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One Cool Way to Leap Content-Area Vocabulary in a Single Bound



Copy the words on your paper. Then use a dictionary to find the definitions. Write the definitions next to each word on your paper. Memorize them. You have a test on Friday.

Raise your hand if you rolled your eyes or groaned after reading those directions. And yet, I'd bet you a Starbucks coffee that this was your experience learning in vocabulary in elementary and middle school! I know it was mine. As a student, nothing could make my eyes gloss over faster than directions like the ones above. 


As a teacher, I needed to find more interactive ways to introduce unit vocabulary in content-area subjects. I finally found one that engaged my students, made the words "stick," and helped my kiddos think about the words in context. 

In fifth grade math, fractions comprise a huge part of our curriculum. It's vocab heavy, and quite frankly, nothing makes most fifth graders break out into nervous sweats like fractions. With this webbing approach, we begin by brainstorming and predicting fraction words we might encounter in our unit. 
Students work in table groups to generate a list of fraction words. They write these on post-its. Then, each group reports out to the whole group. I made a whole-group list on our whiteboard. We discussed any words that are unfamiliar before moving on to the second step.

The second step is what makes this strategy so powerful. Students must talk about the words and negotiate with each other. I give each group a sheet of paper with concentric rings. The word fraction goes in the center ring. Students work in groups to sort the words from the whole-group list. The words most related to the central word go in the closest ring. However, they must also identify how those words are related to each other. Are some more connected to each other than others? 

My kiddos engage in some pretty deep discussions, and sometimes the debate becomes heated. However, they are also learning to defend their thinking with evidence. That means that they are using #3 and 4 in the Standards for Mathematical Practice. They're constructing viable arguments and critiquing the reasoning of others, and modeling with mathematics to support their opinions. 

After small groups plot their words on the concentric web, they meet with another small group to compare their collective thinking. Again, debate occurs. 

I can't say it enough: This little strategy has rocked our world in my classroom, in ALL subject areas. 

This year, I took it one step further and asked my students, "If the word equivalent was a superhero, what would his/her powers be?" I did an example to show them what I meant. I would make Equivalent Woman. She would be a superhero who fought to make all situations balanced and fair. She would be called in to decide tough cases where equations weren't equal. Having a hard time installing carpet? Equivalent Woman to the rescue! She'll make sure that you can convert those fractional measurements accurately. I created a superhero symbol/logo for Equivalent Woman. 

I asked each student to choose one of our unit vocabulary words. They weren't allowed to choose a word that someone else had already chosen. Together, we developed a series of questions to help us think about the word and superhero character.

  1. What is the formal definition of the word?
  2. What do I think it means in my own words?
  3. What real-life problems could my superhero solve, and how would those problems relate to the definition.
  4. How would my superhero be dressed? 
  5. What is my superhero's logo? 
We had a blast with this! In the end, my kiddos created superhero posters for our unit vocabulary. These were on display throughout the unit, and because they were student-created, they were CONSISTENTLY used by my students. You can check out some of their rough drafts below:

My favorite thing about this approach is that my kids come away with increased understanding and retention of the vocabulary... and they're engaged. REALLY ENGAGED.  No one had to copy 20 definitions out a Merriam-Webster Dictionary. 


Interested in reading more about how I teach content-area and tier 2 vocabulary? Click HERE and HERE.

Or you can check out these resources! Just click on the picture.



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