I started reading Vocabularians and could not put it down! Readers are given a glimpse into middle-level classrooms where the best of collaborative, classroom-based research unfolds to reveal what can happen when teachers across disciplines work together to help students increase their word knowledge…this is a book that needs to be a part of every PLC.
Following up on her bestselling book, Word Nerds, veteran middle-level educator Brenda Overturf teams up again with teachers Leslie Montgomery and Margot Holmes Smith to share an integrated vocabulary program for grades 5-8 in their new book, Vocabularians.
You’ll get a seven-point plan for intentional vocabulary instruction that fits the schedules, developmental needs, and curriculum of the middle grades. You’ll see how to engage students in active learning experiences with words and help all students increase word knowledge.
After implementing this framework, you’ll see students using the words they learn in their own writing and speech, showing what they really know on assessments, and building the confidence needed to take risks with language. 19 engaging activities incorporate meaningful vocabulary practice, and the companion Study Guide (which you can download now) provides chapter summaries, discussion questions, and guidance for PD with a PLC or team of teachers.
Preview the entire book online and watch three short videos featuring Brenda Overturf, students, and teachers across the curriculum who have implemented Vocabularians in their school.
We continue our series on effective PD initiatives using Stenhouse books week with a visit to Washington State, where teachers working with the Center for Childhood Deafness and Hearing Loss are using Word Nerds to help their students become more proficient readers and writers.
Teaching Students the Language to Learn
As soon as Cathy Corrado finished reading Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary (Stenhouse, 2013), she knew it would be a great resource for teachers of the deaf and hard of hearing. Among other things, the book stresses the importance of using visual and physical cues for word practice and building students’ recognition of word relationships so they can confidently approach unfamiliar terms.
“It’s hard to say to a profoundly deaf kid, ‘What sounds do you hear?’ Everything has to be visual,” says Corrado, who provides literacy and academic support for teachers in Washington State through the Center for Childhood Deafness and Hearing Loss (CDHL). “Things like reading mastery are really hard for struggling deaf kids. It has to be in-your-face obvious. Deaf kids have a phonetic system; it’s just not the same as ours. In building fluency, we have to show them the pattern of the rhyme but not make it entirely sound based.”
Similar to many students who have learning disabilities, children who are deaf or hard of hearing often don’t know the “language” of reading, Corrado says. They don’t have the same reference points as hearing students and may lack what’s known in special education as executive functioning, which includes the ability to select appropriate strategies for solving problems.
“We know that executive functioning skills depend on language ability. If they want to work on executive functioning, they need to work on language. And if they want to work on language, they have to work on vocabulary. That’s why the book is so good.”
Corrado says special education coordinators and teachers of the deaf in Washington State are spread out among nine geographically distant educational service districts and rarely get the opportunity to meet in person to engage in professional learning. So she decided to set up an online book study of Word Nerds, using videoconferencing.
“People volunteered to read a chapter and then we reported back at the next meeting two months later,” Corrado says. “Some people did a list of what they learned. Some people did a spreadsheet. Everybody’s notes were different, what they learned from the chapters. It was a good way to get attention to the book. It really summarized everything in a nice way.”
One participant created a graphic organizer to share key points, using the headings Information That Affirmed Current Practices, Information That Gives Us New Ideas, and Information That Needs More Follow-Up. Another participant linked the main ideas in Chapter 4 to literacy strands addressed in the Common Core State Standards.
Julia Fritz, a teacher of the deaf at Cascade Middle School in Vancouver, Washington, says she was struck by the importance of the authors’ message that the Common Core expects students, beginning in first grade, to use sentence-level context as a clue to the meaning of a word or phrase.
“My thought was, ‘Teachers of the deaf know this is an ongoing need for deaf and hard-of-hearing kids, but now it is being forced on us to raise the bar even higher with more of those kids in the general education classrooms,’” Fritz says.
Vocabulary is probably the weakest area of literacy development for most deaf and hard-of-hearing students, Fritz says. They share many of the common learning gaps that cause children from high-poverty and language-deficient homes to struggle in school, because families of deaf students often cannot communicate fluently and directly in their children’s preferred mode of sign language. Fritz says she was glad that the Word Nerds authors shared successful strategies for addressing the needs of at-risk populations. The book’s emphasis on Tier Two words—high-frequency words students will likely encounter in their school reading yet probably don’t know well—was an important reminder to make language nuances clear to students and explicitly teach them word-attack strategies for subject-specific terms.
“I have a student right now, and I realized on his standardized test that he’s great at math and science, but he doesn’t have a lot of words for things,” Fritz says. She’s using Word Nerds to make sure she addresses his academic vocabulary when completing his Individual Education Plan.
Developing vocabulary knowledge can be especially challenging for students who use sign language, because one sign can represent multiple meanings and synonyms. For example, the same sign is used for discontented and its synonyms aggravated, dissatisfied, and disgusted. Likewise, some words may have multiple signs—there are at least eleven different ways to sign the word run.
