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Diving Into Academic Vocabulary: A Teacher's Quest for Rigor, Engagement & Meaning



Like it was yesterday. Seriously. I still remember my first swimming class at the community pool. I wore a robin's egg blue bikini with a bow attached to the swimsuit top. It had little pink flowers on it. My mom had put my hair in pigtails. I was so excited. I was six years old. The swim teacher remains faceless in my memory, but she wore a red one-piece suit. 

Our first lesson was floating. She convinced me to lay back on her hands and relax. I was floating on my back! Then, I had to put my face in the water. I leaned forward into her outstretched arms and after way too much cajoling, I put my face in the water. She let go. I was floating on my stomach! And then, I inhaled. I snorted. I retched. I coughed. I cried. After that initial experience, my swim lesson experiences are hazy. I don't think I ever got past the doggy paddle, because I could keep my face out of water for that. 

Teaching tier 2 academic vocabulary felt like my first swim class. I waded into the shallow end of the pool, hopeful. I even left my arm floaties on the pool deck. And then I snorted water...

Types of vocabulary are broken into 3 tiers. Tier 1 vocabulary are words that seldom need to be directly taught. Tier 2 vocabulary are robust, academic vocabulary words that students are likely to encounter across all topics and content-areas and in testing situations.  Tier 3 vocabulary are words that are domain specific like “math words” or “social studies words.” 

What I had done was purchase a vocabulary product from an educational publisher. I was looking for an easy way to begin, and this seemed like the best way to go at it. A month into this worksheet-oriented resource, my kids were moaning every time we talked about vocabulary. I was bored, too. I tried to pep up my lessons, but the problem was that the resource I had purchased never moved beyond "this is the word, look up the definition, memorize it, write it in a sentence, test it." Incidentally, my kids didn't do well on the assessments, and I found myself having to review and reteach over and over again. 
I needed something engaging. My students and I needed to be excited about it.  I reread vocabulary research, and thought about what I know about pedagogy. Kids need to have ownership over their learning. They respond well to games. Choice can be a huge factor in a student's success. I put the book on the free table in our staff lounge and began to build my own pool of vocabulary lessons and activities. 

First, I made student jobs in our vocabulary workshop. We had a Dictionary Digger, a Word Caster, Wall Mason, Sound Mixer and Town Crier. The Dictionary Digger looked up the vocabulary in the dictionary or online dictionary. The Word Caster read the vocabulary sentences that I wrote on the board for each lesson. The Wall Masons built the vocabulary word wall on our cabinet doors. Each day we introduced a new word, they were in charge of placing it correctly. 

The Town Crier rang a bell and announced vocabulary headlines that summarized our weekly vocabulary learning. And finally, the Sound Mixer played a sound effect each time the vocabulary word was used throughout the day or in a content-area lesson. I had purchased a nifty sound effects handheld machine at Target just for this purpose!

I introduced props into our vocabulary workshop. The Town Crier used a large old-fashioned school bell to summarize the vocabulary learning for the day. The Sound Mixer used the sound effects machine. The Wall Masons wore bandannas around their necks and kept a large bedazzled paintbrush on their desks for the week. The Word Caster wore a feathered boa or movie star sunglasses. The Dictionary Digger wore a pair of garden gloves as he or she paged through the dictionary. The kids couldn't wait for their turns at the jobs!

Finally, I incorporated some whole-class games. We played these in the morning instead of doing worksheet-y bell work. They required strategy, talk, and critical thinking. We had a blast!


Part of my dissatisfaction with the canned vocabulary program I had purchased was its lack of rigor. It was worksheet after worksheet. In fact, it reminded me of the spelling workbooks I loathed when I was in elementary school. So I reread Robert Marzano's research on vocabulary instruction and I discovered Making Thinking Visible by Mark Church and Ron Ritchart.  

Suddenly the pieces began to fall into place. What I wanted in my vocabulary instruction was student voice. I wanted my kiddos to be talking about words, exploring them, looking for them, and playing with them...the way writers and readers do. Visible thinking routines did that for us. 

I developed my instructional routines for teaching vocabulary. First, I introduced vocabulary words by placing them in a context.  For example, I introduced a vocabulary word like analyze by writing three sentences (funny and engaging) that used the word. These sentences were about the students, myself, or humorous classroom situations. 

Ms. Willis analyzed how much time it would take until her teacher forgot about her homework.

Carson wanted to analyze how much chocolate it would take for Ms. Willis to give the class an extra recess.

Janie needed to analyze how many basic facts problems she could complete in one minute. 

Using the sentences, we discussed what we thought the word analyze means.  Then the Dictionary Digger looked it up either in a dictionary or an online dictionary. We compared and contrasted our predictions with the dictionary definitions. 

Then, I began to play with using routines like Circle of Viewpoints, 3-2-1, CSI, Headlines, and Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate in my lessons. The 3-2-1 routine was one of my favorite routines to use at the very beginning of my vocabulary quest. After unpacking the new vocabulary word, we met in thinking councils and thought of three words that came to mind when we thought about  the vocabulary word. 

Then we asked two questions about the word. We discussed those questions. We tried to answer them.

Finally, we created one metaphor or simile for our vocabulary word. 

Check out this example for the word analyze:

3 WORDS: Dissect, parts, think
2 QUESTIONS: In what subject areas would we use this word? Does the meaning change if we change part of the word to make it analyzed or analysis?
1 METAPHOR/SIMILE: Analyze is like looking for the greatest common factor of  two numbers in math class.

These routines and Marzano's steps for teaching vocabulary rocked our world and my instruction. After my first couple of lessons with the thinking routines, it became apparent that we had waded into the deep end of the pool. 


In order for vocabulary to stick, my students had to make meaning for themselves. We accomplished this through tons of peer-to-peer and small group discussions. Thinking routines demand that of learners. My students began to think more symbolically and metaphorically. Discourse happened. Accountable talk happened.  We used thinking routine language like:

Why do you think that?

At first I thought...now I think...

I need to be sure to remember...

I think...because...

 Their independence grew, and they were able to use thinking routines in their vocabulary notebooks. They were able to explain their thinking more succinctly. 

This quest has been a long journey. Over the course of four years, I've waded into the deep end of the pool, without my arm floaties, and I put my face into the water. Even when I came up sputtering, I kept going. It was worth it.  It changed how my students view word study and who they become as writers and readers. This time in the pool, I didn't even cry. 

                                                           Until next time, 


I worked hard so you wouldn't have to... You can snag everything you need for your own vocabulary quest right here! Click below! It's discounted for the entire month of July!



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