The above photo shows my own ninth-grade copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Every year, when I’m reading the book with my sophomores, I laugh at my adolescent scrawling mixed in with my adult annotations. Back then, my teacher gave us 15-20 words per chapter to find and define, hence my 1997-handwriting scribbled in red at the bottom of page one. Tossing 100+ terms at a fourteen-year-old will do little more than frustrate them.
Reading shouldn’t become a vocabulary word search puzzle.
Once your team has boiled your course down to what matters and determined the essential vocabulary for each unit, our next goal is to work through Robert Marzano’s six-step process of instruction found in Classroom Instruction that Works.
Step 1: Provide a description, explanation, or example of the term.
This can be done in a number of ways.
First, you could straight-up provide a set of terms and then guide the students through the definitions. I do this before my students are about to tackle a particularly challenging reading or dive into a meaty inquiry assignment. In History, I appreciate how SHEG always gives a vocab bank on their primary source documents. I do this on most of my Articles of the Week, as well.
Aside from that, you could imbed the description of few terms within your interactive lecture. For example, if I’m speaking about the leaders of WWII, my lecture always includes both names/examples of the dictators and the characteristics of a totalitarian government. Students record this information in the history notebooks.
Ultimately, this step is a relatively short process. You should not spend more than ten minutes directly teaching vocabulary in one lesson.
Step 2: Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
This stage of translating the vocabulary into their own words is vital for students to own their learning.
If a student mentally “checks out” after writing down my definition, he hasn’t built a meaningful cognitive relationship with the term. Of course, it’s not going to stick around for the long-term when it’s just breezed past his eyes and moved down his pen.
You know the dilemma with these kids: they’re the ones that freak out when the test isn’t worded exactly like the textbook. These kids haven’t learned anything because they haven’t processed the content.
To dominate Step #2, my class frequently uses the Make It Stick strategy of paraphrasing. Not only does this skill help students with their listening comprehension, but it fosters stronger speaking skills. Students can always translate teacher definitions into their own written words, too.
While it seems simple, this act of translating a concept into synonymous words and conveying an idea in a new way actually locks the information into long-term memory.
I always describe this process to my kids like it’s some kind of “idea factory assembly line:” the definition goes in one end of the machine and comes out with the same components just with different diction packaging.
Step 3: Ask students to construct a picture, symbol, or graphic of the term.
The teachers that I work with, always ask, “Do I have to have students draw?” No, but if you do, that’s great!
My high schoolers love to draw, especially when I draw too. Give them permission to draw the worst picture in the class.
It’s not about the quality of their designs but rather the cognitive manipulation of words to images.
This thinking is what’s really important, even if it doesn’t turn out how they imagined. The goal is to create a memory cue by thinking about the term in a new way.
So sure, sometimes I have my kids draw. Recently, they drew really wicked aliens that depicted all of those above characteristics of totalitarianism. Other times, I don’t want to spend our time in this way.
If we don’t draw, I have them talk about what the term reminds them of, maybe a specific image or scene from a movie.
If the vocabulary concept is more complex, I show a quick YouTube video or story-tell a visual analogy of the term that includes students in the class.
For example, when talking about the “spheres of influence” in China, I told a story about some domineering sixth-grade girl scouts who wouldn’t let a younger second-grade girl scout sell cookies in their designated neighborhoods. I named specific students as those girl scouts, and collectively my class visualized this comparison to the older empire trading conflicts in China. Then, weeks later, when I prompt them with the cue about girl scout cookies and those particular students, my class can recall their learning about imperialism in Asia.
Step 4: Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the term in their notebooks.
There are lots of ways to engage students in vocab activities, like Quizlet or QuickWrites. In the comment section below, please share the activities that you like to use with your students.
I’ve mentioned some of my strategies in following posts:
Step 5: Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
My US History classes have vocabulary chats almost every class period. This doesn’t have to be elaborate, my friends. Normally, this is a quick Turn-and-Talk activity that gets them playing with the vocabulary. When your content words are visually available for students, these conversations are hanging in the air waiting to happen. Plus, if you keep your Word Walls up all year, you can prompt students to discuss connections between terms in various units.
Step 6: Involve students periodically in games that allow them to play with terms.
If you know me and my work, I am not about adding more to your plate. Let’s focus on the essentials and say no to what doesn’t matter. Most of my “gaming” centers on our use of flashcards, like these and these. As a group, we do a lot of cart sort activities, or I give them bits of time to play Memory in pairs or solo.
If you’re interested in stepping this up, you can find tons of vocab games on Pinterest, and Marzano’s book Building Academic Vocabulary includes ideas for review games and activities. My colleague, Josh Cooper, uses “speed groups” and a variation of “Catch Phrase” to engage students in conversation using academic vocabulary.
Your Turn . . .
After we break it down in these six steps, we can see that this process takes time but makes for deep-rooted learning. As I mentioned already, we want to hear from your expertise here:
• What vocabulary activities work with your students?
• How do you get your students to talk about vocabulary?
Thanks to my colleague Josh Cooper for always pushing our Social Studies department to think deeply about literacy and for co-leading an Academic Vocabulary workshop with me last month.
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