BY: LIZ KEIPER

Here’s a list of three (of the many) things I struggled with as an English teacher during my first few years of teaching:

  • How to teach vocabulary in a meaningful context in a way so that students would actually learn the words and incorporate them into their schema of understanding, not just memorize definitions for a quiz and forget them
  • How to teach grammar in a meaningful context in a way so that students would actually learn parts of speech and sentence structure and incorporate them into their schema of understanding, not just memorize grammar for a quiz and forget it
  • How to make bell-ringers meaningful… point blank

Bell-ringers used to be an afterthought for me. At the end of my nightly lesson planning, I would cook up a question pertaining to what we had learned in class the day before. It was a constant stressor, and my questions never seemed to build knowledge the way that I wanted them to.

So, I decided to kill all three of the aforementioned birds with one stone. Not that I advocate animal cruelty… but I do advocate using bell-ringers to teach both vocabulary and grammar acquisition!

Bell Ringer

For the past few years, I have structured my bell-ringers for class according to days of the week. This helps give the students structure because they know what to generally expect for a bell-ringer on any given day, and this has helped me as well because I can create a swathe of bell-ringers a week at a time rather than having to create them day by day based on what we covered the previous day. Here is a break down of how I structure my bell-ringers each day of the week:

  • Mondays: I introduce the vocabulary word of the week. I project a PowerPoint slide that shows the word for the week, the part of speech, the definition of the word, and an example sentence using the word. I have the students copy all of this onto their bell-ringer sheets. *Ninja-Teacher Move: the vocabulary word is one that will be crucial in our reading for the week #trickyteacherstatus #planningahead*
  • Tuesdays: I give the students another sentence using the same vocabulary word for the week. Now, they’ve seen the word used in context two days in a row. I also give them a part of speech to find in the sentence. So, Tuesdays are Grammar Days! In the beginning of the year, I start out having students find nouns in the sentence, then verbs, then adjectives, then prepositions, and so on. In the second semester, once they have a good handle on parts of speech, then I can begin to teach them about different types of clauses and what makes a sentence a complete sentence along with proper comma usage. I have found that this is a good progression in which to teach grammar which ensures that students have necessary background knowledge to understand the comparatively complex components of grammar.
  • Wednesdays: On Wednesdays, we write sentences! (And sometimes, we wear pink 😉) I have the students write their own sentence using the same word of the week from Monday. The catch is that they have to use the word in a way that shows me that they understand what the word means. If the word is “placid,” they can’t just write “I am placid” for their sentence because they could write that same sentence for literally any adjective without understanding the meaning of it. If they try to get away with a sentence like that, I tell them to put it in context, such as, “I am placid when I am relaxing watching TV.” I then have a few students share their sentences. So, students have 3-5 exposures to the vocabulary word in various contexts in this one bell-ringer alone.
  • Thursdays: Thursday is a bit of a break from vocabulary. On this day, I typically give students a literary device and its definition along with an example. *Ninja-Teacher Move: the literary device is one that will be crucial in our reading for the week #suchtrickymuchwow #planningskills*
  • Fridays: Friday is my students’ favorite because it’s Free Choice Friday! I give my students at least two different choices as to what they can do with their bell-ringers on Fridays. At least one choice is always drawing a picture which illustrates the vocabulary word for the week. This gives them additional exposure to the vocabulary word in another context, and my artistically inclined students typically choose this option. I’ve had students who have created running comic strips throughout the year involving a character showing each vocab word of the week in drawing form! Other options for Free Choice Friday sometimes involve creating a second sentence (different from Wednesday’s sentence) using the vocab word, or sometimes I give students a creative option using a story that we are reading, such as, “If you were directing a movie version of The Odyssey, name a famous actor whom you would cast as one of the characters,” or “Pick a theme song for one of the characters in Romeo and Juliet.” This is a fun way to give students choice in bell-ringers.

At the end of every marking period, I give my students a quiz on all of the vocabulary and grammar that they’ve learned during the marking period. Because we have revisited each word and built upon each grammar concept, they generally do well on these quizzes.

Here are some reasons why I love this bell-ringer system so much:

  • Pre-Made System: I know on any day what my bell-ringer is going to be. No more late-night, “Oh no! I forgot to make a bell-ringer question! What on earth can I ask my students to answer at the beginning of class tomorrow??”
  • Making Time for Grammar: I found that in my first few years of teaching, grammar instruction went largely by the wayside because I would get so wrapped up in reading and writing instruction that I would forget to address it directly. I tried doing a mini-unit on grammar mid-year, but I felt like the information bounced off students and didn’t sink in because we dove into it for a week and then never addressed it again. Teaching grammar through bell-ringers has forced me to both revisit it weekly and to teach it in an order that prepares students later in the year to discuss complex ideas such as clauses.
  • Reinforcing Vocabulary: In my first few years of teaching, I also felt like my students never really ingested vocabulary. I would give them a slew of vocabulary words all at once, periodically review them, quiz them on the words, and move on with life. I felt like they memorized the words for the quiz but never owned them in a way that enabled them to use the words in context. This system exposes students to so many contexts of the word in the span of a week that they come away with a deep understanding of the word, which I think is better than lightly exposing them to many words that they’re not going to remember anyway.

Here is a copy of the sheet that I give students to record their bell-ringers. Each day of the week has a spot for the bell-ringer and for a Learning Log (which is a question that I have them answer at the end of each class period as closure—this functions as a quick formative assessment to show that they understood the main point of the lesson from the day). I collect and grade these sheets every two weeks. Then, I hand them back to the students so that they can use the sheets to study for their vocabulary and grammar quizzes every marking period, which in turn shows the students that the bell-ringers are meaningful.

Bell-ringer sheet

If you are searching for a better bell-ringer system for your classroom, I highly suggest that you try a daily system like this which incorporates vocabulary and grammar! Let’s activate students’ language learning at the beginning of every class period—as soon as the bell rings.

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Liz Keiper is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @KeiperET1.

WVCTE is wondering…

  • Do you have a bell-ringer system that works well for you? Share it with us!
  • How do you teach vocabulary and grammar in a deep, meaningful way in your classroom?

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