“You have to have specially designed vocabulary, and it needs to be very intentional,” Fritz says. For multiple meanings of words, she uses graphic organizers to explain some of the variations so students will learn to look for context clues in reading to determine the precise use and signs for words.
Word Nerds includes examples of graphic organizers, such as the adapted Frayer Model and the Graphic Organizer for Crystal Ball Words , which the authors use with students to help them think through word choices when reading, writing, and speaking. The book also recommends giving students practice using cloze sentences to understand how context clues can uncover shades of meaning, as well as finding synonyms, antonyms, and analogies to further clarify the correct terms.
Fritz says she also took many notes on Chapter 7, which stresses the importance of teaching students about prefixes and suffixes and Greek and Latin roots to help them understand word relationships and decipher longer, unfamiliar words.
“I loved this idea,” she says. “I think it’s such a huge, missing gap. We’ve gotten rid of studying Greek and Latin parts as a requirement for schools.”
Spreading the Word About Vocabulary Instruction
At the time she set up the collaborative book study for her Washington State colleagues, Corrado says she did not know about the study guide that Word Nerds coauthors Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, and Margot Holmes Smith had prepared to help educators implement the strategies discussed in the book. She later alerted her colleagues to the resource. Corrado also plans to continue discussing Word Nerds through a listserv for state teachers of the deaf.
“We all share the listserv as a common place where we can go and throw a question out and people can respond to it,” she says. “Or if they need something, I might say, ‘Try this.’ What I will do this coming year is share information about great strategies for teaching vocabulary from the book. Then you start generating a conversation about the recommendations: ‘What did you think? How did it work?’”
Corrado and Fritz say they learned a great deal from the online book study and recommend the approach to others. They also have some suggestions for maximizing the results:
Insist on a collegial dialogue, not just sharing notes or summaries of books under review. “The ‘cheat sheets’ are nice,” Fritz says, “but you don’t know what they mean until you have the conversation. The conversation solidifies it and makes it alive for you.”
Make sure all participants can access notes and important charts and visuals from the books, particularly if they are meeting at remote locations. In Washington State, not all of the educators participating in the videoconference about Word Nerds had seen the book prior to the discussion. When conversation turned to some of the useful forms included in the book’s appendix, for example, not everyone understood the references. In hindsight, organizers wished they had thought to capture some of the images on screen to refer to during key points in the conversation.
Do a test run before the videoconference to ensure that school or school district technology departments can troubleshoot potential problems. “Make sure everyone knows how to call back in should they get disconnected during the conference,” Fritz says. “Make sure you know how to mute your microphone because of interruptions. Make sure you’re not in a room where direct sunlight is shining on the screen, because you won’t be able to see the people or documents.”
I’m celebrating the successes that we’ve had this spring in comprehension, vocabulary, and improving student motivation to read. I’ve just sent our spring crop of Literacy Lab participants out the door. (Literacy Lab is the tutoring service provided by teachers enrolled in reading diagnosis and intervention courses at my university.) This spring the majority of students we saw had significant comprehension difficulties despite good oral reading accuracy. Most also claimed that they did not like to read. I expect this pattern is a side-effect of our state’s assessment system, which emphasizes words correct per minute in the primary grades. We achieved solid success with most of these students by finding the right book, working on vocabulary that the students chose, and introducing some attractive technology.
As we face the Common Core State Standards, I am paying more attention to book selection. Many teachers are reporting that they are being directed away from children’s or young adult literature because it isn’t “complex” enough. My personal experience is that we need to begin with the students’ interests and build from there. The students who come to Literacy Lab reinforce this stance. One sixth grader, Stephen (a pseudonym), finished reading an entire novel for the first time in his school career. His teacher helped him become engaged with Gary Paulsen’s book Hatchet by appealing to Stephen’s personal interest in becoming a pilot. One high school junior, Peter, was wildly enthusiastic about an essay from The BestAmerican Nonrequired Reading collection about the effects of a police reality show and political forces that led to the death of a child. Peter had set a goal to begin working on his college-level reading skills and selected the essay himself from the table of contents. Our resistant ninth grader, Maxine, reread Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games—her English teacher was teaching the book to the entire class. Maxine was delighted to read the chapters again, in part because in the classroom she had trouble paying attention to the reading. Her class was reading most of the book aloud due to a shortage of books. Maxine, still in contact with her Literacy Lab teacher, has now finished the second Hunger Games book, Catching Fire. In each of these cases our Literacy Lab students discovered they could be readers and enjoy reading for their own personal interests and enjoyment. I believe a big part of this happened by focusing on self-directed comprehension strategies, working on vocabulary, and finding books that appealed to their interests.
