I’m no CCSS flag bearer, and tend to apply a skeptic’s eye to all education reform, but I appreciate the Core’s emphasis on academic vocabulary acquisition. Increasing all students’ understanding of how their language works, building toward a fuller understanding of the academic words, will allow them to more successfully navigate texts and conversations important to professional and citizenship pursuits. In this way, vocabulary acquisition acts as an important aspect of bridging the equity gap.
featured image courtesy Buster Benson at Flickr.
WHAT IS IT?
Based on Beck and McKeown’s work, the Common Core suggests teachers consider 3 tiers when we approach vocab instruction: 1) everyday words, 2) academic words, 3) domain specific words. Direct and systematic instruction should focus on tier 2 in all subject areas, with a seasoning of the most important tier 3 words being used in learning activities. The Aspen Institute’s 2012 “Academic Vocabulary and the CCSS” gives a quick overview. In addition, Achieve The Core has published David Liben’s “Vocabulary and the Common Core,” available here online, which includes some excellent professional practice on determining how the tiers work in prose text. Systematic study of tier two vocabulary will help students develop a more thorough, nuanced, and effective understanding of how this part of our language affects and conveys meaning.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
One of the most important outcomes of targeted academic vocabulary study is its ability to shrink the equity gap (and let’s face it, achievement is too often an issue of equitable access to opportunities like early childhood education, accomplished teachers, teachers of color, arts integration, tutoring and extra help, fair discipline practices, etc.). Over 40 years of research, including that of Hart & Risley in 2004 and Harvey and Goudvis in 2000, proves a positive relationship between vocabulary acquisition and improved reading comprehension. If students have access to quality vocabulary instruction, their reading comprehension improves. We also have plenty of research showing that English Language Learners, students of color, and children of poverty experience lower success rates in reading comprehension and concurrently in vocabulary acquisition than their peers. This success rate has clear correlation to academic performance, and later to post-secondary success and full participation in adult social systems. Thus, lack of access becomes an equity problem. Racial Equity Tools offers Kylie Symonds’ essay “After the Test: Closing the Achievement Gap with Data:” great suggestions and data-use case studies for closing reading/literacy gaps, though I would add that “literacy” and “discourse” instruction must embrace communication skills and literature beyond the canon of privilege.
Now that we’ve established intentional vocab instruction as important for all kids, the difficulty lies in how to deliver meaningful and effective learning opportunities. Much of what we consider “traditional” study formats — out of context, list-driven, matching words to definitions — just doesn’t develop sophisticated word knowledge or usage. Robert Marzano has co-written several books on the topic: Building Academic Vocabulary, Vocabulary for the Common Core, and Vocabulary Games for the Classroom. A recent educationese buzzword, gamification offers some Marzano-approved strategies I’ve found to increase my students’ performance on usage tests. Chosen wisely, games allow students to explore word meanings in varied contexts over multiple encounters with teacher/peer/technology feedback.
- Games create high engagement (when students are having fun, they’ll play often and stay focused, increasing exposure which leads to better memory and usage) and help foster a love of language
- Some game formats allow students to additionally work on resiliency skills: not giving up when frustrated or when there are multiple possible solutions, sportsmanship, teamwork, enduring mild stress
- Games can be the vehicle for learning and practicing multiple strategies students can then independently apply for discovering meaning, interpreting unfamiliar usage, recall, and personal usage, thus improving comprehension
- Games allow ongoing, quick assessment of students’ grasp and use of academic vocabulary
- If not connected to content or deeper learning activities, games by themselves may not assist students’ usage-in-context skills
- If games are tied to technology, some students may not be able to participate — some of this can be alleviated in non-1-to-1 schools with COWS and peer sharing, but ultimately age appropriate technology must be made available for gamification of learning to become a regular approach
Here are a few games my students and I can vouch for:
- Chat Pack Chat Backs: pair up, distribute 2 chat pack cards per pair, allow 60 seconds for pairs to ask and answer using one vocab word with a context clue, cross the word off and don’t use it again, stop time and swap cards with the pair to your right, repeat several times so everyone uses each word
- Whiteboard Game-o-Rama: Create mini-competition rounds where teams of 2-4 use their words to play games like charades, heads’ up, pictionary, or sentence with a blank and a context clue race, etc using the whiteboards (simple prizes like smarties and stickers work wonders)
- Collective Story: sitting in a circle, each student draws a blank story or scenario prompt (setting/character/problem or first sentence/potential economics, science, history conundrum) and then writes a sentence in response that includes one vocab word with a context clue, papers are passed after 60 seconds, a sentence is now added that gives the next detail that makes sense with the existing writing and includes a new vocab word and clue not already used, papers are passed after 90 seconds to allow for reading time, at the end of a chosen number of rounds, have students read the results in trios and tally up the highest number of helpful context clues for winners.
- Spontaneous Productions: allow 5-10 minutes for kids to compose a jingle to help them remember words that have multiple meanings in different contexts (challenge them to deliver in a tone and rhythm suitable to the word)
- Plickers (teacher tech only)
- 3 Photos: Have kids tell the “life story” of a word (they’ll have to research its etymology and any multiple or contextual meanings first) in 3 photos which they can then show via Power Point, Sway, or another presentation format while they tell the word’s story from beginning to middle to end (inspired by the mini photo story challenge seen here)
- Science vocab game ideas here
In your own classroom, you’ll make decisions about low-stakes competition, protocols for each game type, technology access, and time allotments. I’d love to hear any vocab games that are resulting in visible/audible usage improvements for your students — please comment.
Have fun gaming,