By Jessica Salfia

Vocabulary. It can be the worst, amiright?

It’s been one of the most polarizing topics in many of the workshops and professional development seminars I’ve been in.  Most teachers believe it’s difficult to teach well, and many teachers I’ve talked to about teaching vocabulary have two main complaints:  it takes up way too much time, and the kids don’t really learn the words in the long term, memorizing them only long enough to pass a quiz.

But it’s also so, so easy.  Kids are trained to grab those worksheets, flip to the glossary, and copy down those definitions.  And they can do this with little to no critical thinking.  Heck, they can do this with little to no thinking period.  It’s automatic and painless, and this can be appealing to both teachers and students.  A nice little break for everybody, right?  But getting stuck in a vocab rut can be dangerous.  Those quickly copied and memorized definitions often are not retained, and the way words work and move in language is often not learned at all when using “traditional” vocab methods.

So how do we do it?  How do we expand vocabularies, and get kids to really own a word and its meaning?  After all, much of the ACT and SAT is in fact vocabulary and context.  This is integral part of our English curriculums.

I’ve seen a gamut of ways to teach vocab words.  Some teachers have tried songs, others memorization.  Some enterprising teachers get creative with cartoons like the one below:

And even though I can certainly appreciate a “fertile turtle,” I have found a way to teach vocabulary and teach it well by getting students to come to vocabulary words on their own terms. By creating opportunities for students to talk about words, their meanings, their uses, and how diction impacts the meaning of a work, student truly begin to own words and not just remember them.From my very own “bag of teacher tricks”

Your Mission? Operation Vocab! 
(insert Mission Impossible soundtrack here)I use a version of this activity at least once or twice each nine weeks with various texts. HERE is a sample handout I used this year with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.

Here’s how it works:

After reading the short story, essay, excerpt, poem, or article you are studying, have students identify five words in the piece they did not know before. These can be words they have seen before, but are unsure of their meaning, but preferably they need to pick out words they have never encountered before. Have students copy these down onto a handout or on a sheet of notebook paper.

Divide students into groups of 3 or 4. Each student will be assigned a role (with a catchy name, of course)-

  1. Group leader/El Capitan/The Boss/Madame President–This person is the task manager. He or she keeps everyone organized and in check. The leader is responsible for making sure all tasks are completed.
  2. Time Keeper/Father Time/Time Management Guru– This student watches the clock and the tasks completed to be sure everything is getting done when it should. Teacher will set achievement goals based on class period length, and time keeper needs to monitor work and clock to ensure goals are met.
  3. Secretary/Scribe/15th Century Franciscan Monk– This person writes stuff down. Pretty simple.
  4. Vocab Secret Agent– The Coolest Job. This is the only group member who can get up and move freely around the room. This student may go out into the world (the classroom) and undercover the words the group cannot define on their own. He or she must be smart, sly, quick, and not afraid to roll up to another group or even (*gasp*) a dictionary, and look for the meaning of the word.

After students are grouped and roles are assigned, students will share their vocab lists with each other. If anyone in the group can define a word for another member of the group, he or she should do so now. This is a 5-10 minute block of time in which the goal is simply to have conversations within the group about the words they didn’t know. Some sample questions for them to use in this discussion are-

  1. What other words does it look like?
  2. How is it used in the sentence?
  3. What part of speech is it?
  4. What do we think it means? Why do we think this?
  5. If we had to guess the definition based on context, what would it be?
Categories: Blog

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