Thursday, March 24, 2011

Why Vocabulary Instruction?

Why have I created so many activities for vocabulary?

It is imperative that students master vocabulary in order to truly master a content area and be successful in future grades. Wouldn’t it be nice if when you were teaching ecosystems (part of your curriculum) and you talked about PRODUCERS (organisms that make their own food), all students already had mastery of the word PHOTOSYNTHESIS (since you know that this is in a previous grade’s curriculum)?  In order to carry these important words with them to the next grade level, students must be afforded more than simply hearing the words in whole group instruction, seeing them in the content-area reading that they do, and having them embedded in their classroom activities. Don’t think direct instruction in vocabulary is necessary? Think about your EC students, ESL students, and struggling readers. Heck, even your average students may appear to know what you are talking about, but may forget word meanings once the unit is over and you have moved on to something else.

If we really want students to walk away from our teaching units with mastery and ownership of the important vocabulary in our curriculum, we must directly teach for the mastery of those words.

Where do we start? All the words seem important. This is so true! And, it is a habit to break ourselves of as teachers. If your district does not already have a set of content-area words identified (and even if they do), you can start by creating a list of words you think are important to the unit you are teaching. For example, in our landforms unit, we identified the following vocabulary words that students would encounter (using our standard course of study, science textbook, science kit, released End of Grade questions, and unit plans as a resource of potentially important words):

oxbow lake
plate tectonics
sand dune

Obviously, this list is too long for directly instructing students on each one, unless that’s all we planned to do with our science time. So, our next step was to decide which words were critical to our curriculum. Some of the words in our above list come from extension content (like core, mantle, crust), but are not directly stated in our curriculum. Some words on the list were also put there in hopes that students could say “I REALLY KNOW WHAT THIS WORD MEANS” in a vocabulary activity we do on the first day of our science units (lava for example). (See my Science Vocabulary page).We also decided which words were simple enough (or discussed so much) that students would learn them quickly through experiences during the unit. Basin was an example of this. Students work with stream tables daily, and hold a basin under the stream table to catch the water as it comes out. (A basin is a depression in the earth that holds water; we figured calling their plastic water catcher a basin would suffice in them memorizing this word). Canyon was also eliminated as every group would end up with a canyon in their stream table activity.  We would constantly point it out to students, show pictures of the Grand Canyon, etc. Students would master canyon through the regular activities of the unit.

After asking ourselves “Which words would we need to ENSURE students mastered AND which words might not be MASTERED by EVERY STUDENT through our normal classroom experiences? Which words need DIRECT INSTRUCTION?,” we whittled our list down to 8 words: delta, deposition, erosion, meander, oxbow lake, sediment, tributary, weathering. We know students will encounter these words on our end of grade test. Students needed to understand the difference between weathering and erosion. We might not see a meander in our stream tables, and an oxbow lake is extremely difficult to create and capture before it is once again changed by the flow of water. Knowing that meanders and oxbow lakes are tested, we knew we needed to take these words through the 6 steps, show many examples, put them in review games like bingo and jeopardy, and review them again before testing.

Once you have trimmed your words to only the ones that you have to take through the six steps, managing direct instruction in vocabulary for one unit seems doable. We took our list from 28 words to 8. So, what are the 6-steps I have been referring to?

Robert Marzano has researched and wrote heavily about the 6-steps of vocabulary instruction. These steps include:

1-Explain-Provide a student-friendly definition, example, or explanation of the word.
Ideas: tell a story, point out a class experience that incorporated the word, show an image, describe what you think of when you hear the word, create a picture that demonstrates the word
2-Restate-Ask students to restate the explanation of the word in their own words
                Students should not simply copy the teachers example, but construct their own example, description, sentence, or explanation
3-Show-Students construct a graphic representation of the word (picture, symbol, etc)
This nonlinguistic representation helps students visualize the word and code it in their brains in a different mode than simply written or oral processing
4-Discuss-Use discussion activities to help students add to their knowledge of the word
Ideas: identify synonyms/antonyms of the word, create analogies, metaphors, talk with a partner, Give 1, Get 1 activities, complete a Frayer Model with a partner, etc.
5-Refine and Reflect-Students return to their vocabulary work (perhaps in a vocab notebook) and refine their definitions, examples, sentences, etc. Students can discuss with a partner new ideas they have about the word.
6-Apply words in learning games-Provide opportunities for students to practice the words through games; this energizes students to review the words and helps put them into mastery

Steps 1-3/4 might all happen in the same day. Step 5 would be appropriate after students have had time to work with the words/concepts in classroom experiences, and Step 6 is appropriate all year as you try to add more words to students memory banks. Marzano suggests playing learning games weekly with vocabulary words. Perhaps you set aside 20-30 minutes a week during your content areas for word-learning/review games. This would give you time to review words from a unit in isolation but to also mix them together as you study multiple units.

(From Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement; Marzano (2004).)

How and where do students record these steps? Here is one option called the Frayer Model. I have probably modified it a million times over the years. It usually contains examples and nonexamples, and googling it, I think I should not be calling it the frayer model any more, but here's my template. 

Word/Term and Definition

(I often save this block for last. I know that doesn’t follow the 6 steps, but I think when students have went through  the examples, created a sentence, and related words, they are better apt to create a personal definition—therefore more able to internalize it)
Sentence Using the Word

Related Words (synonyms, antonyms, or connected words)

For science, I try to have students put words here that they should think of when they hear the main word. For example, when you hear producer, you should think “consumer, decomposer.” When you hear meander, you should think “oxbow lake.”

Older students might have a marble notebook, binder, or folder for vocabulary. Younger students might need a folder or a binder because you will probably want to give them templates instead of having them spend their time drawing something like above. 

For more ideas and templates, you can check out anything by Janet Allen, especially her book Words, Words, Words. See my Science Vocabulary tab for what I do at the beginning of every science unit (strategies like "don't know, kind of know, really know," "sort and label," and vocabulary mats). Hopefully I will have more time to blog about this later! :) 

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