Dear Noel (and fellow readers!),
In a recent webinar, 2010 National Teacher of the Year Sarah Brown Wessling posited an idea that really rocked my world. It was at once so simple and so profound:
Vocabulary is not a task or a thing, it is a literacy practice.
Not so much a skill, but a habit that readers, writers, and thinkers cultivate.
My immediate reaction to this statement: Yes, of course! How could it be anything else?
But my actual classroom story says otherwise.
Like most of us, I have tried everything when it comes to vocabulary instruction. School-issued vocabulary books. Self-made quizzes based on internet SAT word lists. Choose-your-own-vocabulary-words vocabulary quizzes. 10 random, teacher-selected-words-at -a-time vocabulary instruction. And worst of all: no vocabulary instruction.
But as Sarah reminds us, good vocabulary instruction is not about finding the perfect vocabulary system or website or book. It’s about treating vocabulary the same way we treat writing and reading: as a habit we want to cultivate in our young learners.
Just as we aim to teach the writer and the reader, rather than the writing and the reading, so too should we aim to teach the vocabulary student.
So the real question is: how do we authentically support (& assess?) the vocabulary student?
If we want to be authentic, we have to start with what real people do.
What do real logophiles do?
- They look up words they don’t know.
- They actively seek out new words to use in conversation and writing.
- They try on new words in their writing and speaking, even if they’re not 100% sure how to use them.
- They literally surround themselves with words: they read, they collect words in notebooks and Pinterest boards, they talk about words.
- They learn how to say words in other languages.
- They research the origins of words.
- They subscribe to mailing lists or follow Twitter handles that dole out words and their meanings daily.
- They have favorite words.
- They say words out loud because they love their sounds.
- They write & they read… a lot.
So, what does this look like in the classroom? How can we help cultivate these practices in our students? How can we hold them accountable as we do in their writing and reading?
I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few possibilities I’m thinking about:
- Word Notebooks. Students keep word notebooks, or a section of their writer’s notebook, devoted solely to word collection from their independent/whole class reading, thinking about words, and trying on new words. They share pieces of their word notebooks in Notebook Spotlights or Padlet Walls or Writing Groups, just they like they share pieces of their writing with one another.
- Word Podcasts. Students partner up to create monthly word podcasts in which they talk about some of the words they’ve discovered that month, the origins of the words, how the words have impacted their reading and writing. Here’s a great lists of podcasts for logophiles that we might use as mentor podcasts!
- Vocabulary Resources that are accessible 24/7. A digital dropbox of lessons that help vocabulary students cultivate some of the habits listed above. Lessons might include:
How to Use a Thesaurus & Avoid Sounding Ridiculous
What Etymology Is & Why It’s Awesome
Word Parts: Prefixes & Suffixes and How They Can Help
How Do Ya Say It?: A Guide to Pronunciation
Twitter Handles & Email Lists to Subscribe To
- Keep at writing and reading workshop…because that’s honestly the best way to cultivate word love.
Okay, last but not least: the more complicated second half of your question. How do we assess vocabulary? For the record, I am so, so, so glad you used the word assessed instead of graded.
Because it makes my job here much, much easier 🙂
I’m thinking about the questions I might ask my students at the end of the month/quarter/semester year as they reflect on what they’ve learned and how they’ve grown. I might ask questions like:
- How has your vocabulary grown this month/semester/year? What evidence can you show me of your growth?
- How have your vocabulary studies impacted your reading and your writing?
- What vocabulary practices that you formed this year do you plan to continue in the future?
I think the assessment of vocabulary can be this simple so long as the feedback we give our students is timely & relevant. My teacher feedback checklist might look something like this, and I might use it once or twice a quarter to assess their growth as vocabulary students:
Student’s Name__________________ Date_____________________
Is the student:
__ able to use a dictionary and thesaurus to research an unfamiliar word?
__ showing word curiosity through:
A section of their notebook
Word Pinterest board
__ actively “trying on” new words in their speaking & writing?
__ showing word discrimination in their writing — especially in poetry?
__becoming a student who loves words?
This last item was inspired by the children’s book The Boy Who Loved Words, which currently sits on my son’s nightstand. He’s a little young (okay, way too young…he’s 2) to really appreciate its message, but I can’t help but at least show him the vibrant pictures and sing aloud all the words that float ethereally across the pages.
The main character Selig is a boy who collects words and seeks joy in sharing these words with others. On the last page the narrator reveals that Selig is in all of us: You too may find yourself lucky if, one day, while you are thinking or writing or simply speaking, the perfect word just seems to come to you.
As I rethink vocabulary instruction thanks to your question, I’ll keep Selig close. For what better gift to give my students than to help them find, through their writing and thinking and speaking, “the perfect word” to express what’s in their minds and on their hearts…
Thanks for asking this question, Noel. It’s definitely one that will keep me up at night, in a good way.