I found that often the traditional means of teaching vocabulary (write definitions, make up sentences to match definitions, test on definitions) was not enough to give students a PRACTICAL understanding of a word that they can take with them for further use. Here are two activities that I find give students a better understanding of how they can use a word pratically:
Students should already have journals and the definitions of the vocabulary words should already have been given to them.
Many people use "quick-writes" at the beginning of their class. This is simply using quick-write entries that incorporate vocabulary words. In most cases only one word whould be used for each entry, unless the words are connected in some way. Students simply respond to a question using the vocabulary word. Here is an example:
For the word irritating:
"List three things that you consider irritating. Why do these things irritate you?"
Afterwards, you could either have several students share their entries and talk about whether the responses showed an understanding of the vocab question, or students could pair up and share their entries with each other, comparing their responses.
This should be done when first giving out vocabulary words. Vocabulary list should be limited to about 5 words or less as students tend to lose interest after that.
First, explain the "formal" definition of a word, then give several examples of the word in context. After that, provide a question (like the questions for the Vocab Quick Writes) and have the students discuss this in class.
For example, for the word "intricate" I brought in a picture of an intricate pattern. After giving the students the definition and showing them the pattern as an example, I asked them to try to think of other things that could be called "intricate." Where necessary we discussed why a certain answer fit or didn't fit the word "intricate." (For example, one student said that "math" was intricate, and we discussed this as a class. Another word that we discussed was "legitimate." I gave an example of an action that there might be legitimate and illegitimate reasons for doing (Taking drugs...a legitimate reason for doing this would be for medical purposes, and illegitiment reason would be to get high.) Students then came up with other actions that would have legitimate and illegitimate purposes (being tardy, shooting someone, etc.)
both of these methods can take considerable time, but the students thouroughly understand the words afterwards.