Big History Project

The excerpt below is taken from the BHP Course Teaching Guide. Visit the Big History Project website to register for a free teacher account and access the entire curriculum!

Vocab Activities Guide
The vocabulary in Big History is difficult, but vital to understanding the course content. To help reinforce the course vocabulary, we suggest you engage students in at least one vocab activity per lesson. This guide includes a set of teacher-recommended activities that you can use to target the key terms in the course.

Also, keep in mind that there are many online resources for learning vocabulary. For example, some Big History teachers have used to make flashcards for their students.

The menu of vocab activities is divided into three categories. The first group introduces students to vocabulary and helps them memorize words. The second category starts to push at student comprehension of vocabulary words, and the third category supports the application of those words.

Menu of Activities


  • Memory/Concentration
  • Mnemonics
  • Crossword Puzzles


  • Game: Real or Fake
  • Quizzes
  • Word Charades


  • Word Webs
  • Group Writing
  • Analogies


Memorization Activities

This is a very simple—most likely familiar—activity, one that students usually find more fun than you might expect.

It’s a simple way for students to practice memorizing vocabulary while playing a game. We suggest that you put students into small groups of three or four.


  1. Hand out to each group two 3×5 cards for each glossary term. (So if you have eight glossary terms and four groups of students, each group would receive 16 cards.)
  2. Have the students write each glossary term on one side of one 3×5 card and its corresponding definition on one side of another 3×5 card.
  3. Once they’ve finished writing all the words and definitions, have them mix up the cards and lay the cards face down on the table.
  4. Students then each take turns picking up two cards to see if they can match a term with its correct definition. If the two cards don’t match, they show the other students in the group the cards, and then replace them from the same spots they picked them up.
  5. Students continue through this process until all pairs are made.
  6. The student with the most pairs wins.

Mnemonic devices are commonly used to help learners remember words and their definitions. The act of creating mnemonics alone can reinforce a learner’s ability to remember and understand a concept. Put your students into teams of two or three. Assign each group a word or words for which they need to create a mnemonic, which they will share with the class. We recommend you compile the class mnemonics for everyone’s use.

There are many types of mnemonics. Although your students can develop their own types, you might want to share these with them before they get started:

  • Music—A made-up song or jingle that’s the definition of a word. You can use a commonly known tune or something of your own.
  • Name—The first letter of each word in a list of things to be memorized is used to make an acronym that’s the name of a person or thing. A common example of this is Roy G. Biv, often used to teach the colors of the spectrum (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet).
  • Expression or Word—This is similar to a name mnemonic, but instead of a name, a phrase is made from the first letter of each word. So for example, for remembering the order of taxonomy in biology (kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species), you might say, King Phillip Cried Out for Good Soup.
  • Picture—A sketch or picture that helps you recall a word. These are often silly and therefore easy to remember.
  • Poem— A made-up poem (rhyming or not) that helps you remember a word

Crossword Puzzles
Creating crossword puzzles for your students is very simple and there are a lot of online tools to help you, such as: Read, Write, Think , Just Crosswords, Variety Games, Armored Penguin, and Ed Helper. Use the definitions of words as clues, and then have students come up with the correct words to solve the puzzle. As an easier alternative, you can create word finds using the same websites.


Comprehension Activities

Game: Real or Fake?
This is a very quick and simple activity in which students come up with definitions for words and their classmates have to guess whether those definitions are real or fake. This will help test students’ knowledge and understanding of terms.


Hand out words to individual students, and secretly assign each student to either the “real” or “fake” condition (it’s important to do this so not all students make up fake definitions for words). Tell students that they can’t use the glossary definitions for words if they are in the “real” condition. Also, tell them that if they are in the “fake” condition, they should really be trying to trick the other members of the class, so they shouldn’t make their definitions too silly.

  1. Once students have created their definitions, have them post the words and definitions around the room. Ensure there is room for students to write at the bottom of the paper.
  2. Have students circulate the room and place a star on the posted paper if they think the definition is real, and an X on the paper if they think it’s fake.
  3. Have students reveal whether the definition is real or fake. If it’s fake, have students tell you what the real definition should be.
  4. The student that tricks the largest number of students in the class wins.

Have students take vocab quizzes at home or in class, and then review and correct the quizzes as a group. The Glossary Challenges in each unit are great for this. You can even have students write vocabulary quizzes of their own for homework, and then take each other’s quizzes in class.. Having students write quizzes goes beyond just comprehension to application and leads to deeper learning.

