I have just finished my second workshop this summer and I can tell you what you already know which is the move is on to boost vocabulary development. Having a rich vocabulary will take you far in life I am sure, but the approaches many books use to make this happen fall just short of drill and kill. The reading materials have been trimmed down to the bone offering little motivation to students to want to remember the words. Add to this scenario pacing calendars and benchmarks, we teachers find ourselves just trying to keep up as best we can. If some students "don't get it", they will just have to find help elsewhere since straying from the calendar is not even remotely a possibility.
What options do we then have to sugarcoat the mastery of vocabulary? :) One of my favorite choices here is the use of the internet. There are many sites out there that support vocabulary study in formats that are highly engaging for kids. My favorite website for vocabulary done in context is http://www.spellingcity.com. Here kids type in the words and then practice them in different settings. As a teacher of ELLs, I have mine practice the words. The program will pronounce the words and then offer students time to test their listening skills in identifying the words they hear. There is also a word and definition match, a sentence scramble (grammar and mechanics come in here), testing (they create the quiz which we can either print out ahead of time or allow them to just do the test online), and last but not least----games involving all the words that the students are studying.
Another favorite of mine is http://www.timeforkids.com. The readings are current but at different reading levels (K-6). A Spanish version is also available. The instructional supports are outstanding and once again, it comes with reading quizzes based on the articles they are reading. As students encounter unfamiliar words within interesting context, teachers can take the time to show how context clarifies word meanings. I always share with my own students that this is how I still learn new word definitions.
One last resource that I can't praise enough is that of elementary school teachers. They are pros at this and more than willing to share. Special ed teachers are also an underused resource. So, if you have access to either of these professionals, ask for suggestions on making vocabulary development easier on you and your students:)