By Jessica Salfia
Vocabulary. It can be the worst, amiright?
It’s been one of the most polarizing topics in many of the workshops and professional development seminars I’ve been in. Most teachers believe it’s difficult to teach well, and many teachers I’ve talked to about teaching vocabulary have two main complaints: it takes up way too much time, and the kids don’t really learn the words in the long term, memorizing them only long enough to pass a quiz.
But it’s also so, so easy. Kids are trained to grab those worksheets, flip to the glossary, and copy down those definitions. And they can do this with little to no critical thinking. Heck, they can do this with little to no thinking period. It’s automatic and painless, and this can be appealing to both teachers and students. A nice little break for everybody, right? But getting stuck in a vocab rut can be dangerous. Those quickly copied and memorized definitions often are not retained, and the way words work and move in language is often not learned at all when using “traditional” vocab methods.
So how do we do it? How do we expand vocabularies, and get kids to really own a word and its meaning? After all, much of the ACT and SAT is in fact vocabulary and context. This is integral part of our English curriculums.
I’ve seen a gamut of ways to teach vocab words. Some teachers have tried songs, others memorization. Some enterprising teachers get creative with cartoons like the one below:
Your Mission? Operation Vocab!
(insert Mission Impossible soundtrack here)
I use a version of this activity at least once or twice each nine weeks with various texts. HERE is a sample handout I used this year with Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Handsomest Drowned Man in the World.
Here's how it works:
After reading the short story, essay, excerpt, poem, or article you are studying, have students identify five words in the piece they did not know before. These can be words they have seen before, but are unsure of their meaning, but preferably they need to pick out words they have never encountered before. Have students copy these down onto a handout or on a sheet of notebook paper.
Divide students into groups of 3 or 4. Each student will be assigned a role (with a catchy name, of course)-
After students are grouped and roles are assigned, students will share their vocab lists with each other. If anyone in the group can define a word for another member of the group, he or she should do so now. This is a 5-10 minute block of time in which the goal is simply to have conversations within the group about the words they didn’t know. Some sample questions for them to use in this discussion are-