Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Most Powerful Thing in the Universe...

Words are the most powerful thing in the universe.

I started every year with the statement above and proceeded to back it up. Words start and stop wars, define the rules of a game, document citizenship, communicate the next incredible idea, start relationships, escalate fights, express emotions, etc.

So it's not surprising that teaching and learning vocabulary was central to my practice.

There are a lot things I got wrong as a teacher, but vocabulary is something I think I got right. I gave the words away for free but I knew I'd achieved something when my students saw that owning these words made them rich.

What started as play acting, as students practiced using the new words in classroom conversation (usually with fake British accents) eventually grew into regular use of the words. Students came to see them less as an academic add-on and more as tools to better communicate their thoughts and ideas.

So how did I do it?
  1. I started with the notion that the brain processes information best in smaller, more concentrated quantities. I gave the students eight words to learn each Monday. The words came from what we were reading that week so they immediately had some relevance to what the students would be experiencing.
  2. Each Monday students got the words and they spent half an hour looking up the definitions, writing sentences using the words in context, doing something physical with them be it a stretch, a skit, a dance, or a body sculpture, and doing something visual with them like drawing a representative picture or creating an acrostic poem. For homework they wrote a cohesive paragraph using all of the words. The notes they'd created during the day's vocabulary activities could be used to guide this process.
  3. Each Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday we started class doing something different with the words. Students created short skits in which they were engaged in conversations using the words, they played various games like bingo or jeopardy, created stretches to remind them of each word and "worked out" to the vocab, wrote songs, performed dances, drew murals, played Pictionary. Each day we had a new experience to make the words more and more a part of our working memories.
  4. On Friday students knew they would start class with their vocabulary quiz. They put all their notes away. I wrote all the words on the board. They wrote a paragraph (just like they did on Monday for homework) using all their words in context. They knew the paragraph had to make sense and that each sentence that used a word would have to contain context clues that showed me they knew what that word meant. The process took a while to learn, but after a month or so students really knew what to do. And they did it well. They owned those words!
  5. To test the effectiveness of this vocab program I gave one a more conventional "match the word to its definition" test each quarter using all of the words they had learned during that quarter. Very few students scored below 90 percent on those tests. The words stuck.
More important than adding these words to their mental vocabulary banks was the fact that my students eventually incorporated them effortlessly into their daily conversation and writing. On my year-end student evaluations, vocabulary was often the highest rated aspects of their experience in my classroom and when asked to explain why, they regularly wrote something like: "These words make me sound smart. I am smart because I can use these words."

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