Quick Tip Tuesday: Content Area Word Learning

March 24th, 2009

In his fifth-grade classroom, Max Brand has integrated word learning into his literacy workshop. In this week’s tip, excerpted from Max’s book, Word Savvy, he talks about how he helps students tackle content area vocabulary.

Content Area Word Learning

Content area learning is ripe with opportunities to develop vocabulary skills. Each content area has a unique vocabulary. The sophistication of the material and its content is embedded in this language. Helping students develop strategies for learning these vocabularies is more than a yearlong effort. I prioritize strategies and skills that intuition and experience have taught me students struggle with while learning content. I also limit myself to a few key goals connecting word and content learning. In my early weeks of planning for content area word learning, I focus on the following goals.

• Do students know when they do not know the meaning of a word or phrase?
• Do students know how to determine if a word or phrase is important for understanding the big ideas of a text?
• Do students have a strategy to figure out the meaning of an unknown word or phrase?
• Do students infer the meaning of unknown words?

I assist students in developing new strategies to tackle these issues as they read short texts during shared reading and eventually independent reading with coaching and guidance. Students need help as they use highlighters and pencils to identify unknown or important words and phrases.

I introduce vocabulary webs and other graphic aids as students develop tools that help them become strategic. These graphic aids help students synthesize what has been learned about syllables, root words, and affixes as they infer the meaning of new words.

Some short nonfiction texts I use are
Write Time for Kids
Time for Kids—Exploring Nonfiction
Time for Kids Magazine
National Geographic for Kids
Bug Faces by Darlyne Murawski
Birds Build Nests by Yvonne Winer
A Drop of Water by Walter Wick
Plant Families by Carol Lerner
Going on a Whale Watch by Bruce McMillan
The Usborne Library of Science—Animal World

Find your own books, and share them with your students. Think carefully about what you want your students to learn about vocabulary through each text. Short texts work wonders for teaching or revisiting developing strategies and skills.

When I sit down to plan, I know that these short texts that take fifteen to twenty minutes to read in June take what feels like forever at the beginning of the year. This “forever” talk is necessary to help students see highlighting, underlining, and using graphic organizers as tools, not tasks. Students learn to respond to their reading by writing. I use shared writing to demonstrate how the students can use the text, their highlighted sections, or graphic organizers to add new vocabulary to their writing, demonstrating a growing awareness of topic and vocabulary.

For example, my first science investigation involved trying to answer questions about food chains—exploring the idea of food webs and the concept that most animals’ food comes from plants. I read Swinburne’s The Woods Scientist to the class. This book describes understanding ecosystems by observation.

The vocabulary strategy I wanted students to develop was using context clues to determine the meaning of synonyms. This lesson fit in well with what we had been discussing because the students would have to determine what the synonyms are, use background information, and relate word meanings, similar to what we were doing during the word connections lessons in word study block. To help the students organize their thinking I used a semantic word web.

While reading, we came across some interesting information related to animal waste. The students enjoyed making a word web about it. The conversation that supports making this type of word web has to be focused on why. Why are we making this web of words? How will this grouping help a reader understand the unknown words feces, scat, and defecate, and the phrase “a bear memento”? What background knowledge is used? Over the course of the week, I read aloud from other books that explore similar ideas. We added words to this list and created other word webs.

Planning for word learning takes practice as I observe, analyze, and reflect about students’ writing and reading processes. There is no shortcut to developing this craft.

Entry Filed under: Content Areas,Exploring Words,Quick Tip Tuesday

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