Blogstitute: Vocabulary Practice in Grades 5-8

July 22nd, 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.

vocabulariansActive 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Flood each classroom with other words important to content or that students discover in reading.
  5. Teach morphological awareness as multisyllabic words are introduced for deep study or as they are encountered in text.
  6. Provide opportunities for active, engaging vocabulary practice that include movement, discussion, art, drama, music, writing, technology or media, and test-taking skills.
  7. 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.

Illustrated Vocabulary

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.

Entry Filed under: Blogstitute

9 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Diane Anderson  |  July 22nd, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    #6 is a great idea. A variety of activities will stir up more interest in words and help the words “stick.” I would love to see my students come up with an illustrated word like the example described- that student did have a deep knowledge of nomadic!

  • 2. Julie Clay  |  July 22nd, 2015 at 1:01 pm

    I love the illustrated vocabulary strategy. My students have made vocab posters in the past by including the vocab word, part of speech, definition, and a related visual. For concept words, it makes sense to convert the word itself into a visual. Making vocab posters is another area where modeling has been necessary. Since I display these posters, I have had to model characteristics such as clarity, large print, creativity, importance of white space, etc. Thanks for sharing your idea!

  • 3. Tracy Mailloux  |  July 23rd, 2015 at 8:43 am

    This post importantly points out that non-linguistic representations of vocabulary are ways to improve and retain our word knowledge. The strategies here remind me of the research of Marzano, et al and Temptleton & Bear, et al have done and put it into more teacher and user friendly ideas. Vocabularians will definitely be added to my books to read list!

  • 4. Teresa  |  July 23rd, 2015 at 2:43 pm

    Morphological awareness and illustrating vocabulary are two important ways to help students increase their vocabulary and learn how to determine word meanings on their own. After reading the posts and comments during the Blogstitute 2015. I have many ideas on how to improve literacy. This includes reading, writing, and vocabulary ideas.

  • 5. Kelly Mogk  |  July 23rd, 2015 at 4:10 pm

    I love that you’ve included the importance of multimodal instruction and your thoughts on assessment. There is so much to think about when it comes to making meaning with vocabulary — this book is on my to-read list for sure! Thank you for sharing. 🙂

  • 6. Cheryl  |  July 24th, 2015 at 4:34 pm

    One of my favorite parts of your post is the real-world connection you share at the beginning regarding your own need to acquire new vocabulary for your art class. I believe one of the best ways to empower students to learn is by demonstrating our own need to learn. I love the multi-modal ideas for learning vocabulary and I LOVE the illustrated vocabulary idea. I have used drawing for numerous other teaching moments in my classes but will definitely be giving this strategy a try for vocabulary. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

  • 7. Sarah  |  July 27th, 2015 at 4:09 pm

    Frequent access to new vocabulary would be wonderful. I teach high school, and while some cross curricular planning happens that would allow for shared vocabulary, it is not a lot. However, I think some shared verbs would be a good idea and fairly easy to integrate, verbs that relate to tasks students should be doing across the curriculum, like analyze, argue, evaluate, etc. Not only are these common tasks in most content areas, but they show up on standardized tests, and, most importantly, they show up in daily life.

  • 8. Amber Garbe  |  August 4th, 2015 at 9:05 pm

    With standards-based reporting, do you have suggestions for defining and assessing vocabulary proficiency?

  • 9. Schehani  |  August 5th, 2015 at 6:50 am

    Illustrated vocab strategy is a best example of how to own new words and deepen knowledge. In developing country like Pakistan, this strategy is not in widespread practice with the exception of a few elite private schools. However, given wide coverage, the strategy may work wonders in both state and non state schools alike. Thank you for sharing such a great strategy. Regards.

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