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Meaningful Vocabulary Instruction

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The past few weeks I’ve been doing some reflection on vocabulary instruction. Our language arts curriculum is up for review this year, and it’s led us to have some fantastic conversations about best practice, resources, and instructional methods. I love these nerdy conversations because they’re right up my alley, and they give me an excuse to geek out over some research articles.

This year, my students and I have had the opportunity to participate in a nationwide analogies competition called WordMasters. Three times a year we compete on a 20 question analogy test that is centered on a growing list of words. Students must not only know the word itself, but must understand word relationships and other forms of the words. It’s been a fantastic experience, and it’s allowed me to really dig in to how I teach vocabulary in my classroom.

I’ve heard some arguments against using lists to teach vocabulary, and y’all, I hear you. I’m not discounting that research by any means. Though I do have another view on the matter of vocabulary instruction as a whole.

First of all, if the only way vocabulary is talked about in a classroom is in reference to the 20 words on a list, it’s not gonna cut it. Teaching a list of new words each week in isolation is not vocabulary instruction. Handing a worksheet out that has some shiny, new, colorful words on it for students to dutifully memorize and regurgitate later will absolutely not suffice. Moreover, it is not at all effective and will only serve to kill the joy students should have when learning something new and exciting. Much like grammar instruction, vocabulary cannot be taught as a separate topic that is divorced from literacy. It must be embedded within our development of young people as readers, writers, speakers, and listeners.

On that note: STOP. WITH. THE. PACKETS. You, the professional educator, and your passion, are far more valuable than 7 pieces of paper hole-punched and neatly stapled together. It is your flair, your voice, and your instruction that will aid your students in developing a killer understanding of the words they experience. It is your magnificence and style that will bring those words to life and arm your kids with strategies to decode words they do not know. Not a freakin’ packet that took you an hour and half to copy.

Research tells us that best practice vocabulary instruction embodies both direct and indirect methods. Direct instruction is that which includes the teaching of decoding strategies, roots and affixes, as well as how to use context to decipher the probable meanings of a word. It can also include direct teaching of the new words themselves. Indirect instruction refers to ways in which we expand students’ vocabulary knowledge through activities such as reading aloud, carefully using and explaining words that may be unknown, and allowing students time to read independently. Each of these is important to vocabulary development and must play a role in our classes for our instruction to be effective.

In my classroom, we do use the vocabulary lists from WordMasters. But rather than spending time robotically copying and memorizing the definitions, we use the list as a tool to kickstart our greater understanding of new and exciting words. We begin by developing an understanding of analogies and word relationships, usually through direct instruction. My mathematicians love these lessons because they decipher the patterns and the “formulas” they can use to solve a given analogy. Analogies can be like puzzles, and when students build their knowledge of them, we then create analogies for one another using words of our choice. This development increases their overall acumen within word study, advancing their skills moving forward.

We also use our list as a tool to study root words and affixes. The roots are taught directly, as are the affixes, and students typically find that their prior knowledge serves them well. Many of them have experienced these enough times to have a general understanding, and our direct instruction serves as a kind of “putting the face with the name”. As we move into more complex uses for this skill, we begin discussing how the words on our list could change in form yet retain their core meaning. For example, if our word is maniac, we also discuss the words maniacal and mania, often broaching into new territory and finding synonyms as well. I’ve found that this deeper level of analytical thinking helps students determine the meanings of more complex words on their own, and allows them to take their already wide vocabularies and expand them even further.

Another aspect of effective vocabulary instruction is referred to as word consciousness, or the awareness, interest, and enjoyment of new words. This is probably my favorite application of our vocabulary list because my kids get really into it and often have fantastic stories (and dare I say memories) of learning their words. With each new list, we hold a competition to find our words “in the wild”. Each time a student finds one of their new words in a book, on television, on the internet, or any time it is said by another teacher, parent, friend, etc. they document it and bring it in to keep track. Students track their individual progress, and it is absolutely hilarious to see them engaged with such intensity. I’ve had notes sent from other teachers providing “proof” that they did in fact say swagger, videos of parents reenacting the moment when they said flippant, clips of tv shows where a character describes a stench, and students running into my classroom at lunch because someone at the lunch table said oblivious. On top of that, my students take notice of these new words (in all their forms) while they are reading self-selected materials. It’s an incredible display of word consciousness, live and in color.

