Quick Tip Tuesday: Vocabulary activities

March 2nd, 2010

When word journals didn’t help Sara Kajder’s students enhance their understanding of texts, she looked for different, more visual ways of deepening their understanding of what they were reading. She shares some of these strategies in Bringing the Outside In: Visual Ways to Engage Reluctant Readers.

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.

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