Instruction for these students included vocabulary study using digital vocabulary resources. Thinking about Maxine’s reaction to Visual Thesaurusstill makes me smile. She loved the format and dove into researching what this dictionary had to say about words related to her passion, Justin Bieber. She was disappointed that they didn’t really define his name, but she learned quite a bit about many other words related to this musician. We did have to encourage her a bit to use the app as a tool while reading The Hunger Games. Maxine was quite firm in letting us know she had already studied the vocabulary during her English class at school. As we begin using the Reciprocal Teaching or prediction log strategies with her, she began to uncover the bits of the book that she had not understood as her class read it and completed assignments. I recognized many of these comprehension problems as being related to vocabulary knowledge. As she and her Literacy Lab teacher worked together, Maxine learned to own the parts that challenged her. When we first began working with her, Maxine systematically covered up anything that she didn’t understand. I think that, many times, she did not even really recognize these lapses. In her mind, as long as she could say a word, she had done her work as a reader. Combined with the reading strategies, this attention to vocabulary resulted in very satisfying gains in comprehension of other materials.
Another of our Literacy Lab students, Arnold, loved both Visual Thesaurus and Wordnik. He used both regularly as he read Jaguar by Roland Smith. Arnold’s primary need was spelling. By encouraging Arnold to find interesting words in Jaguar and look them up on the Visual Thesaurus or Wordnik sites, his teacher was able to create a positive response to word study. Arnold was reluctant about working on spelling; he much preferred reading fantasy books. By finding a realistic fiction book that engaged him, combined with the technology draw of Visual Thesaurus and Wordnik, the teacher was able to pull him into word study—including spelling development.
We saw similar improvements in engagement and comprehension with two seventh-grade girls whom I would classify as “hostile readers.” Both were failing most of their classes and did not participate in their reading class (often spending much of the class time looking around the room or at their fingernails). I often had to grind my teeth as the Literacy Lab teacher used Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard with one of the girls, Serena. (I take issue with the commercialism and emphasis on name-brand designer clothing and accessories in this series.) But it worked! Serena came to her tutoring sessions each week eager to open the book and start reading. Serena was a devoted follower of the television series and was amazed by how different the books were from the shows she had been watching. The other seventh grader enjoyed Dead Girls Don’t Write Letters by Gail Giles—a book that I enjoyed rereading as I responded to lesson plans. Both girls found that uncovering their own words for vocabulary study and the use of their Literacy Lab teacher’s cell phone dictionary helped them understand their reading and develop an interest in words (the Internet access at this site did not permit the use of mobile devices or computers). The vocabulary study combined with the use of student-directed comprehension strategies, such as prediction logs and comparison charts, paid great dividends in both comprehension and interest in reading.
Vocabulary study in our Literacy Lab always includes words that our students select from their reading. In some cases the words they choose are unfamiliar to them. Other students like to collect interesting words. This spring, in addition to using Visual Thesaurus and Wordnik, our students have also enjoyed Free Rice, Vocabulary.com, and the Moleskineapp for iPads. The iPads we were using came with this app preloaded. If I were setting up my own iPad I would use Evernoteinstead. Both of these apps can also be replaced with a simple word study notebook. However, our Literacy Lab students’ eyes light up when we offer these technologies instead of the composition notebooks we have used in the past.
We had great success with other digital vocabulary resources as well. Storybirdcontinues to be a favorite. Once we introduce this website to our students and their families, quite often they return to the next session having written a story or two. We are also beginning to experiment with Haiku Deck as a writing resource. Our literacy learners are motivated by the “eye candy” available on these sites and also are scaffolded in their writing by having some of the plot, setting, or character development eased so that they can focus on writing fluency—getting words and sentences out.
As you take some time off this summer and read a few good books, you might consider exploring some of these digital resources yourself. If you need reading ideas, you can follow my book blog at leesbooks.blogspot.com.
Check out last week’s blog post on a similar topic and then leave a comment this week to win a free Stenhouse book! This week’s winner is Dana. Receive 20% off on your order of any Stenhouse book by visiting the Stenhouse website or calling 800-988-9812.
In this week’s Blogstitute post the authors of Word Nerds (Leslie Montgomery, Brenda Overturf, and Margot Holmes Smith) expand their vision of vocabulary instruction and share why they think the entire school needs to be involved in vocabulary development. “Though we are excited about the success stories our colleagues have shared with us about their students’ improvements in reading, we think another payoff is the sense of community that schoolwide vocabulary has created within the entire school building.”
Sometimes a good idea spreads like wildfire. Other times, it smolders until it catches on. When we wrote Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary, we described instruction in our own classrooms. One of the things we learned when working on the book is that many students, especially those growing up in poverty and students learning English, benefit from a schoolwide focus on vocabulary instruction. Our school has made that transition—vocabulary instruction has extended to a schoolwide plan that includes kindergarten through grade five. However, whole-school vocabulary development didn’t happen overnight.
Our own initial venture into strategic vocabulary instruction began several years ago with a simple thought: “We have taught this content for the past several weeks. We don’t understand why our students continue to struggle on assessments. We know that they know it. What could possibly be holding them back?”
This question was something that we (Margot and Leslie) pondered as we reflected on our first year of teaching. After attending a workshop on vocabulary development, we suddenly realized that inadequate knowledge of academic vocabulary might be one reason our students were struggling. We immediately took the information and created a strategic vocabulary plan to fit our students and the way they learn. We hit the ground running that following school year by implementing our new vocabulary plan.
