Friday, December 11, 2015

Word Walls in Secondary: Part of a Language-Rich Environment

The new word wall in Honors English 10!
  • I knew an acute angle was a small one, so I figured an acute case of depression must be a small one.
  • What’s the difference between paradox and parody again? (It had never occurred to me to think of those two words as potentially confusable, but when the question was asked, I could see it!)
  • I knew discrimination is bad, so I figured indiscriminate must be good. 
These are conversations I’ve had with students this past week. Isn’t English strange? But I’m really happy that our classroom environment has fostered the kind of word awareness and conversations where these misunderstandings can be uncovered and addressed. Anything we do to foster this kind of awareness raises the level of vocabulary learning not just for that word, but all the time.

A word wall is not a panacea for all vocabulary woes, but it is one more way to provide a language rich environment and foster word awareness. This week I took the plunge and put and put one up in my English 10 classroom. One of the final motivations was exams coming up next week, and a vocabulary exam is part of mine. (I had three other factors that finally got me implementing, but I’ll get to them later.)

We have had 6 lists of 20 words each, so in the last 5 days of classes, we reviewed one list each day. (The most recent one they'll have to review on their own, but it should be pretty fresh in their memories.) This is good because we know from recent learning studies that frequent review and quizzing helps things stick. It’s also good as an energizer at the beginning of class.

Here’s what I did: When kids came in, there were word cards spread around on the desks. Sometimes they chatted about the words around them, or looked up the one on their own desk. Especially by the end of the week when they began to anticipate what was to come.

When the bell rang I introduced the game, which varied from day to day. Here were some:
  • Look up your word on the review list. Be sure you know the definition and can use it in a sentence. Find a partner, and teach each other your word. Exchange cards, find another partner, and teach each other your word. Repeat as many times as you have time for.
  • Find a word you don’t know. Find someone who can help you with that word; find someone you can help.
  • Students spread out throughout the room. I call out a definition. First person to slap the correct card gets it. 
The last one was the favorite. (It also bent my “sullen” card.) One strategy was planting yourself near a word you were sure of and just waiting for the definition. Students also soon realized that if you saw the card across the room, but no one else knew it, you needed to meander slowly toward it rather than making a beeline and attracting attention. At the end, one student said, “Can we do that again?”

Okay, true confession: I haven’t actually yet used the word wall itself—I’ve just created it by putting up each day’s review cards after the game. But students have reviewed vocabulary, and the wall is up so we can all be reminded of the words second semester, and I can be reminded to use it.

And the other three final pieces of motivation? (1) I saw another teacher put one up. (2) I found out where to get card stock from another teacher. (3) On Monday, I’m going to present to secondary faculty on vocabulary teaching and learning ideas, one of which is using a word wall. I can’t very well present on something I don’t do!

If it takes that much cumulative input, support, and motivation to get me to make a change in my teaching, let’s keep giving students plenty of input, support, and motivation to make changes in their learning!

What do you do in your class to build in 4 parts of a comprehensive vocabulary program?
  1. Providing rich and varied language experiences
  2. Teaching individual words
  3. Teaching word-learning strategies
  4. Fostering word consciousness

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