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Words, Words, Words
July 9, 2015 | Volume 10 | Issue 21
Table of Contents
A Game Plan for 12 to 20 Meaningful Exposures
David R. M. Saavedra
Children need to swim in words every moment they are in the classroom. They need to hear words, say words, see words, and write words. If you want students to expand their academic vocabulary, write with authority, and read complex academic texts, words need to be everywhere. Lists and worksheets won't cut it.
Research contends we need 12 to 20 meaningful exposures to learn a word (McKeown, Beck, Omanson, and Pople, 1985)—a seemingly impossible and certainly daunting task considering the vast number of words. But thoughtful planning, interactive activities, and classroom routines can create the conditions to reach that threshold.
Thoughtful Planning: Choosing Which Words to Teach
Vocabulary instruction starts with a thoughtful analysis of the words students will encounter in a text, lesson, or unit. A very useful framework for this task is the concept of tiered vocabulary. As explained by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002), tiered vocabulary divides words into three broad categories.
The dividing lines between tiers can be fuzzy, so not all educators will assign the same word to the same tier. That's okay. The value of this exercise is in thinking about the frequency, sophistication, and technicality of vocabulary. You can then use this information to purposefully choose which words you will focus on and how you will teach them.
Choosing is not terribly complicated. Just consider how to get the most "bang for your buck." In terms of the classroom, think about which words are most crucial for a particular lesson or unit—words that are essential to complete understanding of the content. These are words you will want to spend time on. Tier 3 words will likely jump out at you.
But don't forget to look at the big picture. Which words should students walk out the door understanding? Which words should they carry forward and use in the world? Tier 2 words—fairly common, yet abstract and often subtle—most certainly fit the bill. Our familiarity with these words as adults can cause us to wrongly assume that students also fully grasp their meaning. Tier 2 words are, in fact, the most overlooked and undertaught. Include them in the vocabulary you teach your students.
Hear Words, Say Words: Orchestrating Meaningful Activities
Let's take a step back and think about language. Writing systems are relatively new inventions. Over the course of human evolution, language has primarily been oral, so our brains are actually hardwired to acquire language that way. Babies are capable of using sign language to communicate words they've learned by listening. Children expand their vocabulary and learn grammar structures from what they hear going on around them. When they speak, they are testing what they've learned and getting feedback to make adjustments. It stands to reason, then, that engaging the brain with listening and speaking is key for vocabulary acquisition.
Simply put, we need to hear and say words to learn them best. The old methods of memorizing word lists and completing one-time worksheets are not effective. Teachers should use activities that call upon all four language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing), but the first two in that list tend to be underused or forgotten. Interaction is necessary. Our brains demand it.
Margarita Calderón (2011) developed a seven-step technique that encourages a large amount of interaction among teachers and students right at the beginning of the vocabulary learning process. It guarantees that students quickly get a high number of meaningful exposures to new words. The steps are 100 percent oral, take only about two minutes per word, and should be followed for three to five words at a time. Steps 1 through 5 take one minute in total. Step 6 takes one minute. And step 7 is a very quick reminder at the end.
Danell Mieure developed a series of interactive, communicative techniques to teach vocabulary for 20 minutes per day (McKitrick, 2014). This system allows students to process new words and interact with each other to use them. It also builds in repeated exposures over a number of class periods. On day one, the teacher projects images and discusses connections with the vocabulary words. On day two, students complete grids that contain a definition, a sentence, a nonexample (i.e., an example of what the word is not), and a representative drawing. Days three and four are interactive. Students explain words to each other so all wind up with the entire set. On day five, students use the words in a partner or group game.
Words Everywhere: Fortifying Learning for the Long Term
Great word learning strategies like those of Calderón and Mieure are not enough on their own. Teachers need to reinforce and deepen students' acquisition of new vocabulary. Activities and classroom space should cycle words so that students are continually using them. Think about it this way: each time a word is used in context in the classroom, students are one exposure closer to that 12 to 20 threshold. Organize your classroom to maximize exposures.
First and foremost, teachers must be thoughtful and purposeful about the words they use. We must incorporate target vocabulary into our own speech and into assignments. We must use it and put it out into the classroom environment. Only then can we insist that students use it as well.
Word walls keep target vocabulary visible in the environment. Word walls are a collection of vocabulary words written in large, easy-to-read letters that are kept on the wall or bulletin board of your classroom as a learning tool. Both students and teachers can refer to the wall to help them remember to use target vocabulary. Teachers can point to the wall to encourage and remind students to use words in speech and in their writing. Students and teachers can also move and organize words in different ways to support particular lessons and activities.
Interactive vocabulary reviews are another practice to incorporate into classroom routines. Every couple of weeks, set aside a little time—15 to 20 minutes—for students to review important words with each other. Students might pick a word or two out of a hat and circulate around the room, explaining their words and listening to explanations of other words. Set students up in pairs, with one student reading a clue and the other student stating the target word. Or, orchestrate a roundtable activity in small groups. In a roundtable, each group has one piece of paper and one pencil. The teacher provides a prompt and one student writes a short response, passes the material to the next student, and the process continues (Kagan, 1989). Roundtables work well when the class has been studying a specific topic. The topic becomes the prompt, and students create a list of related vocabulary words culled from their responses to the prompt. The lists students create can become word banks for an upcoming assignment.
Create the Conditions: Building Student Vocabulary
It seems like a big stumbling block—12 to 20 meaningful exposures per word. But it doesn't have to trip you up. There are four straightforward steps to take.
With focus and purpose, teachers can make vocabulary learning meaningful.
Beck, I. L., McKeown, M. G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guilford Press.
Calderón, M. (2011). Teaching reading and comprehension to English learners, K–5. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.
Kagan, S. (1989). The structural approach to cooperative learning. Educational Leadership, 47(4), 12–15.
McKeown, M., Beck, I., Omanson, R., & Pople, M. (1985). Some effects of the nature and frequency of vocabulary instruction on the knowledge and use of words. Reading Research Quarterly, 20(5), 522–535.
McKitrick, C. (2014, October 10). Ogden educator scores language breakthrough. Standard- Examiner. Retrieved from http://www.standard.net/Education/2014/10/11/Ogden-educator-s-doctoral-research-nets-national-honor
David R. M. Saavedra teaches both English as a second language and SEI history at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in Cambridge, Mass. He is a National Board–certified teacher in English as a new language, early adolescence through young adulthood.
ASCD Express, Vol. 10, No. 21. Copyright 2015 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
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