When my principal announced several years ago that our new focus was academic vocabulary, I may have rolled my eyes. Ugh! One more thing added to our list to do, right? Well, I was wrong. Implementing academic vocabulary instruction made a huge difference in my classroom. I saw (and heard) students begin using the language of my discipline fluently in their writing and in classroom discussions. Using this strategy to teach Tier 3, or content-specific, vocabulary was a win for me and my students.
What I Do with Academic Vocabulary
My strategies for using academic vocabulary in the classroom are based on the work of Robert Marzano. (You can order his manual Building Academic Vocabulary from Amazon.com). His six-step process for teaching vocabulary includes these points:
1 – Provide a description, explanation, or example
Students absorb new vocabulary better when it is presented in context. Rather than teaching a list of words in isolation, I always introduce terms as a natural part of the relevant literature, grammar, or writing lesson. I also add a card to our word wall for each new academic vocabulary term I teach. Think about an example lesson on how characters respond to plot events and change over the course of a text. You might introduce the term dynamic character in a slide presentation. You could share a video clip or comic strip to illustrate the idea. Connecting the new word to familiar content always helps, so you could also give an example of a character from a short story or novel your class has recently read.
2 – Students restate meaning in their own words
We use a graphic organizer for this step and the next. If I have introduced only one new word in the day’s lesson, students often complete the graphic organizer as a closing activity. That is good reinforcement for them, and it lets me check for understanding. With several new terms in the lesson, we may do the graphic organizers throughout the class period. The important point is not to provide a definition to the students. After you’ve taught the term in context, they should be able to define it in their own words.
3 – Students construct a picture, graphic, or symbol
The graphic organizer provides space for a visual representation of the word. This encourages students to think metaphorically and to make connections. With our example of dynamic character, some students might come up with a symbol to represent change over time. Other students might draw a picture of a particular character that you have discussed as an example. Another could focus on the word dynamic and make a diagram relating to science or music. There is no right or wrong, as long as the image is meaningful to the student and helps him or her remember the vocabulary word.
4 – Engage in activities to expand word knowledge
After a few days, or even much later in the year, we return to the graphic organizer so that students can add to their notes. I like to have students use the word in an accurate, meaningful sentence. This is easier for them after they’ve had plenty of opportunities to use the word in classroom conversations. At this time, they can add more examples for the word or synonyms. They can also list counter-examples; sometimes knowing what a word is not is key to understanding. To review dynamic character, you could name a familiar story like The Lightning Thief and ask students to classify characters as dynamic or not.
5 – Discuss vocabulary with each other
Again, this works best for me when done in the context of a lesson. Students talk with a partner or small group about the word or using the word. In a whole class lesson, you can ask students to “turn and talk” for a very brief time–30 to 60 seconds. Ask a question like, “Explain why such-and-such character is a dynamic character.” You can also plan this in a structured collaborative activity with discussion cards incorporating words you want students to use.
6 – Play games with the words
This is my students’ favorite part of academic vocabulary instruction! In order to keep our word wall alive and engaging, we play games with the words. One of their favorites is Bingo. This takes some prep on the teacher’s part: printing the bingo cards and finding pieces to cover the bingo spaces. (I used our big paper slicer to chop colored paper into 3/4 inch squares and store that in plastic bags.) It also takes time to play, because students are never satisfied with just one game!
I also keep a set of these game cards near our word wall. When we have only a minute or two, this is a great time filler. Pull a card randomly, hiding the word on the front, and read the definition from the back. Two students race to touch the word wall card first. Winner gets to read the next definition. Or, depending on how competitive your class is… loser reads the next definition, and winner gets to race against a new challenger.
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