During our second year of teaching we were fortunate enough to be on the same team, which made implementing our vocabulary plan much easier. Throughout that year we were able to choose the words to teach, create materials together, and bounce ideas off of each other—a real team effort. Our literacy professor (Brenda) began to visit our classrooms and played an integral role in helping to improve our vocabulary instruction and practices. Not only did she help us develop new ideas based on research, but she also provided an outside perspective about what we were doing and helped us to reflect on our instruction and to know if the students are truly achieving. As the year progressed, we began to notice an increase not only in our students’ vocabulary knowledge but also in their comprehension and fluency. Our students’ reading levels began to improve tremendously, and they were also experiencing better success rates with their performance on school, local, and state assessments. As we reflected on our second year of teaching, we felt much more confident about the way that we had taught vocabulary and reading versus our first year. We definitely were aware that our work was still cut out for us, but the academic and personal gains that we saw for our students gave us the fuel we needed to continue with this plan.
As we entered our third school year, a few other teachers in our building were intrigued and began to join us on this vocabulary journey. Many of these teachers began to experience some of the same successes with their students that we had experienced. However, other teachers were not yet convinced. When we were asked by our principal to formally present our vocabulary plan to the rest of the faculty, we tried to help our colleagues see the benefits not only for the students but for themselves as well. For example, we shared how helping students learn to determine the meanings of unfamiliar words engages them in deeper discussions about texts, which in turn helps teachers increase their level of questioning in order to help students engage in these types of discussions.
As we continued to implement and refine our vocabulary plan and support other teachers, more of our colleagues began to adopt the plan and became excited about the possibilities. The idea of schoolwide vocabulary instruction began to glow! We were asked to help other teachers adapt strategic vocabulary instruction for their students, especially in the primary grades. The kindergarten teachers were apprehensive at first because our vocabulary plan was definitely much different than the way they had previously taught words, and it was hard for them to picture their students engaging in this type of instruction. Yet they were convinced when they saw how proud their students were when they learned new words. Kindergarten teachers now tell us they have just as much fun teaching vocabulary as the kids have learning new words! And a second-grade teacher recently admitted that she doesn’t really like change and then thanked us for being patient as we helped her implement strategic vocabulary instruction in her classroom. The success of her students has convinced her that this is the right path to take.
The idea of schoolwide vocabulary development has now really caught fire, and it has become an accepted practice at our school that students in every class will engage in active instruction to learn new words. Though we are excited about the success stories our colleagues have shared with us about their students’ improvements in reading, we think another payoff is the sense of community that schoolwide vocabulary has created within the entire school building. Students feel safe to use new words that they have learned in their conversations with peers, teachers, and other staff members. They also enjoy having a routine for learning new words and now know that they can expect to learn vocabulary in a similar way from grade to grade. Teachers have grown more confident in their abilities to teach vocabulary and have shared new ideas that they have tried in their classrooms. We truly believe that a schoolwide vocabulary plan has sparked stronger relationships among our school community, as well as increased word confidence at every grade.
Vocabulary opens the door to improved reading comprehension, writing, and content-area learning, especially for kids from high- poverty families. Students need vocabulary instruction every day to build lasting word knowledge. But how can you fit this into an already-packed literacy schedule? And how can you make it engaging and fun?
Classroom teachers Leslie Montgomery and Margot Holmes Smith teamed with veteran literacy educator Brenda Overturf to develop an innovative 5-part plan for vocabulary instruction, which they share in their new book, Word Nerds. Refined over two school years in real classrooms, their framework helps teachers improve student achievement while building confidence and enthusiasm about word learning. You’ll find:
– 10 essential ingredients for effective word study;
– routines and classroom structures that support vocabulary;
– how to introduce new words in both primary and intermediate classrooms;
– making the most of synonyms and antonyms;
– a collection of engaging activities for practicing and celebrating words;
– formative and summative assessments;
– connections to the Common Core State Standards throughout.
The appendixes include reproducible planners, organizers, and rubrics.
Word Nerds will be released early next month, and you can pre- order and preview the entire book online now!
Imagine reading a description of a teaching technique in a book and then watching a video demonstration—without having to turn the page. Or reading about an effective digital tool and then watching a tutorial where the author shows you how to use it. Or reading how an author used technology to enhance students’ speaking skills and then listening to the students’ presentations. That’s the concept behind the Read & Watch books: to bring together text, graphics, audio and video materials on a single page.
We are excited to launch this new line of books with three titles — all available now for a special introductory price of $18! Click on the links below to check out the books and view a sample chapter from each title.
In Reading Amplified: Digital Tools That Engage Students in Words, Books, and Ideas, you can look over author Lee Ann Spillane’s shoulder at her computer screen or into her classroom as she guides students to deeper reading and engagement with digital tools, ranging from the Google Book search concordance feature to comic strip software. Lee Ann seeks to take the “tedium out of routine tasks we need to teach.” Her instruction is infused with technology that energizes students, but her focus is always on deep learning that motivates them to become passionate and independent readers. “It’s about the teaching, not the tool,” she reminds us. “I do a lot of learning right beside my students.”
