Google it: 3 Ways to Turn Students into Vocabulary Explorers

So, I’m about to make an argument that we should take a cue from Google when it comes to vocabulary instruction, but before you roll your eyes and click ahead to the next post, hear me out for a second:

A few years ago, if I were to use Google as a metaphor for vocabulary instruction, we’d probably be talking about the lowest level of learning when you analyze it with Bloom’s Taxonomy. We’d be talking about running into a word you don’t know, googling it to find a definition, then moving on. Not ideal when we equate that to our vocabulary instruction.

I think it’s fair to say, though, that in the past few years, Google has become much more than an answer-finding machine. Sure, we can still google a quick answer. But we also use it to compose emails, host virtual meeting spaces, and collaboratively design presentations. Google’s very mode of existing has extended beyond the lowest level of understanding upward through the levels of understanding to help us create.

Vocab SnipEarlier this year, as I was typing away in a Google Doc, I noticed that even their approach to vocabulary is moving upward in its depth of knowledge. Try it: Right click on a word that you’d like to look up. You get two options: define or explore.  

As teachers, we need to take this cue from Google and teach vocabulary with a similar approach. Sure, there are times when we should teach our students to find a definition, but we must also shift our instruction to really explore vocabulary in our classrooms.

How do we teach our kids to be vocabulary explorers?

1. Start with passion and purpose

Picture someone who sees themselves as an explorer. Now picture yourself asking them about how they feel about their latest project. Can you imagine them responding with a shrug or by saying “because I was told to”? Of course not! Whether it’s a location that’s unfamiliar to you or the word choice in an op-ed, people don’t explore unless they have intrinsic passion and an authentic purpose.  

We remember this in other aspects of our writing units. We search out authentic audiences and publication opportunities for our students. We offer them choice and voice in their reading. But too often, we teach vocabulary only as a means to piecing together comprehension of a difficult text. When was the last time we really dove into the passion and purpose of word choice?

We must model a natural curiosity and passion for vocabulary as it relates to better understanding the author’s purpose. When we read a text that is particularly moving, we should stop to examine how the author’s vocabulary contributed to its overall purpose. We should evaluate what impact our own word choice might have on our overall tone and audience. Hattie offers a simple, beautiful way to scaffold this thinking in her Why This/Not That thinking routine.

When studying Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, there is plenty of vocabulary that my students need to unpack in order to comprehend the basics of his message, but there are many missed opportunities if we focus only on the words that they don’t know. Take, for instance, the word “confined” in his opening. King begins, “While confined here in the Birmingham city jail.” The majority of my students have at least a cursory understanding of the what the word “confined” means, so we don’t often stop to explore it. But what if we did? What if I asked, “Why this? Not that?” What if I asked students what other words King could have used in its place? So why this one? What impact does the word “confined” versus “imprisoned, held, or stuck” have on his objective as a writer? Suddenly, we’re no longer simply defining a word. We’re evaluating connotation, analyzing tone, and really exploring vocabulary.

Of course, sometimes we need to study the meaning of words in a difficult text to build our comprehension and our content knowledge. That shouldn’t be our only reason for studying vocabulary, though. We should embrace the exploration of vocabulary to better understand how it shapes a text and affects its purpose.

2.  Analyze the terrain and document your findings

An explorer doesn’t wander aimlessly or rely only on casual, anecdotal observations. An explorer classifies, compares, and searches out answers to questions. (This, again, is evidence of that purpose and passion.) She captures her thinking in photos and journals. And so should we as explorers of vocabulary.

We’re all pretty familiar with the concept of word walls, but too often, our middle and high school word walls are comprised only of the content-level words students encounter in their reading. If you notice word walls in an elementary classroom, this isn’t always the case, though. You might find word walls that advertise “word families,” in which you’d find words in the -at family: cat, bat, sat.

Could we add to our word walls some word families of our own? What about their synonyms and antonyms? How about other words that have the same prefixes, suffixes, or roots?

Using the existing structure of our word walls can help us take the practice beyond defining and recognizing to classifying, comparing, and analyzing. In this way, we are strategic about what we look for and what we document in our explorations.

3.  Be flexible in your journey

While all of this exploration is exhilarating and important, the sad truth is that, if we did it for every vocabulary word we encountered, we wouldn’t have time to teach anything else. The same is true for real-life explorers, though. If they stopped to marvel at the detail of every piece of flora on the forest floor, they’d never get anywhere. Sometimes they need to make good time until the next campsite. It’s okay if we teach our children that they, too, may have this kind of inconsistency in paying attention to vocabulary. Sometimes, we just need to power through to understand the gist of a text, but other times, we can stop to marvel in its craft.

Just as important as teaching vocabulary exploration with focus on context clues, word families, or analysis of connotation, we must teach our kids first of all to recognize when they’re using a strategy, but then to ask a few questions:

  1. What can this strategy do for me as a reader? A writer?
  2. When should I use it?

We want our students to be flexible thinkers who can not only survive, but thrive in their explorations beyond our classroom walls. Taking a cue from Google and shifting our vocabulary instruction from defining to exploring is one way to move toward that goal.

How do you teach your students to become vocabulary explorers? What strategies do you have to move beyond defining? Comment below or find me on Twitter @megankortlandt

– Megan  

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