Friday, September 20, 2013

Word Up...It's Woodlawn Middle School!

       Those of you who have young children might already be aware of the TV show Word Girl where a young female superhero sets out to protect the world while simultaneously teaching new vocabulary words.  A girl after my own heart, really. I'd like to believe that Word Girl, if she actually existed, would be pretty darn excited about the amazing instructional practices that are currently happening here at Woodlawn Middle School in the area of vocabulary.

          Gone are the days when teachers are assigning lists of words to students to look up in a dictionary, asking them record a definition (that they probably do not understand in the first place), and requiring them to write a sentence using the word without any explicit teaching ever taking place.  Research has shown that this archaic practice is simply a waste of time if our goal is to increase students' word banks, helps them to understand more challenging texts, and provide them with better words to utilize in their written and oral discourse.
          Many English teachers across the building are engaged in what the research says are best instructional practices:  explicitly teaching Tier 2 vocabulary words to students that will soon be encountered in class readings.   According to Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, Tier 2 words are those words that learners are "less likely to run into they listen to daily language" and "come mainly from interaction with books" (2008, p. 7).  Thus, by selecting words that have endurance (will be found in many disciplines and contexts) and are essential to the comprehension of class readings,  teachers are helping students to navigate more complex texts with increased comprehension success.  
              So what does the actual instruction of these words look like in the classrooms?  Currently 7th grade English teachers at Woodlawn have been selecting the recommended number of five words to explicitly teach each week.  These words will come from an informational text or "article of the week" that students will encounter later that week.  On the first day, teachers use Beck's research-based "word conversation" method which involves having kids say the word while also sharing a visual image and simple definition with student.  Additionally, teachers provide examples of ways in which the word can be used in various contexts, and hold conversations that require students to answer questions related to these new words.  Students should have opportunities during this initial lesson to discuss the new term with peers before being asked to create their own definition of the new term.  If students simply copy a teacher's definition, the lesson will be less meaningful.  See below for a sample template used during a word conversation for the word contradiction.

        After the initial exposure to the new words occurs, the words are ideally placed on a Word Wall as a visual reminder for both students and teachers to use the new words in speaking and writing about class content.  What follows this initial instruction is pivotal in ensuring that students are able to add the new word to their internal word banks.  Research has shown that students require repeated exposures to a word in different contexts to truly understand the word on a deep level (Stahl & Fairbanks, 1986;  Mezynski, 1983).  Thus, teachers need to provide students with multiple opportunities to connect these new words to old words daily.  What this looks like may vary but a few examples of how this might happen are the following:
  • Create a visual picture of their own.  Especially important for English Language Learners (Boyd Zimmerman, 1997;  Brown & Perry, 2012), students can be given an opportunity to create a non-linguistic representation of the word.  Asking them to explain how their picture connects to the word helps to solidify the connection between old and new background knowledge.
  • Give students sentence stems to complete using the words.  For example, if the word is nonchalant, students might be given the following sentence to complete:  The character in the story "tried to be nonchalant when she...... " (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, 2008 p. 85).
  • Ask students to respond to questions using the new vocabulary words.  Since teachers often struggle to fit everything in,  it is important to point out that every repeated exposure to vocabulary does not or should not occur in the form of a worksheet.  Skilled teachers will weave questions using the words inside authentic classroom discussions.  For example, if the new vocabulary word were urgent, teachers might begin by asking students to list examples of urgent situations.  When reading a story or article,  they might ask: What text evidence did the author give to signal to the reader that the main character needed to act urgently?  Good, solid vocabulary instruction is embedded within literacy instruction and should not feel like we are dropping everything right now to "do vocabulary."
  • Connect 2:  Only after a few opportunities to learn about the words, teachers could ask students to write one sentence connecting two new words together.  Understanding the relationships that exist between words helps increase the likelihood that students will own and use these new terms independently.
        Just as it is important for teachers to provide kids with multiple opportunities to manipulate and utilize new words, it is equally important to continue to revisit previous words repeatedly throughout the school year. Playing games with the words not only motivates students to want to learn new words and makes learning fun, but it helps students retain their new learning. Marzano's book, Vocabulary Games for the Classroom, is an excellent resource to help keep word learning fresh and exciting.
              So if you are a parent of a student at Woodlawn Middle School, do not be surprised when you notice the sophistication of your child's word choice in speaking and writing increase dramatically as a result of these best practices being implemented.  And if PBS is smart enough, the network will use Woodlawn as the backdrop for a future episode of Word Girl.  Word up!

Works Cited
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2012). Bringing words to life: robust vocabulary instruction. (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Gulliford Publications, Inc.
      Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L.  (2008).  Creating robust vocabulary.  New York:  NY:  Guilford Publications, Inc.
Boyd Zimmerman, C.  (1997).    Do reading and interactive vocabulary instruction make a difference?  An empirical study.  Tesol Quarterly, 31(1), 121-140).
Mezynski, K. (1983). Issues concerning the acquisition of knowledge: effects of vocabulary training on reading comprehension. Review of Educational Research, 53(2), 253-279.
Stahl, S. A., & Fairbanks, M. M. (1986). The effects of vocabulary instruction: a model based meta-analysis. Review of Educational Research, 56(1), 76-110.

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