Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Vocabulary Instruction that WORKS!

Is it just me, or does everyone's test scores come back with "Vocabulary" as one of the lowest categories?  It seems like every professional development meeting I attend starts out with some expert with his/her hands in the air wondering what we are going to do about vocabulary instruction. My school is no different.  We have been scratching our heads for several years trying to figure out an effective way of teaching vocabulary.  I think I stumbled across something many years ago that, dare I say it, WORKS for teaching students new words - and it STICKS!

These strategies came from a book called Bringing Words to Life.  These are definitely not new strategies for teaching vocabulary, but I'm here to tell you, as a teacher who has been looking and digging... this way of teaching works.  I've seen it with my own eyes across seven years of teaching.  It just works.  Let me explain how it looks in our classroom.

After I have planned what books I will be reading each week, I look in each one for a word of which most kids probably won't know a PRECISE definition.  They may know generally what it means, but can't really nail it down.  It must be a word - and this is important - that they are very likely to encounter AGAIN in books they are reading at grade-level.  In Bringing Words to Life, this type of word is called a Tier 2 word.  Tier 1 words are words that students will come to your class knowing.  They are words that they hear and see on a regular basis (happy, jump, rock, etc.).  Tier 3 words are usually "domain specific" and although students may see them at grade-level, they are used in very specific contexts (peninsula, isotope, etc.).  As you can see, teaching Tier 2 words gives teachers the most "bang for their buck."  Students are most likely to transfer learning and use the instruction in their every day reading.

It doesn't take long to find these words easily.  I can look through high quality picture books or a chapter and find Tier 2 words within minutes.  Sometimes the challenge is choosing which of the many to teach.  My goal is to teach one per day.  Don't be intimidated by having to choose the words. After one or two books, you'll be a pro!

Once I've chosen the word for the day, I put it through a sequence based on Bringing Words to Life. I keep these sequences/plans in page protectors and organize them by book title in a three-ring binder. Whenever I am reading a book, I can find my Tier 2 Vocabulary plan quickly and easily.  You can grab my Vocabulary Plan as a FREEBIE from my TpT store HERE.  These are the seven steps I use:

1. Say the word.
2. Read the word in context.
3. Students say the word.
4. Give a student-friendly definition. (Usually from kids.wordsmyth.net.)
5. Give examples of the word in real-world contexts.
6. Engage students.
7. Students say the word.

Step #6 is fun!  It's important to find quick ways for the students to engage with the word.  Here are some ideas:

1. Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down - Give students real-life situations and ask them if the word would fit in that situation.  If it would, give a thumbs up.  If it wouldn't give a thumbs down.  With a quick glance around the room, you can see who has a handle on the word and who doesn't.

2. Ask Questions - If you are bored, would you sigh or giggle?

3.  Give Reasons - Why would you sigh?

4.  Word Associations - What other words are like sigh?  Why are they alike?

5. Dramatization - What does a sigh sound like?

6.  Personal Connection - Have you ever sighed?  When and why?

There are lots of ideas to choose from.  The goal is just to get the kids thinking about the word in ways THEY understand.

After I've made my plan, I write the word and the student-friendly definition on an index card.  I also usually photocopy the cover of the book or a picture in the book related to the word and attach it to the index card to help the kids remember the word in context.  After I'm finished with the card, it goes in the page protector behind the lesson plan so I can find it again next year!

When I'm ready to teach the word, I complete my read-aloud and say, "As I was reading today, I noticed a great word that is worthy of being a Buzz Word!"  (My room is bee-themed, but you can call your vocabulary words by any catchy name.)  This is when the kids all start guessing.  I love that they are tuning into rich vocabulary, even while I'm reading.  I'll hear them whisper, "Oh, I bet THAT's going to be our Buzz Word today!"  I then read the word in context, and they all usually shout out the word.  I quickly go through the vocabulary sequence in my plan, then I staple the index card to our Buzz Words bulletin board.
Our Buzz Words wall.  You can see the stickies with the students' names on them by the words.
Here's the amazing part.  Near the bulletin board, I keep a tiny stickie note pad and some pens.  I tell students that if they EVER see the word in ANY book they are reading, they can write their name and the page number where they see the word on one of the stickie notes and stick them next to the index card.  No rewards, no pieces of candy, nothing.  I know you're not going to believe this, but they dive in.  Seriously, they will not leave you alone about seeing these words!  It's awesome.  And every conversation is just reinforcement after reinforcement.

When our wall gets full, I usually give a Buzz Words quiz.  Of course, I give the students a word bank because I'm only grading them on whether or not they understand what the word means - not how to spell it.  (Most words are way beyond their spelling abilities.)  This year, instead of quizzes, I'd like to assess students by documenting whether or not they USE the Buzz Words in their writing.  I'm brainstorming ways I can keep up with that and "reward" students - maybe bonus points or names on stars next to the word?  Not sure yet.  Do you have ideas for encouraging students to use vocabulary words in their writing.  Please share!  I'd love to hear from you!

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