Word Charades
This is based on the idea of the commercial game “Catch Phrase.” Teams can gain or lose points, and the group with the most points in the end wins.


  1. Break students into groups of six or so.
  2. Give each group a matching set of 3×5 cards with glossary terms written on one side and have them place the cards face down on the table.
  3. Have students take turns picking a card from the pile without letting the other students see what’s on the card. Once a student picks up a card, that student has 60 seconds to describe the given word to see if the other students in the group can guess what the word is. The student who is describing CANNOT use that word or any derivative of that word. So for example, if a student picks the term “Goldilocks Conditions,” they can talk about the things that are necessary for a new threshold of increasing complexity to emerge, but they cannot say thing about “gold” or “locks” or “conditions.”
  4. If a student does not use any key words and the group correctly guesses the word in 60 seconds, that group earns one point. If the student does use any key words, their turn is immediately over and the team loses a point. If the group does not guess the word in the 60 seconds, the card goes back in the pile and the team loses a point for that round.


Application Activities

Word Webs
Word webs are a great way for students to gain a deeper understanding of key vocabulary. They’re also a nice example of how the glossary terms in Big History are often connected to one another. There are so many different ways to create word webs and tons of online resources, but it’s also easy to do quick paper-and-pencil versions in class if you don’t have the electronic resources for building word webs online. Here are two different ways:

For learning individual terms:

1. Have students write the word in the middle of a piece of paper. Draw a circle around that word.

2. Draw a few lines leading away from the circle.

3. At the end of the lines, have students do all or any of the following:

  • Write synonyms for that word.
  • Write a definition of the word. (They must not use the original word in the definition.)
  • Write the major pieces of information that people should know about the word.
  • Write how the word relates to Big History.

4. If you want to continue this activity, have students circle any synonyms they wrote down, and then have them add more lines radiating away from that word. Repeat Step 3.

5. Keep going until students have exhausted what they can write about the word.

Group Writing
Assign groups of students a few vocabulary words, and then have them write a cohesive and logical paragraph using them. Then, share out with the entire class. This could also be used as an individual homework assignment. This can be a surprisingly difficult activity, so consider providing the following directions to students to help them construct their paragraphs.

  1. Find a common theme in your list of vocabulary word. [Note: you should also consider assigning groups of related words—this will usually happen seamlessly because the lessons and units have related vocabulary.
  2. Create a hierarchy of the words. Is there one word that really describes the theme and the other words support that?
  3. Think about what part of speech the individual words belong to: Are they nouns? Verbs? Adjectives? (Note: This will help your students fit the words into sentences.)
  4. Begin the paragraph with a very clear topic sentence.
  5. Use synonyms to reinforce the meaning of the words in the paragraph.
  6. The paragraph should be at least four sentences.
  7. Do not use the words and their definitions in your sentences—this isn’t a list of words and definitions. Use the words to describe concepts, build statements, and so on.

Creating analogies for words is a great activity not only for comprehension, but also for memorization. Analogies help students more deeply understand the meaning of words and concepts. For this activity, we suggest having students work in pairs or small groups. Give each group of students a few vocabulary words to work with, and ask them to create metaphors or analogies for each word. If you need to review what metaphors and analogies are with students, here are some tips:

1. Remind them that metaphors and analogies are comparisons between unlike things that might have some particular elements in common. Ask for or give them some examples of common metaphors and analogies such as:

  • The apple does not fall far from the tree.
  • The human eye is like a camera.
  • It costs and arm and a leg.

2. Create one or two analogies as a whole class exercise. To do this, select a concept that students are familiar with that has some similarities with a new concept. In Big History, you might choose to create an analogy for a claim tester. To do this, you might select the familiar or related idea of evidence. As a class, brainstorm characteristics or qualities that are shared by the two concepts, and those that are not. The categories of comparison should help you come up with an analogy or metaphor for the original word.

3. You may also want to use a graphic organizer to help students draw analogies. An online search for “Analogy Graphic Organize” will yield a large variety of options.

One thought on “BHP Vocab Guide and Turn-Key Activities

  1. I really like this the paragraph exercise. Properly using big words is essential to get into college. Writing assignments, like term papers are common in college. The more practice students get constructing a well written paragraph the better prepared they will be for college.


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