The Burning Vocabulary Question Series: How do I teach vocabulary?

Happy New Year, to all!  My apologies for the long delay!  What’s my New Year resolution?? To not let so much time lapse between posts!  (lol).  Let’s get right to it!

If you forget where we left off, you can review the last two posts: The Burning Vocabulary Question Series: Where do vocabulary words come from? and The Burning Vocabulary Question Series: Which words do I teach?

So at this point, you’ve gathered a collection of words from authentic sources and you have chosen the best words for instruction.   Now, there is only one more question left to answer:

How do I teach the chosen vocabulary words?

Past vocabulary practices have been very teacher driven, where students are passive recipients of word knowledge. This usually includes:

  • vocabulary lessons confined solely to literacy time.
  • instruction governed by a commercial program’s manual.
  • approaches that are either definitional (looking up the meaning in a dictionary) or instructional contextual (briefly introducing words prior to assigned reading).
  • approaches  that assume that students have prior knowledge of  the topic.
  • words presented only once, with little time for deeper understanding.

As many of us implement reading and writing workshop within our classroom, we realize that the above mentioned practices are not the most conducive to how students learn best. For example, many of these practices conflict with known understandings of what 21st-century students need.  Within the workshop classroom, students are now at the center, where they can actively engage with their own learning.  This shift calls for some changes to our instructional practices when it comes to vocabulary.  Research has recommended a few differing practices:

  • a comprehensive approach, where vocabulary instruction is not an isolated event.
  • instruction that is dispersed across the school day.
  • active engagement by the student during vocabulary instruction.
  • allowing multiple opportunities to work with the words in different contexts.
  • placing emphasis on expanding student prior knowledge.
  • fostering strategies for independent word learning.

I’ll take a moment to note that although I believe in the workshop model, I disagree with the notion that vocabulary is learned incidentally through exposure to words in reading materials.  Practically, and through time spent in the classroom, I just don’t think “osmosis” is enough.  Hardcore workshop proponents might argue with me, questioning whether explicit instruction is inauthentic.  However, the word gathering means described in the first post of this series, The Burning Vocabulary Question: Where do vocabulary words come from?,  create an authenticity for learners.  Also students will come across many of the explicitly taught word in their independent reading and will use the words in their writing.  By making vocabulary instruction a part of each day, students will begin to notice words, and make learning and using them a part of their daily lives.  Which I believe, is in fact, very authentic!

I find it most helpful in the classroom, to start with an instructional framework and stick with it for a period of time.  The consistency provided gives the opportunity to streamline implementation routines and create a habit.  That being said, time should be spent creating a framework that works for you, within your daily schedule.  The focus should be kept on creating a framework for fast-paced, yet varied experiences with words, where multiple review opportunities are available to develop deeper understanding of the word meanings.

Your framework should have three components.

  1. Initial explicit instruction of each word using student-friendly explanations.
  2. Meaningful activities, over a couple of days, to engage students in using the words in a variety of contexts.
  3. Assessments that gauge students’ depth of knowledge about the words.

For example, my framework looks like this:

Weekly Vocabulary Instruction Framework

The idea is to spend 10-15 minutes per day to enhance vocabulary.  You will see that you and your students learn the predictable routines of the week and work through activities efficiently.  Again, sticking with a consistent framework will allow for quick delivery of instruction.

We can also not ignore the fact that teaching and learning vocabulary is a very complex process.

Effective vocabulary instruction requires a repertoire of teaching activities and instructional strategies coupled with the teacher’s ability to choose appropriately within this repertoire”

-Blachowicz, Fisher, and Ogle (2006)

 There is not a “one size fits all” approach to teaching words.  We should have a variety of different sources and strategies to pull from in order to meet our students’ needs.  Much akin to the work done during reading and writing workshop,  So to meet the needs of all learners, the follow-up activities mentioned in the above framework must be varied.

Possible Vocabulary Activities

  1. Example/Non-Example
    1. Present students with two situations.  Ask them which one exemplifies a given vocabulary word.
      1. For example:  Which would be an example of trepidation?
        1. Jumping into a swimming pool or hesitating before testing the water?
        2. Feeling confident about signing up for a contest or having uncertain feelings about signing up?
    2. Students need to explain their reasoning.
  2. Word Association
    1. Present students with situations that go with targeted words.
      1. For example: restrictions, awe, endured
        1. When I applied for a library card, I was surprised by all of the rules that I had to follow just to borrow a book.
        2. Walking into the dinosaur exhibit at the museum for the first time, I was amazed by the huge skeletons.
        3. When I read a biography of Ghandi, I marveled at all the trials that he had to face.
    2. Students need to explain their reasoning.
  3. Generating Situations, Contexts, and Examples
    1. Students create situations and contexts for given words.
      1. For example: dignity, prejudice, humiliation
        1. How might a losing team maintain its dignity?
        2. What is an example of someone acting with prejudice?
        3. How id Marian Anderson face the humiliation of not being able to stay in certain hotels?
  4. Word Relationships
    1. Students place vocabulary words on a continuum and explain their choices.
      1. For example:
        1. Positive: awe, dignity
        2. Negative: prejudice, humiliation
  5. Writing
    1. Students complete various sentence stems
      1. For example:
        1. There were many restrictions for using the gym because _____.
        2. The decorations for the graduation ceremony were awe-inspiring _____.
        3. He had an unwavering faith in his sister’s ability because _____.
  6. Vocabulary Pictionary
    1. Students choose a word from the word wall to illustrate.
    2. Classmates must identify the word from the illustration.
  7. Vocabulary Tic-Tac-Toe (or BINGO)
    1. Fill a 3 x 3 grid with vocabulary words.
    2. Students draw an X through the word when the definition is called out.
  8. Choose a Side
    1. Choose two words that have similar meanings.
    2. Say aloud a sentence where only one word fits.
    3. Students move to stand on one side of the room or the other to show which word they believe fits the sentence (or stand in the middle if they are unsure).

One last thought…

We need to make sure that our classrooms are energized, verbal environments.  We want words to not only be noticed, but also celebrated.  Make sure you room is print-rich and there is access to dictionaries and thesauruses.  Do everything you can to make sure students are curious about words and putting in the effort to discover words and how they work.

Let me know how you do as you implement explicit vocabulary instruction into your workshop.  What does your vocabulary instruction looks like already?  Do you have other vocabulary activities to add to my list?

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

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