With a traditionalist’s respect for word knowledge and an adventurer’s spirit for discovering new routes to learning, Lee Ann Tysseling shares an exciting array of technology-assisted resources that can boost students’ literacy skills and encourage wide reading. In Word Travelers: Using Digital Tools to Explore Vocabulary and Develop Independent Learners, Lee Ann explores engaging resources such as animated semantic networks, instant etymologies, audio pronunciation guides, and word games that battle world hunger. Beyond vetting the best digital resources for vocabulary instruction and assessment, she provides embedded video tutorials and classroom interviews to help you and your students use the same tools tomorrow.
In Digitally Speaking: How to Improve Student Presentations, author Erik Palmer shows teachers how to turn almost any lesson into an opportunity for students to practice creating and performing a speech with the assistance of technology. All teachers at all grade levels and in all subject areas assign speaking activities — for example, read-alouds, book reports, class discussions, lab results, research presentations, and dialogues in a foreign language. Effective communication is an essential skill in modern society, and the Common Core State Standards place particular emphasis on teaching students to deliver messages well orally and through a range of media. Building on his previous book, Well Spoken, Palmer previews websites and Internet tools that are easy for students and teachers to use and offer a variety of possible classroom applications.
More questions about Read & Watch books? Watch this brief video that shows you their main features:
If you struggle with setting up your gradebook or feel like there should be an easier – and better – way of grading, then Rick Wormeli has some sound advice for you! Check out this, and other great videos with Rick on our website dedicated to his book Fair Isn’t Always Equal.
When reading nonfiction texts, many children are hindered in their understanding when they come across an unfamiliar word. To solve this problem and to equip students with the necessary strategies to decode unknown words, Tony Stead shows students how to look for clues in the text and how to use a book’s glossary for clues. In his book, Reality Checks: Teaching Reading Comprehension with Nonfiction K-5, Tony outlines many other practical approaches to help children become confident readers of nonfiction.
In Lisa’s classroom we realized that before providing demonstrations, we needed to initiate talk about what strategies the children themselves used when faced with challenging vocabulary. We achieved this by reading part of a text on whales. When we came to a challenging word, we stopped and talked about ways we could determine its meaning. The children came up with many suggestions, so we charted their responses.
Strategies to Use When You Don’t Know the Meaning of a Word
■ Look in a dictionary.
■ Ask a friend.
■ Ask the teacher.
■ Context clues
Read over. Stop and think.
Look for important words around it.
■ Look in the glossary.
■ Break the word apart.
Think about the meaning of each part.
Put it back together.
■ Use the picture.
It was not surprising that looking in a dictionary was their number one reply, yet the set of class dictionaries appeared to be gathering dust, indicating it had been some time since our learners had used them. It is also the number one response of most children in classrooms where I’ve worked, because they have been instructed so many times to rely on this strategy. Yet rarely do they employ it when faced with an unknown word. They find going through a dictionary laborious and tedious, and the reading becomes joyless. This is especially true when they encounter a barrage of unknown words in one piece and find themselves with the dictionary as their main source of reading rather than the selected text.
Many children haven’t even been instructed in how to properly use a dictionary and spend their time aimlessly flicking through pages, hoping the unknown word will magically appear. What is even more frustrating to learners is that if they happen to chance on the word, its meaning uses even more complex vocabulary than the word itself, leaving the children totally confused.
The children were aware of a multitude of good strategies that could assist them, but they rarely used them. Clearly they could talk the talk, but not walk the walk. We sorted the strategies into two categories: primary and secondary. For primary strategies, the reader uses methods within the body of the text to solve word meanings. Secondary strategies require the reader to go outside the body of the text, whether it be a glossary, a dictionary, or simply asking another person for assistance. We encouraged children to use primary strategies before secondary strategies. This way they were not always having to go outside the body of the text to find word meanings, which inevitably interrupts the reading and compromises comprehension. An example of the list below can be found in Appendix E.
What to Do if You Don’t Know the Meaning of a Word
Primary Strategies ■ Context clues
Read over. Stop and think.
Look for important words around it.
■ Break the word apart.
Think about the meaning of each part.
Put it back together.
■ Use the picture.
Secondary Strategies ■ Look in the glossary.
■ Look it up in a dictionary.
■ Ask a friend.
■ Ask the teacher.
Once the lists were completed, we modeled how they could be of assistance when students were faced with unknown vocabulary. We knew explicit modeling was needed, which is often the missing link in instruction. Too often we solicit talk from the children and they give us what we want to hear, yet they have not internalized how to use the strategy independently.
We brought the children to the meeting area, and Lisa and I took turns reading Chapter 1 of a text called The Voice for the Animals by Evelyn Brooks. We made sure all the children could see the text as we read it to them. We told the children that as the text was read, they should raise their hands if they heard a word whose meaning they didn’t know.
What Are the SPCAs?
