By Brenda Overturf
How powerful can one word be?
Jacob, a seventh grader, sits staring at a challenging text he has tried to read. He knows the other words in the paragraph but is stuck on a multisyllabic word he has never seen before. Jacob sounds out the word, but because he has also never heard it, it still doesn’t make sense.
Finally, he just gives up and moves on. Yet the one word Jacob doesn’t know holds the key to comprehending the entire passage. Sound familiar? Kids like Jacob occupy many middle level classrooms, and they are not necessarily struggling readers.
Read Brenda’s full article on MiddleWeb
October 6th, 2015
Here it is — the last day and the last post for our 2015 Summer Blogstitute. It comes from Brenda Overturf, coauthor of the new book Vocabularians along with Leslie Montgomery and Margot Holmes Smith. She outlines how to nurture learners who acquire and use new words with confidence. She believes that when students actively engage in learning vocabulary in creative ways, they enjoy their experience with words and remember them.
Active and Creative Vocabulary Practice in Grades 5–8
By Brenda Overturf
For the last few weeks, I have been taking an acrylic painting class. Although I loved art when I was in school, I have not attempted this type of work in many, many years. So I was a bit startled when the teacher, a career artist with a master’s degree in fine arts, left us with this homework close to the beginning of the course: “Get your supplies and begin painting!”
At home, I laid out paint, brushes, and the other things I had purchased from the list. Then I eyed the blank canvas. Where to begin? Of course, like any modern person, I flipped open my laptop for some helpful tutorials. But I was quickly confronted with a number of unfamiliar terms. Linear and aerial perspective. Positive and negative space. Blocking. Tinting. Shading. I vaguely remembered my teacher saying some of these words, but I certainly did not know enough to approach the canvas with confidence. It is only now, with my last class coming up, that I can read the same websites and not only better understand the terms but also envision myself engaging in what they mean. I’m the same learner, but now I have tried creating linear and aerial perspective and positive and negative spaces. I have blocked, tinted, and shaded. I am more confident and can use these words with ease. The only difference in my knowledge is that I know some words that are important for understanding and now have a bit of experience to connect the meaning.
Teaching Vocabulary in the Middle Grades
Vocabulary learners need rich experiences with words and their related networks (synonyms, antonyms, homophones, etc.) in order to develop word schema and truly make new words their own. Dutifully looking up words in a dictionary and copying the definitions doesn’t count (in fact, it may even hurt). All students need to learn individual words and word-learning strategies, and to develop word consciousness, within a literacy-rich environment.
Research tells us that we need to experience a word seven to twelve times to truly remember it, so vocabulary learners also need multiple exposures to words over time. The structure of most elementary classrooms enables teachers to provide experiences with targeted words throughout the day. However, this is not so easy to do at the middle level. With compartmentalized classes and specialized disciplines, teachers must have an intentional plan to provide vocabulary instruction that helps kids learn.
In Vocabularians, I describe a process for teachers of middle grades students to plan vocabulary instruction together within a school, team, or professional learning community:
- Carefully select a small number of words important to understanding upcoming lessons in different classes and that students will see in text. These words will be designated for deep study for each two-week vocabulary cycle.
- Introduce each selected vocabulary word in context. Encourage students to infer the meaning of the word and engage them in discussion that allows them to explore the context in which the word is introduced. Reinforce these words across the team or grade level.
- Invite students to create a “vocabulary exploration” of each word selected for deep study. Add the vocabulary exploration to a journal or section of a binder to be used as a reference.
- Flood each classroom with other words important to content or that students discover in reading.
- Teach morphological awareness as multisyllabic words are introduced for deep study or as they are encountered in text.
- Provide opportunities for active, engaging vocabulary practice that include movement, discussion, art, drama, music, writing, technology or media, and test-taking skills.
- Assess vocabulary in ways in which students will be tested. Include words that students have studied previously so there is a cumulative effect. Provide ways for students to self-assess and monitor their own progress in vocabulary development.
Students need “thick” vocabulary experiences—where they really wrestle with words—to help them develop deep knowledge. Step number six of this plan emphasizes active and creative practice as part of learning vocabulary. It is no secret that students are more motivated and learn at higher levels when they are doing something they find interesting. The Association for Middle Level Education agrees. This organization has outlined five characteristics of appropriate curriculum, instruction, and assessment for early adolescents, one of which is that students learn best when they engage in active learning. Physical activity and projects using the arts can be highly motivating to young adolescents who need to move frequently and enjoy social interaction. Active learning can also help meet the needs of students who learn best through multisensory instruction to develop visual, auditory, and kinesthetic-tactile pathways to language learning.
Active vocabulary practice can also help students meet standards. For example, the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts include a number of references to determining the meanings of unfamiliar words and phrases. They can be found in the standards for reading in literature, informational text, history/social studies, and science and technical subjects. They can also be found in standards for writing and are implied in speaking and listening, but the emphasis on vocabulary learning is in the language standards. When a science teacher calls out “Prove it!” and challenges his seventh-grade students to find evidence about a word’s meaning from the context of the science passage or from the meanings of the affixes and roots, students are hard at work on reading in science and technical subjects standard four, language standards four and six, and speaking and listening standards. To the students, it is first a game to find the clues.
