George Lucas Educational Foundation

Student Choice and the Venerable Vocab List

Handing students the task of creating their own vocabulary lists is a simple way to have them take responsibility for their learning.

June 21, 2018

For many teachers, finding ways to differentiate their lessons is just plain tough. There are so many responsibilities to meet and tasks to complete in a typical day that taking one really great lesson and trying to meet the needs of every single student can be extremely daunting.

Vocabulary instruction, though, is a crucial area to ensure that the work is worth students’ while. Strengthening their vocabulary makes them stronger readers, more influential writers, and more culturally aware citizens.

For so many years, teachers have laboriously passed out vocabulary lists, given students a week to memorize the words and definitions, and then had them regurgitate the out-of-context words that half the kids still couldn’t use properly in a sentence. And the other half already knew some of the words before the list was in their hands.

Can we plan our vocabulary instruction so that all students can walk away with a stronger vocabulary?

I think so. We can start by giving students the power to choose their own vocabulary words, allowing them to take responsibility for their learning.

How to Begin

Start by giving your students a common text to work with. Newsela has great articles that can be differentiated by Lexile levels for the different students in your classroom. Just make sure that the text is at a high enough Lexile level for them to grow. While there should be words with which they will struggle, they shouldn’t be overwhelmed by the text.

Have students preview the text according to your normal processes—making predictions based on the title, looking at text features, etc. Before students begin reading the text, ask them to skim it for five words they don’t recognize. Instruct them to highlight these words so they’re easy to find again, and have students create an “unknown words” chart in their notebooks to prepare for their word work as they read.

As students read and stumble upon their highlighted words, they should stop to determine the meaning of those words. I make sure students have devices to look up definitions as they read. Encourage students to never skip over words they don’t know. This deeply impacts their comprehension of the text—it’s a strategy they need now and can use for the rest of their lives.

Students won’t be able to complete this process effectively until they’ve been taught how to break down words and use context clues, so it’s important to give mini-lessons on the different types of context clues, how to use connotation to determine denotation, and how to recognize word parts. This will set your students up for success with this exercise.

Next Steps

After students have finished the reading and have a graphic organizer breaking down five words, begin providing opportunities for them to use the words. Students truly understand a word best when it’s learned in context and then can be used properly in context. Have students use their five words all week long in different activities—you can give them a variety of options for vocabulary development so they don’t get bored.

Mini-conferences: Since it’s important for students to be able to use the words in context, you can meet with them to ensure that they’re using their words properly. These conferences can be extremely brief and done right at their desks, or you can take a few minutes at a side table. Just make sure you’re providing the coaching your students need in their vocabulary development.

Frayer Model remix: The Frayer Model graphic organizer is a tried-and-true vocabulary strategy, but it can become boring after a while. Keep it fresh by changing up the activity in each box. Try having the students compare their words to random things like types of candy, people in history, or something they could find outside. You’ll find that this strategy will have them thinking more deeply about the words and making deeper connections.

Teach the class: After students have spent some time mastering the words they picked, give them the opportunity to teach the words to their peers. We know that students have mastered content when they can teach it themselves, so use this as a quick assessment to monitor their progress.

Letter to a word: Students bring their word to life by writing a letter to it. The content of the letter will depend on the connotation of the word and how the student has decided to personify the word. Give students the extra challenge of using words they’ve already mastered in the letter.

Vocabulary instruction is easy to differentiate and make personal for every student, and doing so helps students strengthen their vocabulary and build essential skills in using context clues.

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  • Literacy
  • Student Voice
  • English Language Arts
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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