“Throughout the United States, there are many local organizations that work to save the lives of abandoned and mistreated animals. Each organization is known as the Society for the Preventionof Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). The people who work at SPCAs rescue and care for these hurt creatures. At the SPCAs the animals are cleaned and fed. If the animals are healthy and well behaved, they are offered to people for adoption.”
When we read the word abandoned, several hands were raised, so we stopped reading and wrote the word on chart paper. We referred them to the first primary strategy—context clues—and asked whether there were any words or ideas around the word that gave them hints about its meaning. The children told us that mistreated and organizations that work to save gave them clues, so we recorded those on the chart next to the word abandoned. We asked them to discuss with the student next to them possible meanings of the word based on the key words around it and recorded their responses.
We then asked which words were most likely the true meaning. The children came up with the words hurt and left through the process of elimination. They agreed that smacked didn’t make sense because lots of people smack their dogs when they are naughty, and an organization that tried to stop this didn’t make sense. As Katie put it, “You’re not saving an animal’s life if you stop the owner from smacking it.” The words yelled at were also quickly eliminated for the same reason. This left hurt and left, which both made sense, so we then looked to other primary strategies: breaking the word apart and looking at the picture. These appeared to offer little support, so we suggested we leave our primary strategies and look to the first secondary strategy: the glossary. This was met with some resistance, as the children informed us that only words in bold such as prevention and adoption would be in the glossary. Therefore, in the children’s eyes this was a waste of time. When I showed them the glossary with the word abandoned, they were stunned. “But how can that be?” Jeremy asked. This was a good question, so we gave the children some time to think until Alex asked to look at the previous pages of the book. I showed the children the page before, which happened to be the introduction.
I had not read it to them, and there was the word abandoned in bold print. This was a valuable learning experience for our children, for they realized that you can’t assume a word won’t be in the glossary just because it isn’t highlighted on a specific page. They had also learned that when trying to locate the meaning of unknown vocabulary, you sometimes need to use more than one strategy. Harry summed it up perfectly when he said, “I feel like a detective looking for clues and some of these are hidden from me. You have to look carefully.”
Harry’s notion of being a word detective was one that appealed to the children, so we ensured that when reading texts that had complex vocabulary we always put on our detective hats and used our strategy chart to help solve the mystery. Sometimes Lisa and I would provide texts that contained vocabulary that could be solved only with the use of a dictionary. Other times we used texts with complex vocabulary that could be easily solved by simply breaking the word into parts, such as compound words. Our goal was to get our learners to start using these strategies naturally as they read independently so that their comprehension of informational texts was not lost. To achieve this goal we needed to provide ongoing demonstrations.
Vocabulary Square This is a paper and pencil activity that is the primary tool in my classroom teaching for working with vocabulary across grade levels and content areas. Developed by Jim Burke (2002), the vocabulary square is a graphic organizer that focuses student attention on a selected word, its roots, its synonyms/antonyms, and its role as a part of speech. Most important to my students’ work and understanding was the section of the square that asked them to draw a picture that represented their understanding of the word and its meaning.
Why is that picture such a big deal? Oftentimes, my students were masters at copying definitions and terms from the dictionary. However, in asking them to create a visual representation of their understanding of the meaning of the term, I was asking students to go beyond “putting the definition in your own words.” Instead, I was requiring that they show me the definition through their own eyes.
Some of my students are with me right from the start. They want to convey what they see—and they get right to it. For others, there is a great deal of initial “moaning” about having to draw in an English class. We get past it quickly enough once students begin to see the entrance that these pictures provide. As Thomas, an on-level eighth grader, explained, “for one of the fi rst times, I’m actually saying something about what I know, and I don’t have to worry about if the words are right. The words, for me, come after the picture. So, I can see what I know, and then write about it.”
The vocabulary square is a quick, compact, and tight glimpse into what a student knows about a word—providing me as teacher with a speedy view into what they understand and, perhaps more importantly, what they don’t. If I’ve asked them to define “resilience” and am met with a picture of broken glass, I know that there is a problem. More likely than not, the students’ images invite rich classroom discussion about vocabulary—a kind of unprompted dialogue that we never had prior to the use of this tool. Most of my middle and high school English students didn’t regularly discuss the differences between the denotation and the connotation of a word’s meaning. With these images, it happens readily.
Vocabulary Word Wall (or, The Notebook Made Public)
Once my students became accustomed to depicting their understanding of a word’s meaning by drawing it in the vocabulary square, I decided to shake things up a bit. Some students were talented illustrators, but the bulk of my kids usually needed to provide me with some description of what their images were supposed to be. Further, I still had some students who were struggling to convey what they knew graphically or visually. I needed a different tool.
For this task, digital cameras were placed into the hands of students and taken outside of our classroom space. After scrounging what resources I could get my hands on, I ended up with a ratio of about one camera to four or five kids. The challenge was for students to take photos representing the key vocabulary terms studied or, perhaps more importantly, those vocabulary words which students identified as they read. The process (and strength) of the activity was explained by Nada, a fifth grader, offering that “taking pictures lets me understand the defi nition on my own terms. I picture the word, create the picture, and then start to know the word.”
