The Burning Vocabulary Question Series: Where do vocabulary words come from?

Possible vocabulary words are everywhere.  We are bombarded with endless possibilities of words to teach our students.  The words come from mentor texts, independent novels, word lists, district mandated words, academic words, reading programs, vocabulary programs…the list goes on and teachers feel the pressure.

As a Common Core state (per se), NJ teachers are working their hardest to meet the increased expectations of national standards.  The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) put heavy emphasis on vocabulary, by making it an anchor standard at all levels K-12.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standard for Language

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.CCRA.L.6
Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

I do not disagree with the CCSS attention toward vocabulary.  I understand that a greater vocabulary makes more complex texts accessible to students and, in turn, increases their reading levels.  And we are all familiar with the correlation between reading, vocabulary, and test scores- made clear with this popular info-graphic.

read_with_a_child_infographic

But for all its gusto, what the CCSS does not do, is tell us what the appropriate academic and domain-specific words are for each grade level. It is left to the discretion of teachers and/or curriculum planners to determine words appropriate for individual classes or grades, and this is a daunting task when faced with the wide variety of sources out there.  In all the hustle and bustle of daily classroom instruction, it is this sort of huge task that can easily get put to the wayside.  So, this post offers suggestions to the first burning question about vocabulary instruction:

“Where do I get the vocabulary words to teach my students?”

A firm belief I have is that prescribed word lists or programs are not the answer.

Keeping the belief of the workshop model in mind, vocabulary words taught in the classroom should be as authentic as possible.  Students need to see these words coming from themselves and their experiences.  The relationship between ownership, motivation, and engagement is not a secret.  When students are invested in the words they are learning, vocabulary instruction will be more meaningful and you will have a very clear answer to the “Why are we learning this?” question.

My suggestion is to pull words from the following three places.

1. Your current mentor text

These would be completely teacher-selected words chosen from the mentor text that you are currently using to support your teaching.  These are the words that you would have the most control over.

2. Student’s independent reading novels

Since choice is a large part of the workshop model, it is important that students have the opportunity to provide input on the words they want to learn.  By allowing students to choose the words they will learn, you are tapping into their sense of ownership.

Greg Feezell, in his article “Robust Vocabulary Instruction in a Readers’ Workshop” featured in The Reading Teacher (Vol.66, Issue 3, 2012) suggests encouraging (as opposed to requiring) students to submit words to a “Word Box”.  These might be words students find interesting or words that they wish to understand better.  They can be chosen from texts read during independent reading time, at home, or in other subjects.  Using a submission process allows you, as the teacher, to have final veto power over which words are chosen for instruction- a valuable aspect of this system.

3. Student’s writing

Have you ever noticed how when you spotlight a single student, the level of the entire class is lifted?  We do this for good behavior.  “Johnny, I like how you are sitting up in your chair, ready to learn.”  Suddenly, the whole class grows taller as they work to emulate Johnny and seek our approval and praise.  Kids want to be their best selves, but sometimes they need to be reminded of just how great they can be.  This method works to tap into that phenomena.

While working with Teachers College Reading and Writing staff developer, Emily Strang-Campbell, in some of our district’s 4th-8th grade classrooms,  a technique that spotlighted student vocabulary use in their writing was introduced.  During independent writing time, when students were writing fast and furious, Emily walked the room to note students that had used strong vocabulary in their writing.  During the mid-workshop interruption she gave selected students a shout-out compliment and started a list of their words on the board.  As the students went back to work, Emily suggested that everyone push themselves and try to use one of the strong words listed or any other strong word they know in their writing during the final stretch of independent writing time that day.  You would have been amazed with what the students accomplished! The power of a compliment.

We can tap into this and  choose vocabulary words for instruction from the words that were spotlighted from student writing.  Imagine the power these words would have for students, coming from the pens of their own classmates!

These sources give you valuable, authentic vocabulary words that students will be invested in.  The next step of the process is choosing which specific words to teach from these sources.  My second post of this series will offer suggestions to do just that!

Are there are any other authentic places where you pull vocabulary words from for instruction?  I would love to hear from you!

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay

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Congrats to all Education Graduates!!!!! And a few words of advice…

I recently attended the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education 2015 Convocation in support of my talented cousin (who’s actually more like my little sister), Alyssa (Congrats, again, Lyssy!).

My cousin, Alyssa, center at her RU Master of Education Graduation. (That's my mom on the left and me, on the right)
My cousin, Alyssa (center) just before her Rutgers University Graduate School of Education Convocation. (That’s my mom, on the left and me, on the right).

