Tuesday, April 26, 2016

If THEY Build It, Will THEY Learn It?

by Megan Oliver

One of the many the aspects I struggle with in my field of English Language Arts  is vocabulary. As students read less and less, their vocabulary acquisition is noticeably decreasing. My struggle with this issue is compounded by professional, parental, and even student beliefs that memorizing and regurgitating random vocabulary words is somehow meaningful and will help plug the hole that has appeared as a result of their decreased reading and vocabulary acquisition. In the past, I used to prescribe to this way of thinking, but as I evolve as an educator, I began to question my own methods.

A little backstory.

The first time I really broke away from the traditional vocabulary instructional model was not exactly by choice. At the beginning of a new school year, I discovered that over ⅓ of my college prep class had studied from the same level of vocabulary textbook in 9th grade that I was supposed to use with them in 10th grade. While this has happened in the past, it had never been such a significant percentage, and I felt that I could not, in good faith, move these students though material that they had already covered. So, I threw out the book and started having them select words from the works we read throughout the year. This worked fairly well, the words weren’t random, we were learning about them in the context of the texts we were reading but when I tried to transfer this method to a class at a different level, everything fell apart.

Flash forward to this year.

I continue to teach vocabulary with my college prep classes the same way as last year, but I still struggle with how to transfer this type of learning to students in my less academically motivated class, my more intermediate level class.  A few weeks ago, one of my students pointed out that we hadn’t done anything with vocabulary in weeks, and he asked if we were going to go back to it, he missed the “easy” grade. I couldn’t help but smile to myself, and yet also felt a little sick. I had moved us away from vocabulary because we were spending SO much time focusing on their writing skills, and the idea of taking any focus away from that learning for random vocabulary word study just didn’t make sense. I was also struck by his claim that vocabulary was an easy grade. I mulled this over for a few days; for this particular student, vocabulary was easy. This was due to two factors, he found short term memorization fairly easy, and he had studied these words the year before. So I asked myself, how do I start to challenge them with vocabulary in a more meaningful way? Last year when I tried to get students at this level to generate their own word lists from reading it was a disaster. But could I do it differently this year as I was now another year older, and another year wiser? When we started reading excerpts from the Iliad I saw my opportunity.

We are reading it out loud in class. For students who are quick readers, this means that they often tune out. For students who struggle to read, this means it is slightly more challenging to hold on to basic plot details. I decided that to combat these two problems they were going to learn to really take notes; and I don’t mean notes from a Google Presentation that I have organized and prepared for them ahead of time. They were going to learn to take notes about the things they found confusing as we read, things we would pause to discuss and clarify, or that I felt needed extra attention and focus to further their understanding. I also made each and
everyone take out a sheet of lined paper and write down, as we read, the words that they did not know, weren’t sure about, or thought they knew but could not define. At the end of each class, we reported out on their words and I recorded them on a list on the board. I also kept my own list of words that I thought they would struggle with as we read, and boy were my eyes opened.

On the left are the words I thought students might struggle with or identify. On the right are the words my students reported in class.

If you had asked me if I thought the average 10th grade student would struggle with words such as quarrel, inferior, or yearning, I would have said no, until this past week. Sitting in my room looking at that list of words, I could no longer ignore my students’ deficits (that being said, not ALL students in my class struggle with these relatively basic words). The next step for me was to figure out what the heck to do with these words.

All year long we have been working with vocabulary words in sets of ten. We had closer to 15 on the class list. I didn’t want to make the executive decision as to which words they needed to learn because I felt that I no longer really had a grasp of what words they knew or didn’t know. So, I decided to hash it out as a class.

I began with one last check to see if there were other words that students had recorded on their notes but had not shared with the class. A few more words were added to the list. I then explained that we were going to narrow down the list to ten words, and that those ten words would then become the vocabulary words we would study. I asked students if there were any words on the list that they felt we should keep, cut altogether, or save for a future list, and this led to a surprisingly heated process of advocacy and discussion.

Our first agreement was to keep the longest word on the list - ignominious - a word that I was not familiar with and could not have defined if asked - which I confessed to the class. Then we all agreed to take out one of the two words that rhymed, so it “wouldn’t be confusing.” And then the flame caught - some advocated to same them for later, others argued to throw out certain words altogether (though it was clear to me that those students had a much higher working vocabulary than most of the others). At times we had to vote; sometimes we would be split three ways, at others, there was a very clear majority. What I found fascinating was that we were having a heated, almost competitive discussion about words! WORDS! My students felt strongly about which words they wanted to study; words that they had picked out as they read! It was every English teacher’s dream.

The student list recorded each day, POST class discussion & selection process. Circled words are the 10 we will use for our vocabulary list. Words written in green will be saved for future word lists. Crossed out words have been cut entirely. Numbers indicate alphabetical order.

After we settled on our ten words (five were saved for future use, and one was cut as it had been listed twice) we moved on to the next phase. Instead of using vocabulary textbooks with this class, I present words (from the grade level textbook)  to them via a Google Presentation and have them fill out word maps as we go; what I have found with this method is that we generally have more discussion and fun with the words than if we were using the books. It also removed the cheating on the book exercies issue that I had run into for years.

Here is the final list of words, the student who will be responsible for that word, and the number of the slide each word is associated with.

I made a template of the presentation ahead of time and assigned it to the class in Google Classroom, that way every student would be able to easily access and edit the same document. Each student either picked or was assigned one of the ten words (a few students were out that day, so the numbers were perfect - I don’t quite know what I would have done if there were more than ten, we’ll see in the future). Their job was to fill out their word’s slide with the part of speech, definition, a sample sentence, and at least two synonyms and antonyms. They could use any resources they wanted to find this information, and they went at it. While this didn’t take a large amount of time, in the end, we had all ten words defined, and I went around individually to check on the sample sentences, resulting in conversations about how if the word was used as a verb, did this sentence make sense, etc. Later that day, during a “free” moment, I went through and cleaned up formatting, I don’t know how they can make such a mess of formatting, but they always do.

We will use this list to complete our vocabulary word maps, study, and eventually take a quiz. We will repeat this process with our next reading from the Iliad, and hopefully future readings as well.

Maybe this will be a bizarre blip for this class, but maybe, just maybe, I can encourage them to examine what they read more closely, ask themselves if they understand what they are reading, and inspire them to look something up once in awhile. At the very least, I am giving them ownership over their education, which is not too bad for a Tuesday.