I had a useless word wall. A wall full of staples much to the chagrin of my principal, janitorial staff, and TA’s who had to pull them all out in June. Words written in careful bubble letters by teenage girls who really care about the quality of their bubble letters. Definitions that included parts of speech and multiple uses. Sentences written neatly underneath that help convey the meaning of each and every word. Words that were fought for, qualified and defended in numerous PLC meetings. The words all came from a list of one hundred and two words the Contemporary World Studies teachers decided in these meetings students should know by the time they graduated from high school. The idea was each student would make a word for the wall and then they would be able to reference the wall whenever they had questions. It would enlighten them and they would be able to use these words to talk and write like sociologist, or economists, or geologist. What a beautiful tool! I loved that useless word wall.
So if I loved it so much, why do I confess that it was useless? Well, I guess not useless, but of little use. I suppose on occasion a student did look up on the wall to find a word in a reading, but I can’t prove how many or how often. I suppose it gave them an idea of topics we would cover or words they could use on essays, but weren’t these all things they could do as easily with a dictionary, or their phones for that matter. Yes, they were. The sad thing is I didn’t even realize how little use there was to this wall or to this type of vocabulary activity in isolation. We’ve always done it this way, so we just kept on doing it and never really questioned the effectiveness. Teachers had a few reasons like, it’s an SAT word or has a Latin root, but aside from those, I can’t really think of any other reason to continue this practice.
The real issue for my useless word wall comes when I look at the Common Core Reading Anchor Standards.
Knowledge of Language
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.3 Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.
Vocabulary Acquisition and Use
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.4 Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.5 Demonstrate understanding of figurative language, word relationships, and nuances in word meanings.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.6 Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.
Uh, oh, shame on you word wall! You are doing nothing of the sort. I realized that I needed to do something to address the standards and really help my students acquire and use language in a new and artful way. I had many conversations with other teachers in my district and department and the more I brought it up the more they echoed my concerns but had little to offer as a solution. They wished me luck in my quest and hoped to share in my treasure when I found it.
Well I think I may have found the treasure of practice I was looking for. The way I have transformed my approach to vocabulary came from two sources. One, a close reading lesson from The Reach Associates, and the other from a book titled Falling in Love with Close Reading, by Christopher Lehman and Kate Roberts,specifically the chapter on word choice.
I was first introduced to a close reading lesson on Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech at an LDC training at the PSESD. On my word wall the word “justice” was defined as: the quality of being just; righteousness, equitableness, or moral rightness. However, by the time I was done with the lesson I had more complex meanings for justice, like currency, power, and promises. This is what King had wanted in his speech. He had wanted that word to carry so much more meaning than the quality of being just. In this lesson students were able to see the power in this one word by first recording seven different contextual meanings of the word from seven different instances of its use. The students discussed this with a partner and then were asked to trace the accumulated meaning of the word through the text. (This lesson can be found along with other great resources at www.reachassoc.net.) The inspiration and excitement I felt by this one new strategy was like a light from heaven beaming down through the ceiling. I felt like I really understood in this example what it means to have students use vocabulary to build meaning and craft, and not just to define words. This was a great example, but now how was I going to change my practice to mirror it?
I had struck gold, but my quest for the meaning of vocabulary in life got even better when I was given the book Falling in Love with Close Reading. The third chapter of the book is titled, A Way with Words: A Study of Word Choice. In this chapter they outline three guiding practices to make rituals in your classroom study of vocabulary and word choice. They are, read through lenses, use lenses to find patterns, and use the patterns to develop a new understanding of the text. When I found this chapter I felt as though I had the guidance to develop my own great lesson like the “I Have A Dream“lesson. I could see that in this lesson the lens was that MLK Jr. was asking for justice, but what exactly did that mean in this speech. The lesson was designed so that students could find the patterns and the meaning behind his choices when using that word. Lastly the students used that pattern that they had identified to write a paragraph that had a new meaning for the word justice. In the end they can see that in the case of “I Have A Dream”, the entire idea of justice and what that meant for Dr. King was far from the dictionary definition of the word.
I plan to use a word wall again, but only after I have carefully selected texts my students can use to gather new meanings for words. Texts that have rich word choice paired with rich meanings. I will then put those words on the wall, with new rich meanings that my students articulated after having read through lenses, found patterns, and developed new understandings of the text.
I would love to know where others of you have found pots of gold when it comes to word choice and rich vocabulary lesson. Please share in the comments if you have any more suggestions.