Friday, October 3, 2014

Learning Vocabulary

Minds at work—one of my favorite things. I love seeing them humming away. I love seeing them hit an obstacle, identify it, and adjust. I love seeing the “a-ha!” of epiphany. 

One small but very effective window on minds at work is vocabulary quiz correction slips. I first thought I’d offer the chance to get half-credit because I do want students to learn the words. I keep doing it because not only do students learn the words, but also I discover a few important things: 
  1. How hard some minds are working when they give a wrong answer—just working on a slightly wrong tack 
  2. The misunderstandings behind the mistakes, so I can counter them earlier next year
  3. A graceful way to acknowledge my mistakes and give full credit when a student can persuade me I actually have written a prompt that works equally well with another word
The catch is that it takes a bit more work on the part of both student and teacher than just writing a different matching letter. Students have to explain the misunderstanding as well as why another answer actually fits better. But I really do enjoy seeing when the process works. Here are some of the answers that delighted my English teacher soul this week:

One student had matched hooligan rather than accomplice to the sentence One robber was caught, but his ___ escaped. As she explained her answer, I realized she had understood that both words were people who did bad things—she just hadn’t gotten all the nuances.

Another student had matched vacillate to the same prompt. He explained, “I thought it fit because there was a person besides the robber who alternated in and out to escape.” (Hmm…He actually had studied the definition to get the bit about alternating in and out.) Why did accomplice fit better? “This word fits better because the robber was having a partner, and accomplice means a person who joins with another in carrying out some plan (in this case, robbing).” I think he knows the word now.

Every once in a while, the explanation will be so appropriate that I end up giving full credit, like this one: “I thought indifferent fit He responded to all my questions with a(n) ___ grunt because if someone responded to you with a grunt it sounds like they don’t really care, or they are indifferent to what you are saying.” That actually does work just as well as inarticulate

Sometimes there’s even a glint of humor: “I thought perplexed fit She ___ his petitions with Amens.” Why? “I forgot what perplexed meant. I was perplexed by the meaning of perplexed.” That student has also learned a new word. (In case you were wondering, the answer was punctuated.)

As students realize what kinds of misunderstandings they fall into, they begin to ask good questions before the test, like, “Mrs. Essenburg, what is the difference between inevitable and evade?” I’d never thought of the relationship between those two words before, but upon further discussion we clarified that though people often try to evade the inevitable, or wish they could, it is not possible.

And as we talk about vocabulary, more questions, even ones unrelated to quizzes come up. My favorite this week was “Which is it proper to say, ‘You should be ashamed,’ or ‘You should be shameful’?” You should NOT be shameful, but if you have done something shameful, you should be ashamed. 

Aren’t words wonderful? How do we even learn them all? Aren’t questioning minds wonderful? Isn’t a classroom full of curious, hardworking minds a wonderful place to be?

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