Ask Moving Writers: How do you authentically support and assess vocabulary?

AMW Allison

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.

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. (2)

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?

  1. They look up words they don’t know.
  2. They actively seek out new words to use in conversation and writing. 
  3. They try on new words in their writing and speaking, even if they’re not 100% sure how to use them.
  4. They literally surround themselves with words: they read, they collect words in notebooks and Pinterest boards, they talk about words.
  5. They learn how to say words in other languages.
  6. They research the origins of words.
  7. They subscribe to mailing lists or follow Twitter handles that dole out words and their meanings daily.
  8. They have favorite words.
  9. They say words out loud because they love their sounds.
  10. 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:

                 Dictionary 101

                 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:

         Word notebooks

         A section of their notebook

         Word Pinterest board

          Other

__ 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.

Screen Shot 2017-07-23 at 8.18.22 PM

Image via Amazon.com

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.

Warmly,

Allison

Making Time for Vocabulary Instruction that Matters

Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 2.33.31 PM.pngYears and years ago, before I had been bitten by the writing workshop bug, I became obsessed with vocabulary instruction. My school used a series of vocabulary workbooks at each grade level, and I had witnessed how that approach didn’t worked. Not for real. Not for the long term. Some students would dutifully memorize the words, earn a high score on the quiz, and forthrightly forget most of what they had learned. Many of my students would even bother — they would sort of study the words, sort of learn some of them, earn a low quiz grade, and move on with their day.

So, I did lots of reading and research — particularly of Janet Allen — and devised a series of in-depth, meaningful approaches to actually teach vocabulary so that my students learned, retained, and used new and increasingly sophisticated words.

The problem here was time. If I spent an average of 270 minutes per week with any given class, I was using about half of those minutes just on vocabulary instruction.  Reading instruction, whole-class literature, independent reading, and writing were all squeezed into the other half. My vocabulary instruction was amazing — and my students actually loved it and looked forward to it — but it was the core of my class, and that didn’t feel right either.

After diving into writing workshop with my students, I’ll be honest, I ditched explicit vocabulary instruction altogether. I didn’t know how to do it well and do it efficiently. I quoted studies that say, “Students get the best vocabulary instruction by simply reading”, and I left it at that. A third paltry solution.

Today, I am not going to give you a list of vocabulary activities — you can easily find those on your own, and there are lots of good ones out there! (Again, check out Janet Allen’s books! She is brilliant and her work is suitable for any grade level.). What I want to offer you instead is a brief look at what we know works in vocabulary instruction and a handful of  ideas for how you can build this instruction into our current writing instruction, so that students don’t simply understand the words they read but can also use them effectively to improve their writing.
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