Skip to content
ascd logo

July 9, 2015
Vol. 10
No. 21

Field Notes: Meaningful Work, Meaningful Words

As members of our school's instructional team, we regularly use data to guide our professional development plans. Three years ago, our MAP (measures of academic progress) assessment data exposed student challenges with academic vocabulary, especially when we looked at data from one grade level to the next. Our students could read, but as curriculum progressed to more specific grade-level content, students struggled with academic vocabulary deciphering tier three words. Although we believe our earlier practices were beneficial, we've come to realize that vocabulary learning really thrives in a project-based environment.

Reading with a Purpose

First and foremost, students grow their vocabularies by reading. Teachers support this by regularly conferencing with students to determine interests and needs and carving out time for continuous student reading and writing. Although it may be challenging, students should continuously read and write for 75 percent of their day.
With project-based learning (PBL), students have not only a purpose for reading but also a reason to do a lot of it. In the PBL framework for instruction, students are regularly asked to read, research, and respond to texts on meaningful, student-driven topics. After all, inquiry-based instruction requires students to have a deep understanding of concepts. They become invested in their learning as they spend significant time reading independently, with partners, and within small guided groups.

TIPS for Unlocking Words

Students need tools to navigate the academic vocabulary they are exposed to in texts. The TIPS—term, information, picture, sentence—chart strategy provides students with multiple examples of academic words (Rollins, 2014). The chart is a graphic organizer that serves as a reference for the academic terms in a unit. Once students or teachers have identified a term to study, they gather information from their readings that describes the term, draw a graphic representation of the term, and use the term in a sentence. TIPS helps students put vocabulary learning in their own words and pictures, thus providing "just right" instruction at their individual level. Students, especially English language learners, need multiple exposures to words before feeling confident enough to use them in their written and verbal communication.
As PBL allows deeper immersion into topics, students also experience multiple, contextualized uses of academic vocabulary. We've found that TIPS is a valuable student resource for scaffolding word knowledge. One way we use it is in our 2nd grade PBL unit on weather. Prior to the start of the unit, students participate in an immersion center, complete with various weather tools and texts. While at the center, students observe, research, make predictions, and collect vocabulary words to add to the TIPS chart. The class as a whole then refines this list of essential terms through discussion. We find that students are more engaged and committed to word study when they have a tool that invites student responsibility and involvement.

Authentic Communications

Students need time to practice newly learned words. Sentence starters and frames can help support this practice, especially for reluctant learners or English language learners. Students need many opportunities to talk and write like experts. How do we know authors are knowledgeable about their content? They use academic vocabulary and expert language when writing about a topic.
Authentic writing is another component of PBL. During the PBL unit on weather, students create their own nonfiction books on various storms and recommend precautions to take during severe weather. Students are required to include several nonfiction text features, including their own personalized glossary. When students write about their learning, they demonstrate their level of understanding. Teachers can tell by the inclusion and appropriate use of academic vocabulary in students' writing whether or not they know what the terms mean.
A list of words and definitions is not enough when expecting students to learn vocabulary words. As Maya Angelou stated, "Words mean more than what is set down on paper. It takes the human voice to infuse them with shades of deeper meaning." Classrooms should be filled with discussions about rich texts, authentic student work, and student-created anchor charts and graffiti walls. As educators, we must provide students with multiple opportunities to discover, study, and use words.
Ultimately, the hallmark of increased student vocabulary is student empowerment. When students take ownership of their learning and have the time and tools they need to explore, they not only learn the meaning of words but also become confident owners of the words they use. Then, vocabulary learning becomes more than a study of words; it becomes a voice for students—and hope for a fulfilling, purposeful future.

Rollins, S. P. (2014). Learning in the fast lane: 8 ways to put all students on the road to academic success. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Author bio coming soon

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.