I sat there watching my cousin amongst the other graduates–her classmates, our future colleagues–a sea of mortar-board caps decorated with rulers, apples, primary colors, and the new title they would proudly answer to during the next stage of their lives, “Miss and/or Mr.  So-and-So”.  Their eagerness to enter the world of education apparent in their shining faces.  The promise of what this new cohort of educators stands for moving me to get a bit teary-eyed.  How exciting it is to have your whole career ahead of you! Something that you’ve worked toward for years.

As each graduate marched across the stage and accepted their diploma, I began to create a list in my mind of what I would tell each and every one of them.  They’ve been schooled in the pedagogy, theory, and practice of the education world, but what about things that cannot be taught in a class?  The small, seemingly insignificant things that one can only glean from experience.  The silly things that helped me survive my early years of teaching….

And so, this post was born.

My Unsolicited Advice for all New Education Graduates

Buy a notebook.

Keep track of PLC minutes, staff meeting information, professional development workshop notes, and anything else important.  Date everything!  Keep a record of decisions made and tasks assigned.  You can use your notebook to plan classroom groups, your teaching block, or content pacing.  It’s your thinking on paper and everything is in one place.  You will find that you (and your colleagues for that matter) will constantly refer back to and review this invaluable tool.

Some of my past notebooks, ranging from my first year in the classroom to last year.
Some of my past notebooks, ranging from my first year in the classroom to last year. Notice the telltale signs of how well-used they are: coffee stains, tabs, highlighting, additions and revisions.
Eat lunch in the faculty room.

Some teachers would advise against this, saying that the lunch room gets too gossipy or negative, and at times that may be true.  However, in some cases, you can actually learn A LOT in the faculty room – and that learning is two-fold:

  1. Put a bunch of females into a room and inevitable they will start talking about life, love, and their kids (Males within the education world, I understand this just might be your worst nightmare… but bear with me). As a new teacher, I learned a lot from them.  Whether it be marital advice, when to retire, how to set up a 403(b), the ups and downs of daycare, how to potty train, how to roast a chicken, the list goes on!  It seems like you’ll never need any of it, but I can promise you that time ticks on and you, too, one day will be ready to settle down and start a household–family and all. At least now you’ll have all that knowledge from your colleagues to stand on!
  2. Yes, lunch is a time to take a moment for yourself and decompress from the morning and recharge for the afternoon, and it’s good to take the time to do that.  However, teachers rarely ever stop thinking about their work. And this is where being in the faculty room at lunch time comes in handy. It’s a built-in meeting!  You can run lesson plan ideas or assessments past colleagues and get their feedback.  A teacher may come in to copy something that you realize you could use in your classroom. Ask for a copy!  And listen!  Listening in on other educators in your content area is like free PD.  Pay attention to what they are doing in their rooms, their pacing, their techniques and bring that back into your own room.  By being present and “leaning in” to the conversation as Sheryl Sandberg would encourage,  you can learn SO much.
Find a friend.

I’m not just talking about any old friend.  I’m talking about a trusted and respected colleague, who will challenge you and help you grow as an educator.  This should be someone who has educational goals and beliefs similar to your own.  Someone who you can easily work with and who’s feedback you value.  Mine happened to be my mentor.  Through our relationship, I became a much stronger teacher.  As I grew more confident in the classroom and in my practice, we began to function more as equals. We bounced ideas off each other, shared materials and resources, debated new classroom practices, and supported each other.  You will need this type of person because teaching is not always easy.  It’s hard work! And having someone to support you through challenges, offer advice, and keep you smiling is a necessary part of the job.

Say “Yes.”

As a new teacher, you have to build your reputation among colleagues and parents in your school.  One great way to do this is by volunteering for committees and extra duties.  Be a face that parents see at events outside of school.  Offer to become a member of school committees like the social club or an advisory committee.  Build your reputation as a team player and someone who cares about the positive culture and moral of your school.  A word of caution, however-do not take on so much that you become overwhelmed.  Your commitment, first and foremost, is to the education of your students.  Try not to lose sight of that.

Learn the name of every custodian and secretary.

These are the people who keep the school up and running.  They do a lot of work and are often not recognized for all they do.  Make friends, be kind, say “Good morning”, and thank them for all they do.  Then, hopefully, whenever you need a favor (and I can guarantee that at some point you will), they will be more likely to help you out.

Seasoned Educators, what else would you add to this “unsolicited” advice for our future colleagues??

Let’s keep the conversation going-

Lindsay