One of the active practice strategies that students enjoyed in Vocabularians is called Illustrated Vocabulary. In this strategy, students write one of their words for deep study on a sheet of paper. We ask them to write it neatly and make it dark, using block letters. Then we ask them to create an illustration using the letters as the foundation of the drawing, adding details to establish the definition.
When I first showed middle grades teachers the kind of thinking that elementary students had produced with this activity, they were impressed. For example, David illustrated the word nomadic, a word from a social studies lesson. He turned the lowercase “n” into a Native American boy. The “o” became a basket. The “m,” which he drew larger than the others, became mountains with arrows that indicated movement over them. The “a” became a buffalo, the “d” was transformed into a teepee, the “i” was a tree, and he made the “c” into another Native American. As he explained to me, “Some Native Americans were nomadic. They had to cross mountains to go to another village to find food.” Does David understand the word nomadic enough to use it in his speech and writing? Will he remember it the next time he sees it in text? It is obvious to me that this word belongs to David forever.
Middle grades teachers who tried this strategy for themselves were pretty impressed by its complexity. When their students tried it, teachers were even more impressed. It is a deep-thinking activity, causing students to plumb depths of knowledge as they creatively explore the meaning of a word. Math terms became fire engines, ladders, and bouncing balls. Social studies vocabulary transformed into ancient Roman ruins. Words from Shakespeare turned into a fight between feuding families. All kids, including English language learners and underachieving students, could participate enthusiastically.
Create a Community of Vocabulary Learners
Mark Twain once said, “A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way.” Providing opportunities for active, engaging vocabulary practice that includes movement, discussion, art, drama, music, writing, technology, or media can help students experience carrying that metaphorical cat. We want students in grades 5–8 to become vocabularians who can acquire and use new words with confidence. When students actively engage in learning vocabulary in creative ways, they enjoy their experience with words and remember them.
July 22nd, 2015
We have the amazing Janet Allen on the blog today, with an inspiring post about the power of words and how to make vocabulary instruction a part of everything you do in your classroom! Janet’s latest book is Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary. We have one more week left in our Blogstitute and we’ll hear from Mark Overmeyer and Brenda Overturf! I hope you will join us again and follow us on Twitter using #blogstitute15!
Words Still Matter
I was working with literacy coaches last week when one of them sighed and said, “What a year.” It was quiet for a moment, and I could literally see others stopping to personalize her words to the school year they had just experienced. Three simple words had given us pause not because of the complexity of the words but because, for each of us, those words called up hundreds of other words and images. And, while I hadn’t been in my own classroom for many years, I certainly had many experiences that reminded me just how much words matter.
When I left my classroom in Maine in the early 1990s, I filled my van with boxes that contained my students’ words, my teaching journals that were filled with my reflections and resolutions, and my favorite books. Other, less-significant items were left in the hands of movers. Today I’m in the messy process of moving again. This will be my fourth home since moving to Florida and today, as with all other moves, I packed my books, my journals, and my students’ words. I think it is because I know the power of words that I have spent so much time writing about vocabulary instruction. Unfortunately for my students, it took me a long time to find effective strategies to help them become inquisitive word learners and powerful word users.
As with many of you, for me summer was always a time for teaching resolutions. Or, it was once I hungrily read one book after another—books I wanted to read and not ones I had to read. One of the most common summer resolutions for me was to figure out a way to teach vocabulary more effectively. A teacher from Ohio once shared with me a fourth grader’s words from a self-assessment of his handwriting. He wrote: “I don’t think my handwriting has improved because I have been doing it ‘half fast.’” On reflection each summer, I felt as though my teaching of vocabulary the previous year could have been described in the same way. In spite of my resolutions, each year I fell into the trap of seeing vocabulary as something we did but not part of everything we did. I now know that teaching vocabulary has to be a part of everything we do.
When I decided to write Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary, I had already written two books focused on vocabulary: Words, Words, Words and Inside Words. In each of those books, I focused on an array of teaching strategies and graphic organizers to support students in learning a variety of words across all content areas. In writing Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary, I set out to clarify that word-learning depends on a variety of factors—purpose for knowing the word, how it differs from similar words, and how and when to use the word. I believe the instructional tools we use depend on how deeply we want students to know a word. I used Graves’s (2006) research and organized the tools based on four components of a comprehensive vocabulary program as a reminder that a focus on words that lead to academic success needs to be addressed in all activities and in all classes. In fact, a district where I worked required that teachers use this tool to ensure they were focused on words from informal conversation and reading to direct instruction.
I don’t want to keep you from that summer reading for too long, so let me just highlight something about each of the four components.