Yes, the camera alone provided motivation. But it wasn’t the camera itself as much as it was the process of composing with images. Here, I wasn’t just teaching about how writers use words (symbols) to convey their ideas. I was also teaching about how illustrators and photographers create texts and make those texts work. Alongside our discussions of vocabulary were new discussions of how words and images could promote or silence particular views. Students found images to be “everyday,” thus making literacy more tangible and valuable to them. For example, Julia, an eighth grader in Ms. Powell’s class, worked to represent “cumulative,” “intermittent,” and “voice”
Students were asked to print several of the images that they collected, using varying sizes of paper to post their work on the rear wall of the classroom. We labeled the posters not with students’ names, but with the words defined. The most surprising element of the assignment for me as a teacher wasn’t the way that students (even reluctant ones like Adam) took up a camera and actively, mindfully pursued the “right” image. It wasn’t the rise in participation and completion of the assignment. It was the “clumps” of students that I found around the back wall three weeks after the first round of the assignment. Students were still talking about the ways the images communicated intended meaning or the ways in which “the picture fit the word.”
This wasn’t a “one-shot” activity. Instead, it was a task that we repeated as students encountered new reading assignments or we explored new words that they found in independent reading. That said, the more regularly we were acquiring images, the more regularly it became necessary for students to “check out” the cameras as opposed to taking class time for image collection—and we made several “tweaks” along those lines. What stayed constant was the root of the assignment—visually represent the words that you’re looking to define.
Beginning with honors-level ninth-grade classes, I also used an extension or reinvention of the activity, challenging students to record literacy events as they experienced them outside of the classroom. In Changing Our Minds: Negotiating English and Literacy, Myers explains that speech events are an essential part of situated knowledge, offering students opportunities not only to study language in action but also to examine differences between presentational and conversational modes of communication (1996, p. 143). Extensive discussion in class explores how students use images to capture oral texts and “bring meaning into being” (Kress 2003, p. 70). Building on their visual and verbal literacy skills, my students paired their images with fairly sophisticated written reflections, explaining the event, what meaning it represented, and how it enriched, complicated, or challenged their understanding of literacy. Here, literacy wasn’t just limited to the ways in which students engaged with print texts, but instead reached out to include exchanges outside of and beyond the classroom.
Image Flashcards/Visual Word Collection
This is the individualized recasting of the word wall assignment. Here, students use notecards or 4×6 pieces of paper to print out images that they’ve acquired to represent the definition of a particular word. It’s more difficult to manage in that there is never enough technology for each student to have access to a camera at all times—which does result in the occasional student entering the classroom and lamenting that he or she “missed a key shot” the night before. To keep it equitable, I maintain a sign-up sheet, and keep a close eye on which students are dominating that list. Further, with the price-point of cameras bulleting downwards, we’re finding that this is the one classroom tool that is in greater supply. Many kids have access at home, and simply bring their saved images on disk, CD, saved to the network, and so on. The key remains the same. Students are using the camera to “read their world” while reading the texts we explore as a part of our class.
The image serves as a bridge into doing more than just recalling the definition(s) of the word; it provides students with an opportunity to defi ne, connect, and integrate the word into what is already known. We’ve done many different things with the reverse (or blank) side of the card. There is the traditional approach—write the definition (in your own words) along with the part of speech and an example sentence. There is the connect-to-text approach where I ask students to identify and record the use of this word in the texts that we read. Often, I ask students to ask questions that they have about the word, it’s use, it’s connotation, and so on. This challenges students to confront potentially “problematic” words head-on. Simply put, the value that is added here is that students are using visual images along with a reading/writing space that is portable. These cards are one part study tool, one part reading artifact, and one part “mini-step” into the literacy community within our classroom.
Because I want to be a responsive teacher, responding to my students’ grammatical and mechanical needs as they arise, I have to strike a balance between what students may need at any given time and the overall blueprint of what my kids should know and be able to do when they walk out of my class at the end of the year. The editor’s checklist is an essential tool for meeting this goal in my classroom. This one tool can serve as a blueprint for the year, a placeholder, a record of your grammar and mechanics teaching.
I don’t mean the editor’s checklist found at the teacher supply store, or the lengthy list that comes with textbooks, or even the individual list that your students don’t keep in their writing folders. I bow down to worship any teacher who can get all of his or her students to keep their own personalized lists of idiosyncratic errors, but I could only keep up with these individualized checklists with my 150 students for about three weeks into the semester. I stress the word I because if I did not sit with individual students and tell them what they needed to work on, the lists were never made or added to or even referred to. It’s just like when I corrected errors on their papers. I would hope that if I sit next to them, working one-on-one, they would learn new writing skills by my modeling.
