Tag Archives: Vocabulary

Building Wordsmiths: 8 Activities for Teaching Vocabulary

Vocabulary is at the heart of the content areas we teach.  Each content has its own vocabulary unique to the understanding of the content material taught.  Some argue most vocabulary learning occurs independently. Most researchers would agree that you improve an individual’s vocabulary knowledge and comprehension through students immersed in a wide variety of reading and writing activities.

There is no one method for teaching vocabulary. Rather teachers need to use a variety of methods for the best results, including intentional, explicit instruction of specific vocabulary words. Teachers can also encourage creative approaches to spark enthusiasm.

Janet Allen, author of Words, Words, Words (1999), states, “Children and adults need to see and hear a word in meaningful context multiple times in order to know the word, somewhere between 10 to 15 times.” And with middle school and high school, variety is the key. Teachers cannot teach vocabulary the same way every time.

Reading is perhaps the most important element in vocabulary instruction.

So, how do I teach vocabulary in my English class?

Vocabulary is intertwined with reading and understanding a text. As a middle school English Language Arts teacher, I want to devise a way of teaching vocabulary in a way that does not interfere with students’ enjoyment and interest of a text. 

Here are 8 vocabulary activities to build wordsmiths in my classroom. The ultimate goals of all vocabulary development is for students to become independent word learners.

  1. Prefix Pursuit – All seventh graders in my school learn “SPROOTS”- Suffixes, Prefixes, and Roots. Every day the bell ringer or do now requires students learn 3 new Sproots to help students understand the structure of words and give them the tools to deconstruct complex vocabulary words. Create a prefix pursuit and have students collect the definition of the prefix from their classmates. For example, find someone who knows the meaning of “dis.” find a person who can use a “uni” word in a sentence, find someone who know the antonym of “anti,” and find someone who knows two words that begin with “cent.”
  2. Vocabulary Pre-Assessment – How well do I know these words? Post words on the SMARTBoard and have students put them in one of the columns that best describe what students know about each one. Columns can read, “Don’t know at all.” “Have seen or heard but I don’t know the meaning.” “I think I know the meaning.” and “I know the meaning.”
  3. Vocabulary Word Maps & Frayer Models – Graphic organizers are great tools to help students build a word bank of Tier 2 and Tier 3 words in the content area. Graphic organizers can require students to define the word, offer synonyms and antonyms, use the vocabulary word in a sentence, and draw a picture to help visualize the word.
  4. Alphaboxes – The Alphaboxes strategy (Hoyt) help students reflect on what they have read while engaging in vocabulary expansion. Given a grid with all 26 letters of the alphabet, students work together to find words for each box that relate to the reading selection. This activity generates discussion, questioning, and collaboration.
  5. MadLibs – This is a perfect strategy for math, science, and social studies content areas. Students are given a text passage with missing words to fill in, students apply content area vocabulary words to help the passage make sense. Include a  word bank to help students complete an accurate text.
  6. Vocabulary SudoKu – Create a grid so that every row, every column and every 3X3 box contains 9 different vocabulary words. Stack the sudoku boxes for more complexity.
  7. Magic Squares – Create a 3X3 grid for 9 vocabulary words and then write out a definition or explanation for each of the vocabulary words below. Students select from the numbered terms the best answer for each of the terms. If the students got the vocabulary words correct the total sum of the numbers will be the same across each row (horizontally) and down each column (vertically).
  8. Anticipating Content Through Vocabulary – This strategy helps to front load vocabulary in a reading or chapter. Give students a word bank of terms. Based on the words, have students make a prediction how the word will be used in the text. Then, have students write ten sentences that support that prediction. The sentences become a guide for their reading. When students are finished reading the text, students can go back to their prediction sentences and modify them so they are accurate in terms of the content of the reading passage.
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All Depends On the Skin Your Living In: Building Text Sets & World Knowledge

This past March I attended the Long Island Language Arts Council Spring Conference and was able to sit in a great session on Writing About Reading. Kate Gerson, a senior Regents Research Fellow for Educator Engagement and the Common Core of NYSED,  presented the shifts in writing demanded by the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts/Literacy; specifically how the Common Core writing connects to volume of text read, knowledge about the world and knowledge of words.  She mentioned that writing equals expertise and expertise is informed by language (vocabulary) and knowledge. Vocabulary is built through a person’s knowledge of the world. The more a person knows about something, they can read about it, begin to make sense of it, and acquire knowledge and vocabulary about it.

Not knowing words on a page is debilitating and slows a reader down. For ELLs and students with disabilities this can be a even harder challenge. Thus, if we want students to be strong readers with world knowledge and robust vocabulary, teachers need to expose students to information about the world and have the language to discuss it that is accessible to our students diverse needs. Consuming information about the world works best in chunks. Language and vocabulary is acquired over time. A steady growth of knowledge comes with daily reading, writing, and speaking. Teachers can use text sets and build their own text sets that are accessible and consumable for their students. These text sets can also help build student knowledge about the world and expose them to rich information.

Here is a text set that I have started to compile on race and racism in connection with all the racially driven police brutality present in the news. The text set includes a music video, poetry, and a short film that can then be paired with current newspaper articles and young adult novels. The key is that I am continually build text sets around the literature my students are reading and additional domain knowledge.

Poem “BLINK YOUR EYES” by Sekou Sundiata

I was on my way to see my woman
but the Law said I was on my way
thru a red light red light red light
and if you saw my woman
you could understand,
I was just being a man.
It wasn’t about no light
it was about my ride
and if you saw my ride
you could dig that too, you dig?
Sunroof stereo radio black leather
bucket seats sit low you know,
the body’s cool, but the tires are worn.
Ride when the hard time come, ride
when they’re gone, in other words
the light was green.

