Friday, February 3, 2017

Vocabulary Lists and Beyond: Walking the Word Talk

Last week after school I was having a conversation with a student about the practice of writing a lot of big words and hoping the teacher would give up trying to understand and just give credit. 

“Oh,” I paraphrased, you mean they thought they could…um…what’s that word? 
“Yeah, I know the word you’re trying to think of,” the student said. “It has a b and two o's.
Of course—it’s on our word wall.

“What does betwixt mean?” a student asked. I asked for the context, and he read a line out of The Scarlet Letter, “…betwixt speech and a groan.” Easy context lesson, I thought, and asked him what he thought betwixt meant. He shrugged his shoulders, opened his mouth, and let out a sound like a dying baby elephant. It left me speechless for a moment, and then I realized he was reading betwixt as an adjective rather than a preposition. He’d made what he figured must be a betwixt speech. We all had a good little laugh, and we’ve known what “betwixt” means all the other times it came up in the book. 

“What does flag mean?” Other students offered “flagging a train” or “flagging a web page,” but the meaning in context was tire. We wondered if those two different meanings could possibly have the same etymology. Turns out, they do: Flag as in tire is related to how banners hang when there is no wind. 

I was recently part of a group brainstorming strategies for raising vocabulary scores on PSAT/SAT tests, and it reminded me of how much I’ve worked on building vocabulary learning into my classes in the last several years, and it made me especially aware of all the vocabulary learning happening in my class in the last week.

It all started about 3 years ago when I was part of a discussion group of 1st through 12th grade teachers reading The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction by Michael Graves. (See some of my blogs about my learning at the time here, here, and here.) Graves helpfully lists 4 components of a strong vocabulary program: rich and varied language experiences, individual word learning, word-learning strategies, and fostering word consciousness.

Some specific practices I use include the following:
  • Handing out a list at the beginning of a unit—20 words for every 2 or 3 weeks—taken from texts we will read. 
  • Having students preview the list and mark each word with a +, o, or -, then discuss in their groups the least known words—can anyone help?
  • Putting the lists on—2 Quizlets for each list—one with a definition and one with context sentences. (And, yes, a traditional matching quiz for accountability.)
  • Asking students to bring in words from their reading. (See above conversations.)
  • Playing games with words: Quizlet now prints double-sided flashcards for easy 5-minute low-prep activities. 
  • Talking about words. (See above examples.)
  • Making a word wall—yes, even in secondary. I just added this one a year ago, and I'm still learning to work it, but it does keep all those words right out there where you can remember them and talk about them. Students revising writing will frequently swivel their heads around, searching for that perfect word they know they learned this year.
Here’s a good list of 10 do’s and don’t’s for vocabulary teaching.

But really, effective vocabulary teaching is more than a particular trick or assignment used a couple of times a year. It’s a way of being—being aware of and interested in words yourself, fostering a word-rich environment, requiring and giving students opportunities to engage with words in the ways you model, and being sure the class-context is safe for curiosity and exploration. Even for a "betwixt speech" every now and again.

How do you create an environment that stimulates vocabulary learning?

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