Blogstitute Week 5: Schoolwide vocabulary instruction

Authors photoIn 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.

Brenda Overturf, Leslie Montgomery, and Margot Holmes Smith are the authors of Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary. You can get 20% off your order if you buy the book on the Stenhouse website with coupon code BLOG. This week’s winner of a free book is Ariel Glasman. Make sure to leave a comment this week for a chance to win a free book!

11 comments July 17th, 2013


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