I could wake up in the morning
without a warning
and my world could change:
blink your eyes.
All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in

Up to the window comes the Law
with his hand on his gun
what’s up? what’s happening?
I said I guess
that’s when I really broke the law.
He said a routine, step out the car
a routine, assume the position.
Put your hands up in the air
you know the routine, like you just don’t care.
License and registration.
Deep was the night and the light
from the North Star on the car door, deja vu
we’ve been through this before,
why did you stop me?
Somebody had to stop you.
I watch the news, you always lose.
You’re unreliable, that’s undeniable.
This is serious, you could be dangerous.

I could wake up in the morning
without a warning
and my world could change:
blink your eyes.
All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in

New York City, they got laws
can’t no bruthas drive outdoors,
in certain neighborhoods, on particular streets
near and around certain types of people.
They got laws.
All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in.

French Rapper Stromae’s Music Video “Papaoutai”

KWA HERI MANDIMA – Short French Film/Memoir (Can Connect with other texts related to Violence in Sudan & Rwanda such as Linda Sue Park’s Long Walk to Water)

New York Times Articles “Thoughts on Race in American, a Backdrop to Ferguson” by Nicholas Kristof 11/25/2014

“Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist” by Nicholas Kristof 8/27/2014

To find out more about the National Text Set Project or attend one of their training programs, check out their website.

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Inferring Words Meanings: Teaching Students to be Word Detectives

When students do not understand an author’s vocabulary, they cannot fully understand the text.

Good vocabulary instruction emphasizes useful words (words students see frequently), important words (key words that help students understand the text), and difficult words (words with more than one meaning).

In improving vocabulary instruction teachers can help students by:

  • Activating their prior knowledge
  • Defining words in multiple contexts
  • Helping students see context clues
  • Helping students understand the structure of words (Suffixes, Prefixes, and Roots — SPROOTS)
  • Teaching students how to use the dictionary and showing them the range of information it provides
  • Encouraging deep processing — integrating new words into working vocabularies
  • Giving multiple exposure
  • Focusing on a small number of important words

Janet Allen, author of Words, Words, Words (1999), states, “Children and adults need to see and hear a word in meaningful context multiple times in order to know the word, somewhere between 10 to 15 times.” And with middle school and high school, variety is the key. Teachers cannot teach vocabulary the same way every time.

Reading is perhaps the most important element in vocabulary instruction.

So, how do I teach vocabulary in my English class?

I use interactive foldables with my students and early in the school year I give them a foldable to remind them of effective word detective strategies. These strategies include:

Context Clues – Read before and after words that might help explain the words

Word Parts (SPROOTS) – Look for word parts that are recognizable. Students can decode words by knowing prefixes, suffixes, and root words

Connotation & Tone – Take the word and apply it to the character and what the character is doing in order to understand the passage. Does this word offer a positive or negative tone?

Outside Connections – Have I heard this word in a song, movie, or maybe in foreign language? Connect the word with what you already know.

In addition to the foldable that students have in their notebooks to refer to throughout the school year, I mix up the different ways that I teach vocabulary. Here are additional ideas to teach vocabulary in any content area classroom:

Take a Poll – Using an online polling website like Polleverywhere.com I poll my student about a definition of a word. Students use their mobile devices to select the best definition for a word.

Idea Completions Instead of the traditional “write a sentence using a new word,” provide students with sentence stems that require them to integrate a word’s meaning into a context in order to explain a situation.

Questions, Reasons, Examples

What is something you could do to impress your teacher (mother, friend)? Why?

What are some things that should be done cautiously? Why?

Which one of these things might be extraordinary? Why or why not?

-A shirt that was comfortable, or a shirt that washed itself?

-A flower that kept blooming all year, or a flower that bloomed for 3 days?

-A person who has a library card, or a person who has read all the books in the library?

Making Choices – Students show their understanding of vocabulary by saying the word when it applies, or remaining silent when it doesn’t. For example: “Say radiant if any of these things would make someone look radiant.”

-Winning a million dollars.

-Earning a gold medal.

-Walking to the post office.

-Cleaning your room.

-Having a picture you painted hung in the school library.

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Alternatives to Traditional Vocabulary Instruction

Imagine that you are teaching “Use of Force” by WIlliam Carlos Williams.  As the teacher, your task is to devise a way of teaching vocabulary for this story in a way that does not interfere with students’ enjoyment and interest of the text.  

What ever text that you are teaching the old school concept of vocabulary lists on Monday, definitions on Tuesday, sentences on Thursday, and quiz on Friday are not effective in terms of student retention or usage.

When designing vocabulary “lessons,” keep in mind the following:

1. Avoid presenting a long list of vocabulary words to be learned before students are able to read the text.

2. Choose only those words that are important to the meaning and/or will be likely to actually enter your students’ vocabulary.

3. Consider a way of involving students in identifying their own vocabulary words.

4. Try to give your students experiences in figuring out words in context, rather than simply memorizing them.

5. If possible, devise a way for students to locate and define their own words, rather than relying on your choices and definitions.

6. Consider alternatives to students’ learning definitions of words individually. Think about creating collaborative learning experiences, if possible.

7. Find a way to evaluate what your students have learned without relying on a traditional vocabulary test (multiple choice or fill in the blank).

For more ideas about teaching vocabulary, Janet Allen’s Words, Words, Words and Word Savvy by Max Brand are fantastic resources. 

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