or prefix that we’ve worked with before.

For instance, in my 5th Grade Science class, maybe we learned about acceleration last class. Today, if we’re encountering deceleration, I may ask them to spy the word that is closest to acceleration.

I may give a prize for the longest word, the shortest word, or any other criteria that springs to mind. The goal is to change it up and have them look with fresh eyes.

I don’t want to always have it be a simple word hunt. By adding in criteria, I make it a new experience every time.

? How to Introduce the I Spy Vocabulary Strategy to Students

If your students are unfamiliar with the game “I Spy”, then I suggest reading Edward Gibbs terrific little book, I Spy with My Little Eye first.

If your students are familiar with the game, then this is how I introduce the strategy.

  • Pick a word that is on display somewhere in the classroom (like a bulletin board). Say, “I spy with my little eye a word that begins with ‘P’.”
  • Repeat this a few times. Yes, this even works with secondary students! Older kids love the games as much, if not more, than the younger ones.
  • After a few rounds, explain that you’re going to play a variation of this game to help you find unfamiliar words in the text.
  • Show them the list of the words you’re looking for in the text (I use the board or a screen or a printed list).
  • Once they’ve found all of the words, I discuss the words using the strategies I know are effective for explaining unfamiliar words.
  • The first few times, I play as a class until they get the hang of it.

? Give the Word a Prize

Sometimes, we’ll give the words a prize.

I pick the criteria, and the students make suggestions for which of the words they found fits that criteria best.

Then, we vote as a class. Some criteria I’ve used include:

  • Most Likely to Show Up on a Test
  • Word I’d Least Like to Hear My Mom Say to Me
  • Hardest Word to Say/Spell
  • Fifty Cent Word (longest or most obscure word)
  • Plays Well With Others (word that shares a root with lots of other words we know)
  • Teacher’s Favorite (words they think I like)
  • Least Useful
  • Most Useful
  • Happiest Word
  • Most Fun Word to Say
  • Synonym Award (word that sounds the most like another word we’ve learned)

? Wrapping Up

I Spy is a fantastic strategy for getting students excited about unfamiliar vocabulary because it makes it a game, rather than a chore.

As students get used to this, they will start doing it even when you didn’t plan to play!

You’ll be reading along and a student will say, “I spy a word I don’t know!” or “I spy a word that’s like the word we read yesterday!”

When that happens, you will feel your heart swell like the Grinch’s after he discovered the joy of Christmas.

I hope you’ll find success in adding the I Spy activity to your vocabulary toolbox.?

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Teaching vocabulary using the “I Spy” strategy is straightforward and fun, as well as being effective in getting kids interested in finding new words.

The I Spy strategy is a low-prep activity any teacher can use to increase word awareness and help kids feel like it’s fun, rather than a task.

Lisa Van Gemert

Lisa loves words & helping kids love words, too. Her grandparents were deaf, and she loves words made with hands as much as words made with pens and typewriters and voices. Lisa lives in Arlington, Texas, with her Aussie husband, Steve.

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