Monday, April 8, 2013

Word Nerds

In my continuing quest to develop my cross disciplinary vocabulary instruction I picked up Brenda J. Overturf, Leslie H. Montgomery and Margot Holmes Smith's book Word Nerds. This book jumps on the CCSS identified need to enhance vocabulary instruction in a meaningful way. As teachers in a poor urban district, Montgomery and Holmes Smith identified serious limitations in their students' vocabulary that hindered their reading. With focused study, their students rose to be successful readers.

One of the on-going themes of vocabulary instruction is limiting the number of words. Twenty words for each subject is not going to have any meaningful impact on student knowledge. Most of our traditional methods of vocabulary instruction are not instruction so much as coverage. Then we are amazed that not only do they not use the words, they do not remember them a week later. We need to get real with what the research tells us: students can learn 5-10 words per week through direct instruction. We need to get together with our colleagues, identify the critical vocabulary of success and teach those limited identified words across the curriculum. Not in our isolated subject silos, but together. No we will not cover the entire SAT list. But then again, since covering the SAT list nets nearly no new vocabulary learning, it is a waste of our limited instructional time.

What I really loved about this text was twofold. First the systematic method of instruction. Second the list of practice activities.

Regarding the systematic instruction. The authors start with giving each student a lanyard with a vocabulary word, synonym or antonym on it. This is only after these words have been introduced. This becomes integral to classroom management. Instead of lining up by rows or the color of your shirt, the students line up by their words: the word that means to be very happy and their synonyms, its antonyms. then the word that means to go on a long trip, its synonyms and antonyms, etc. The students are asked on the spot to define their word, give a synonym, antonym or 7-Up sentence. (A 7-Up sentence is a sentence with at least 7 words that uses the sentence in a correct and meaningful manner. Personally I think there needs to be more words in the sentence, but 7-Up does have a nice ring that kids latch on to.) Pair-share activities are with partners related to their words. With the students wearing their words, they are always on display much like a word wall and this increases the likelihood that the teacher will remember to use the sophisticated vocabulary and increases the chances that the students will, too. While older students might balk at the name labeling on a daily basis, it might work on a limited basis that involved movement around the room or specialized lessons only.

The selection of vocabulary practice activities is wonderful. Although the authors note that they did not come up with the activities themselves, they have complied a list of activities that are not merely  a repeat of other published sources. I particularly liked the board game idea. Although a variety of websites have templates for game boards, they can be difficult to input information into. I found that using Microsoft office and the insert shape function, I was able to generate a simple game board that was easy to insert words into. Students roll a single die and move a pawn around the board. They need to either define, say in a sentence, identify a synonym or antonym for the word, depending on the teacher wishes. A specialized die could be made that lists those options and students could roll that as well, or a spinner could easily be made. Students could practice with their vocab lists in front of them. They check each other for accuracy. See the example below that I put together for a science unit focusing on the circulatory system.

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