A trip down memory lane: Part three
They say you learn something new everyday. Well over this past semester I learned a lot. I learned that I love words and apparently words love me. Okay maybe I don’t love words that much (my last name is not Webster), but I know that I love teaching words. I have seen firsthand the power of teaching words to students and how their eyes light up. It all started that fateful day when I was quietly observing in practicum when the 3rd graders were independently reading. Up comes a shy, little boy quietly asking me what the word “embankment” means. Coincidentally, the previous evening I was doing my class readings on the subject of teaching vocab, which explicitly said not to go straight to the dictionary. Why not go the traditional route? Because it could potentially confuse students even more (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002). Duh, how many times have I gone to dictionary.com and had to look up a word in the definition of the word I initially was searching for? By the time I am done with that process I don’t even remember the word I was initially searching for. So if it confuses this 25 year old, I knew it was going to confuse an 8 year old. Like a deer in the headlights I was frozen. AHHHH! How was I going to help him define what the word embankment? I know what the word means but how do I communicate that. What felt like an eternity passed and I started thinking on my feet. Remembering what I had read the night before I went through the steps. We read the sentence and tried to find context clues. We are getting somewhere. Then I tried to model what an embankment may physically look like on the side of a book. The students needed a little visualization and imagination to understand this approach. We were getting there. I then asked him if he had ever driven by a river and noticed that he was higher than the river. “Yes” he answered. I could tell however, he was still not getting it 100%. We finally consulted the dictionary: the last and final option. The combination of all problem solving methods helped this student understand this word. Taught my first word with success, golf claps!
Fast forward to my 6th grade placement. Here is an excerpt from one of my reflections for Practicum:
“Last Friday, I took a small group of [my cooperating teacher’s] students to the library to work on a PowerPoint presentation. While working with the students the computer was being tricky. Instead of saying that, I told the students without thinking that the program can be temperamental*. Instantly, I realized they probably did not know what that meant. This was the perfect chance to use this as a learning opportunity. I scaffolded the kids to find the word temper [with]in the word. They all knew what that meant, and someone who had a bad temper. Then I was able to teach them the context of what the word meant and why I was using it. We moved on and continued with the lesson. As we were heading back to class one of the students said, ‘What was that word again?’ I told them and he said ‘I like that word! I am going to start using it.’ I really cannot put into words what that meant to me except that I know this is what I am meant to be doing. I am so appreciative of the opportunities I have to make a small difference. When I have my own classroom this will be a regular occurrence and I cannot wait for it.”
As you can see words follow me because right after that my other cooperating teacher asked me to help her students with K.I.M. vocabulary. As a small group we would take a book walk through an informational text (varied texts!!!) and the students would choose words they would want to learn the meaning for. The K.I.M. activity was to help the students look for tier 2 vocab words in their reading (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002). K is for Key words, I is for information and M is a memory device which can range from a picture to word association. Then the students write their own informative sentence with that word. It was a great opportunity to go over with the students how to figure out the meaning of a word rather than going straight to the dictionary. We used so many other options to figure out the meaning of the word. It was so cool to see how the students were able to understand and figure out the meaning of the words. To help figure out the meaning of the words we used these great bookmarks that have 12 strategies about how to find a words meaning. We used all of the strategies and even more. One word that was chosen was cargo. The student referenced cargo pants. This was an excellent connection. I asked her why do you think cargo pants got their name. Using my fashion background (3 years at Polo, I have seen my fair share of cargo pants**) we concluded that they have a lot of pockets to hold a lot of stuff. I suggested that maybe it could even be considered supplies (secretly tricking her into using that word to help define cargo). We transferred this idea to how the Red Cross was dropping cargo to those needy in Ethiopia. She concluded with the help of her small group that cargo was large quantities of supplies. Not once did we consult the dictionary to understand the words meaning. I love how words can open a student’s mind up and expand their comprehension. Also, students get so excited when they use they realize they figured out the meaning of a word (Oh girl, I have another heartwarming story on that subject, but this is not an episode of 7th Heaven).
The National Reading Panel thinks it’s important, Andrew Biemiller thinks it’s important, Max (we will learn more about Max later) thinks it’s important, I think it is important, the students future thinks it is important (Biemiller, 2001). So a general consensus is that vocab instruction is important. Students need to be exposed to as many words as possible in so many different contexts. I think my cooperating teacher and I get along so well because she values vocab instruction as well. One of the most fun quick lessons my teacher did with her students was having them act their spelling words out. 6th graders in general can’t sit still so they were so excited to move around the classroom (Wood, 2007). They were laughing having fun and connecting the meanings with their students ability to act the words meaning out. This activity while short and sweet to “kill time” before lunch was worth its weight in gold. Students will remember that their classmate may have made the Home Alone face when defining petrified more so than if they looked it up in the dictionary. Chances are it would confuse them because it would say something like extremely scared and really old wood (but in sciency terms). To a young mind it is a tad confusing. That’s why when I am a teacher I will have so many opportunities for my students to learn a multitude of words and use the 12+ methods to solving their definition.
While I could probably write a dissertation (no PhD plans just yet) on the acquisition on vocab in elementary students I am going to stop my diatribe (I love this word, please remove negative connotation from it for this sentence, just this one time, I will be eternally grateful). Oh, don’t think this is the last time you are going to see a post on this subject. If vocab isn’t your jam, I will warn you next time. Chances are if it is not your jam, you won’t even be getting this far into the post.
*I have a strong belief that I should not modify how I speak to my students. If I speak to them as if they are adults they will feel respected and respond in a more adult way. If we treat them as babies their behavior will only live up to this expectation. If we set our expectations low chances are they will be met, but if we set them high the potential for growth is outstanding.
**side note to all men reading this. While cargo shorts maybe functional they went out with the 90’s. Stick with a flat (never pleated) front chino short.