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Teaching Strategies

Word Up: The Must Dos of Vocabulary Instruction

November 25, 2014

A while ago, I wrote a post called Doing It Differently: Tips for Teaching Vocabulary which spells out (get it?) the process and rationale for selecting certain vocabulary words and also describes six steps for teaching new words.

Here, I'm going to add to that earlier musing on this topic by offering up some must dos that took me a few years down the teaching road to figure out.

Must Do #1: Be Very Selective 

As for vocabulary lists, less is better. Long lists of words just don't stick. We have to ask ourselves as teachers: Are we killing class time by having students labor through defining and writing sentences for a big heap of words or do we really, really want them to use these words out in the world? If the answer is the latter, then each week, be very, very selective. I usually had about seven words per two-week unit that I really wanted my students to own. That doesn't mean they won't be exposed to many other new, or semi-familiar, words -- words that will be given attention as they read and write. It just means that during your unit, the spotlight will be on a very select group.

When you choose, choose high frequency words. These are words students can often use in all subject areas, and words your students are more apt to experiment with out in the world or in another learning setting. (See the post I mentioned earlier which describes Isabel Beck's three tiers of vocabulary words; high frequency words are tier two words.)

And once those big-bang-for-your-buck words are chosen, you will want to really own those as a whole class -- including you, the teacher. Let's talk about that . . .

Must Do #2 Use the Words Every Day

Pull those words out of isolation in that novel or textbook and use them every day and every way you can. Include them when speaking with students, for example, "Wow, our glue sticks are becoming scarce. I better order more!"

And challenge students to take those words out of the room. Assign a Word Challenge each week: "Okay, class, we will all go out into the world and use the word scarce this week. Be ready to report how and where you used it." And, sure, keep having those weekly vocabulary quizzes, and in addition, solidify those words even more by including them in the directions you write for daily tasks and assignments.

Must Do #3: Prominently Display the Words  

Create a word wall that uses images, examples, analogies, and connections to their own worlds. Challenge students to the task of creating photos of themselves that put the words into action, for example, one student may show that her Halloween candy bag is nearly empty. In the photo, she has a sad, sad face as she points to the two or three candies left. The photo (or drawing) is displayed next to the word, you guessed it, scarce. Another student has written next to the word on a sticky note, "the opposite of abundant," while someone else has placed lyrics from a popular song where the word scarce appears.

Must Do #4 Revisit Past Words

Keep an ongoing list displayed in the classroom of all the words you have "owned" as a class. Periodically revisit and challenge students to use them, for example, in a one-minute essay or a quick write. Also, when writing those instructions for current tasks and assignments, use words from the past as well.

Must Do #5 Assess Application

Buy-in from students during those daily vocabulary activities will be greater if students know they will be held accountable for using the words in their big project, paper, or presentation at the end of the unit. So when assigning a summative assessment, whether it be, for example, a processed essay or a presentation using Prezi, include in the grading criteria or rubric that students must use words they have studied and owned as a class (present and past vocabulary). How many? You decide. But remember, less is better. 

Teachers, when it comes to vocabulary learning and teaching, what are your must dos? Please share in the comments section below.

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