An actual note from another teacher in the building.

In order to deepen our familiarity with these words and our proficiency at using them, we do engage in a variety of tasks with them. I make a point to use them as frequently as possible during class so their indirect exposure to them is wide-ranging. When we get more explicit, I provide a selection of activity choices for my students (If you know me or read much of what I write about, you know how much I value student autonomy). This year, we’ve been using these ones. They include opportunities for my more creative students to use their writing prowess or artistic drawing skills, or my more straightforward kiddos to create a sequential game that is similar to Taboo, and even my musically inclined folks who would prefer to curate a playlist that embodies the essence of each word. I like to think there’s a little something for everyone, but I also open it up to new suggestions, and have added activities that were brought to fruition by my students themselves, which tells me that this instruction is transcending what I even intended.

Above all of these pieces, however, is the necessity of teachers to understand that vocabulary development is a very individualized process. When taught effectively, students will expand their knowledge of new words, increase their word consciousness, and develop a toolbox of strategies to figure out the meanings of words they don’t know. But it’s essential to remember that this progression will vary from student to student. Some may catch on more quickly and develop these skills with ease, while some may take their time and increase their understanding little by little. Either way, the point of vocabulary instruction is to foster growth and appreciation for the beauty of words, regardless of how long it takes.

It’s for this reason that with vocabulary, I grade absolutely nothing.

Our nationwide meet is just that—a competition. I do not put their scores in my gradebook or write a proficiency mark on the page at all. In fact, I focus very little on this piece. If they are intrinsically motivated to compete (which many middle schoolers are), they aspire to do well. If they’ve spent time learning about word relationships, listening in class, and cultivating a deeper understanding of words in general, they will be successful on the test. I do not reduce their learning to a 20 point assignment grade because it is certainly more than just that.

Students also learn about studying in a way that works for them. I don’t require notecards or special notebooks full of definitions, counted as a late assignment when not turned in. They may experiment with a few methods I suggest, but in the end choose the one that works for them, whatever it might be. We also don’t place any focus or importance on rote memorization. I don’t remind them to go over their words each night and review the definitions, I never once tell them to quiz each other on the meanings. I never shut down a student who might be doing this for fun (because there are some who have created a Memory style game where this is involved), but it is definitely not the focus of our learning here.

As for the individual words “in the wild”, I don’t count it for extra credit (what’s that?) or as a completion grade (aka I’m here for the points) either. Instead, the student who finds the most words gets to have lunch and a movie with myself and any of his or her friends. Thankfully, my students are only in 6th grade and still think hanging out with me is cool. Once they figure it out, I’ll have to find a new incentive.

Basically, I don’t grade because we’re learning vocabulary for the sake of learning vocabulary, not to earn points and get an A.

Meaningful vocabulary instruction is an imperative part of the literacy classroom, and I’m glad to have deepened my own understanding of it this year. It’s been a weaker area of my practice in the past, but I’ve felt a renewed sense of appreciation and confidence through my journey this year. My students have truly taken off with it, and I’ve seen every single one of them grow. As a language arts teacher, one major aspect of vocabulary instruction has become abundantly clear: it’s all in the approach. When we adhere to memorization of a list and automated response, the results we want will not come. We can be given all the books, lists, and tools that exist, yet if they aren’t used effectively, they will not have the desired effect. But, when we find ways to make vocabulary development rich, authentic, and enjoyable, we cultivate a love for language in our students. And in my opinion, that’s got to be our ultimate goal.

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