Rich and Varied Language Experiences
Rich language experiences mean that students will have opportunities to encounter interesting words each day. These encounters should be so varied that the words draw them into learning many more words than you may have intended. As I was writing this, I received an e-mail from Joy Hakim (author of A History of US and The Story of Science) sharing her new e-book, Reading Science Stories. I was immediately so engrossed in reading these narrative nonfiction pieces that I had a hard time stopping to continue writing (and unpacking). I laughed out loud at her engaging use of language:
Most priests and teachers and ordinary people have a hard time dealing with the astonishing idea that the universe does not revolve around us. Copernicus’s discovery leads to another idea that many find hard to accept (and a few find exciting): if Earth is not the center of the universe maybe the universe was not made just for us. (2015, 123–124)
While you may know someone who still doesn’t understand this concept, there is no doubt in my mind that readers will learn a great deal of academic, domain-specific words when they are embedded in a text with such rich language.
Teaching Individual Words
Teaching individual words is where you would be very likely to use a graphic organizer, concept map, or academic vocabulary cards. These words are typically related to the content or text students will encounter; they are so important, they deserve the extra time and attention. I receive lots of e-mails with humorous accounts of students attempting to write sentences with words they have looked up. Often the dilemma is that they didn’t know the target word and they also didn’t know the words used to define the target word.
In this section of the flipchart, I focused on four types of words necessary for academic success:
- General academic words (such as analyze, hypothesize, and paraphrase)
- Domain- or discipline-specific words (such as factor, integer, and rational numbers)
- Topic-specific words ( such as argumentative, menacing, and gregarious when writing a character analysis)
- Passage-critical words (such as strain when used in a completely different way—e.g., in talking about a flu or other illness)
One of the most difficult aspects of this component will be choosing the word or words you want to teach. Remember, you can’t teach students every unknown word in any text. This is a good place to think about how deeply students need to know a word in order to support comprehension and communication.
Teaching Strategies for Learning New Words
Given that most teachers can teach about 350 new words a year through direct instruction, teaching strategies for learning unknown words independently is critical. Stahl and Fairbanks summarized the problem: “Since a vocabulary teaching program typically teaches 10 to 12 words a week or about 400 a year, of which perhaps 75% or 300 are learned, vocabulary instruction is not adequate to cope with the volume of new words that children need to learn and do learn without instruction” (1986, 100). I decided to focus on the three strategies that have been shown to have the greatest impact on learning new words independently:
- How to Use Internal Context Clues: Prefixes, Root Words, Suffixes
- How to Use External Context Clues to Learn New Words
- How to Use Resources to Support Learning New Words
Knowing how to create an effective strategy lesson using a hook, direct instruction, guided/independent practice, and closure is critical to this component of a comprehensive vocabulary program.
Fostering Word Consciousness
In Jennifer Donnelly’s book A Northern Light (2003), the narrator reminds us that interesting words embedded in interesting texts make words more memorable:
I tried to put my mind back on Paradise Lost, but it was hard going. Somniferous was my word of the day. It means sleep inducing, and it was a good one to describe that dull and endless poem. Milton meant to give us a glimpse of hell, Miss Wilcox said, and he succeeded. (60–61)
I love that one of the components of a vocabulary program is heightening students’ awareness of words. Riddles, games, political cartoons, interesting texts, lateral thinking puzzles, and hundreds of other activities help students become more conscious of language. Two of the characteristics I look for in this component are inquisitiveness and risk-taking. When students start to question a word’s meaning or attempt to use words other than safe words, you know they are developing word consciousness. I will always remember three boys who hung out in my room so much that I sometimes forgot they were there. When the principal stopped in my room after school to talk about a department issue, one of the boys decided to jump into the conversation. I gave all three my “teacher look” and ushered them out of the room. As I closed the door, one of the boys said to the others, “We wouldn’t have gotten in trouble if you hadn’t been earsdropping!”
Words Still Matter
Words do indeed still matter. Many of you have folders with notes from students with words you want to keep forever. Others of you have words you have kept to tell your story. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves that words are about more than a standard or checking off an instructional requirement. And, since I believe that words still matter, my hope for you is that this summer will be your summer to spend time with words—reading, writing, sharing, and storing. There is no doubt in my mind that effective instruction is critical, but I believe that our love of words is also critical. I wish each of you a word-filled summer as you anticipate supporting others in growing a love of words. Nearly 100 years ago, Horace Mann said, “When growing things, one former is worth a thousand reformers.” I don’t know about you, but those are words I needed to hear.
Donnelly, J. 2003. A Northern Light. New York: Harcourt.
Graves, M. F. 2006. The Vocabulary Book: Learning & Instruction. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hakim, J. 2015. Reading Science Stories. E-book, published by author.
Stahl, S. A., and M. M. Fairbanks. 1986. “The Effects of Vocabulary Instruction: A Model-Based Meta-Analysis.” Review of Educational Research 56(1): 72–110.
July 15th, 2015