Researchers tell us to teach skills in context. They tell us to conference for one-on-one instruction, but I had thirty other students who were clamoring for me to assist them as well. I wonder, do math teachers teach most skills one-on-one? These attempts at teaching mechanics didn’t work because I never got to every kid. And I just deepened their dependence on some “other” authority instead of scaffolding them to tackle and reason with grammar and mechanics on their own.
Finally, I began keeping an organic editor’s checklist: a system that grows from student writing and what research says kids have to know. In my class, we constantly move back and forth between the editor’s checklist and writer’s notebook.
On the first day of school, I hang a long piece of white butcher paper on the wall, in a spot everyone can see. If kids ask about it, I tell them this sheet is going to help them grow up and be ready for high school. If no one says anything, I say, “So when are y’all going to leave me alone about the white butcher paper?” I get puzzled looks. I love to puzzle my kids. I tell them their brains are growing. On the second day, before school, I write across the top in big green letters Editor’s Checklist.
“I think you are now ready for me to share with you,” I say, pointing at the butcher paper, “the editor’s checklist.”
Audible groan. Just the word editing sends shivers down students’ spines. Who can blame them? Especially when they are assuming it is probably just one more way to make writing like filling out a worksheet. Their adolescent brains downshift: One more way to be wrong; one more rule that doesn’t make sense and doesn’t apply to me; one more thing I couldn’t care less about; one more thing to check off, be done with, so I can sit, talk, and write notes. When I have given my students a photocopied checklist in the past, that is, in fact, what they have done. They have checked off each box, one at a time. Checklists mostly get us checks, not editing, but this organic editor’s checklist is different.
“Have you ever seen an editor’s checklist?” Most students say no, even though they probably have seen one in one form or another. “This chart is going to help us learn many of the important things to be adult writers. Writers’ secrets, if you will.” A good percentage of my middle school students want to be adults, so I shamelessly use this desire to manipulate them into caring about mechanics. “You’re not a child anymore,” I say, “but you’re not an adult either. You’re in between. One of the ways we make our writing more adult is to use punctuation marks correctly.” I get a few smirks, but I have everyone’s attention. “Have you ever thought about why we have punctuation? Or better yet, why we have laws and rules everywhere we go?”
“So we won’t get in trouble,” offers Stephanie.
“Tell me more, Stephanie.”
“Well, it’s like we can’t go through stop signs because there would be a crash.”
“What other rules keep you safe?”
Albert’s hand shoots up. “The pool over at San Pedro Park; there are these signs that say ‘No Running.’”
“At Pecan Grove Apartments it says the same thing,” adds Ramiro.
“Can anyone think of a pool where they want you to run?” I ask.
Silence envelops the room as they search their brains.
“I guess that rule is pretty standard.” We talk about the conventions of eating at the table, restaurants, driving. After we have exhausted all the possible places where rules serve us, I ask, “Whom do you think invented conventions or rules for writing?”
“Teachers?” wonders Jeremy.
“Maybe there was this mean English teacher a long time ago who had a red pen for a hand,” I say, holding my right arm stiff in front of me, thrashing it around in crossing-out motions. “And she just started marking up papers for fun, slashing them to bits.”
“Whatever!” Sara says.
“No, it wasn’t a mean old teacher with a red-pen hand. It was the writers. They wanted to be understood. Don’t you want to be understood too? Grammar and mechanics are conventions. The word convention meant agreement in its original Latin form. You told me we had agreements or rules about eating, being at a pool, and so on. You said they told us how to act. Well, writers wanted people to understand what they said, even when they weren’t around. They wanted people to understand their words so they started agreeing on things: A period means stop this thought; a capital letter signals that a new sentence is beginning or that a word is a name.” This discussion begins building the concept. Referring to the editor’s checklist, I explain how we will learn more about how to follow the rules and how following conventions of mechanics and grammar makes our writing easier to understand. And what middle school students want is to be understood—finally.
“Are you tired of nobody hearing you? Writing gives you that power, and part of writing’s power is in its passion, its details, but all of that is lost if the grammar and mechanics can’t hold the message together.”
Soon after, I read Punctuation Takes a Vacation. This whimsical picture book by Robin Pulver (2003) describes the plight of a class whose punctuation gets so sick and tired of being erased, left out, and moved around that all the punctuation marks rebel and go on vacation. The story and illustrations describe how much punctuation is missed. The book is one more way to stress the value of punctuation as a tool writers harness to communicate. In truth, the editor’s checklist may only be semiorganic. While it grows from the hubris of student writing, it also incorporates my state standards along with Connors and Lunsford’s top twenty errors, listed in Chapter 1.
After I teach grammar and mechanics concepts through snippets of text or writers’ secrets, students help me list each rule on the editor’s checklist (see Figure 3.7). If appropriate, we add an annotation that reminds them of how to apply the rule and its purpose. It may be more appropriate to refer to another list posted in the room or to start a different wall chart. Figure 3.8 offers advice about which rules could go on the editor’s checklist and which could be posted separately. I find that posting capitalization rules and sentence patterns by themselves has several advantages. Separate lists serve as categorical organization for the high-priority rules and ensure that there is room left on the editor’s checklist for other important rules.