What do the best vocabulary teachers do? Aspirationally, Part One of Several Posts on the Subject

bagoftricksLast week during dinner, my three year old daughter Tallulah* asked what firm meant.  Joanna and I immediately stumbled through a series of explanations.

Joanna:  Firm is hard.

Caleb:  Not like the table is hard though.  Think of something that’s soft but hard.

Joanna:  Can you think of something that’s firm?

Tallulah left the table to lay on the rug.

Joanna and I stared at each other stumped.  We didn’t think the rug was firm but we had idea how to escape from the lexical hole we’d dug.  Tallulah began to do somersaults.

Despite my pitiful efforts to develop Tallulah’s vocabulary on the fly, Building vocabulary is one of the central joys and challenges of teaching. It’s one of the highest hurdles between our kids and understanding the complex texts they will face.

Building a rich vocabulary doesn’t just give our kids a fancy way to say the same thing they were going to say; an ever-expanding vocabulary allows kids new ways to describe themselves and their experience.  Vague ideas become sharp insights. Burbling pools of feeling can now be shared and understood.  I see this in Tallulah’s day to day development as she finds a new word that leads to a new conception of her universe.

One of our schools is  tackling how to teach vocabulary more effectively.  In order to spread the right practices we examined what the most effective vocabulary teachers (inside and outside our schools) do. The “most effective” tag is based on the kids in their rooms demonstrating an ability to say, spell, define, and most importantly use the word independently in speech and writing.  These observations and ideas have also been hugely influenced by the work of Isabel Beck.  Many thanks to our good friends at KIPP NYC who turned me onto Beck’s work-which is thoughtful and practical.  Here are our early hypotheses:

 Effective Vocabulary Teachers:

Spend more time developing a kid-friendly definition and examples than creating activities.  Most of these highly effective vocabulary teachers had a stable of engaging games and activities (think charades, BINGO, Last KIPPster standing, etc) that they added to periodically but didn’t invest much lesson planning time on.  Instead these super vocabulary teachers used their time to to craft a kid-friendly, intellectually accurate, and honest definition.

Once the definition is built, they spend time writing excellent examples and close confusers or non-examples.  Beck’s very useful advice is to write or find diverse examples of the word’s usage.  Otherwise kids, like the rest of us, tend to latch onto the first example they hear.  The non-examples are essential.  Leaving them out is like fencing half the field and expecting the cows to stay put.

Obsess about cumulative review. Once a word is taught in the highly effective vocabulary teacher’s class it becomes part of the atmosphere.  There are daily quick practices with vocabulary on homework and do nows.  Old vocabulary words are woven into the classroom materials and in one case the teacher uses review of old vocabulary motions as a means of transitioning between activities.  While every teacher has a word wall, the highly effective vocabulary teacher is constantly encouraging/prodding kids to use it.

Give feedback about the usage of the word in speech and writing and make students revise.  The very common activity of having kids write vocabulary sentences can be diamond or rhinestone.  The effective vocabulary teachers give immediate verbal and/or rapidly turned-around written feedback.  These teachers press students to use the accurately and creatively.  For instance:

Teacher:  Let’s hear your sentences for frantic from homework.

Student: The frantic lady walked around the corner.

Teacher: How do I know she’s frantic?

Student: The frantic lady walked quickly around the corner, almost running into me.

Teacher: How do I know she’s frantic and not just excited?

Student Thee frantic lady walked around the corner, almost running into me.  Her eyes were full of fear.

If students derive a definition from context or examples, then the effective vocabulary teacher makes them return and tweak their definition whenever a new usage is encountered.

This list is not definitive.  As we observe great teachers I am sure it will grow.  I have a suspicion  that these teachers have habits of organization, planning, and assessment that will push our whole team forward.  In the coming year we will capture video and other artifacts of these vocabulary maestros.  As always I would welcome comments, questions, and better ideas.



* Tallulah’s resistance to rules and directions would appear karmic to many of my former students.


3 Responses to “What do the best vocabulary teachers do? Aspirationally, Part One of Several Posts on the Subject”

  1. teachingbattleground Says:

    Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  2. best vocabulary game Says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts about Vocabulary game.

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