getting to know words, getting to know all about them- thoughts on explicit vocabulary instruction

“now that i’ve looked up the definitions and used these ten weekly vocabulary words in meaningful sentences, i know them really well and could use them when i write, speak and read, ” said no student ever that we know.

vocabulary is highly correlated to our success as readers, according to all the research that we’ve read, and while much vocabulary develops as we listen to the language around us in conversations and books, there are some words that we as teachers will choose to explicitly teach. just how explicit does our vocabulary instruction need to be?

we think that students need to get to know words well in the same way that people need to get to know partners well. we think that while it’s possible to be very interested in and even fall in love with the idea of a person at first sight, there would need to be a lot more exposure and experiences to truly feel comfortable with another person.  students also need more than a weekly definition and sentence to become comfortable enough with a word if we expect them to not only recognize its meaning when they read, but also to feel comfortable enough to use it when they read and write.

on choosing vocabulary:

  • we choose words that we use to build the values and culture of our classroom. these are the words that we use often when we speak about our expectations for work and how we treat others in our class and community. these have included words like grit, growth mindset, fixed mindset, dynamic, static, drastic, cursory, metacognitive.
  • we choose words that come from our interactive read alouds that help us to explore the themes or bigger ideas in a deeper way. we also choose words that we think our students will see again in other literature or reading. these are words that help our students to write about their reading in deeper and more meaningful ways. when we read fox by margaret wild, we might choose words like charred and scarcely. and when we read wonder by r.j. palacio, we might choose words like precept and ordinary.
  • we choose words that help our students explore the character and speak about the characters in their books in more precise ways. words like ignorant, curmudgeon, obstinate, tenacious, and condescending.

on introducing new words explicitly:

  • as a class we build a word card that includes the word in the center, two synonyms in the upper and lower right corners, and two antonyms in the upper and lower left corners. the words are color coded to represent a part of speech according to a key we display.  this word card is displayed on a chart of words we’ve met and are working to know well. this is a temporary stopping place for our words. once we’ve gotten to know them well (typically after a week of working with them), we add them to our word wall that goes around the upper perimeter of our classroom.
Photo 2014-04-01 12.48.40 PM

One of our vocabulary words

  • when we introduce a word, we ask students to brainstorm an action that represents the word and will help to make the meaning stick. some that our students have come up with are shaking their fists like a cranky old man while making some really grouchy faces for curmudgeon and waving their fingers under the open palm of their other hand to represent charred. students can be very creative with their representative actions and we find that adding this kinesthetic element really helps the meaning to stick.
  • our students also keep their own personal vocabulary notebooks where they make a page for each word that contains everything we have on our class word card as well as a sentence and picture for the word. the sentences and pictures are often authored by the students individually, but we have one that we show, too, for students who need that scaffold. they can take out this book to remind them of word meanings when we are doing activities that reinforce word meaning. (a tip: for our vocabulary notebooks, we have regular marble writer’s notebooks cut in half at staples.)

on reinforcing vocabulary meaning:

  • we make lanyards with different vocabulary words on each one. once we’ve introduced enough vocabulary words for our whole class, we wear our lanyards on fridays and we are the vocabulary word. for example, students greet each other by vocabulary word instead of name during our morning meeting and we take brief moments throughout the day to stand and greet a partner by introducing ourselves by our vocabulary name and stating the meaning.
  • we assign students a group and a word (or students can use the words they’re wearing). groups work together to create a skit that teaches the word. in fourth grade, we’ve found it helpful to model this and set some criteria for what’s expected( or the skit can grow a life of it’s own that isn’t really connected to the vocabulary word.) for example, we’ve used a video we’ve found online to demonstrate that when we’re creating a skit to teach classmates a vocabulary word, we use the word several times and maybe even display it along with actions to help our viewers to understand the word meaning in a deeper way. (tingoed is an awesome site for vocabulary, just be aware that you’ll need to preview the videos first, as they aren’t all made for an elementary audience!)
  • we review our growing word wall by chorally stating our words with meaning and related actions. we’ve also played charades with the words, and acted out the words in small groups or as a class. (both of these are great brain breaks since they get kids moving!)
  • we display a chart for students to post how they’ve used a word in their writing or speaking or when they’ve seen a word while reading. (students grab a post-it, write their sentence down on the post-it, and stick it to the chart.)
  • we celebrate when students use vocabulary words in writing and speaking by recognizing the work they’ve done.
  • we ask students to use our word wall as a resource with specific questions. for example, which word would better describe julian in wonder and what evidence from the text supports your thinking?:  ignorant or tenacious OR is there a word on our word wall that would describe dog in a more precise way than nice?

we’ve been inspired by ideas in word nerds by brenda overturf and leslie montgomery and also shana frazin’s ideas about how to sandwich vocabulary words with synonyms and antonyms. we’re often inspired by others and then mold ideas to fit the needs of our own students.

how do you help your students get to know important vocabulary?

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