Tackling Academic Vocabulary

By on June 30, 2014

With the demands of the new National Standards, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of vocabulary we have to work through with our students. I am constantly thinking of ways to support students so they can tackle the unfamiliar words without consuming all of our class time and making them feel discouraged or bored. I am always trying to come up with ways that really engage the students.

About a month ago, I read Jonathan’s eCoach post about how to best scaffold academic work. In his post, Jonathan suggests that we should strive to scaffold up and give all of our students access to rigorous course work. He explained the difference between scaffolding up versus scaffolding down. I watch my students’ faces as they preview a text and feel overwhelmed by the amount of unknown words. I can decide to “scaffold down” and do the work for them by the teacher reading, thinking, and paraphrasing, rewriting the text and omitting difficult words, or just removing and replacing the text altogether. Philosophically, I would not be able to explore any of those options; I am a firm believer in exposing students to all different levels of text. If they do not interact with challenging text, they will not grow or learn at higher levels. With that being said, I am experimenting with ways to “scaffold up” so students feel comfortable and empowered when faced with challenging texts. Students experience more success when the task is challenging but manageable. There are different strategies I can draw from to support my students in accomplishing difficult tasks. Scan for Vocabulary is one of those strategies, but it can become too time consuming when working with certain lengthy and dense texts. That is why I am exploring ways to make the work more manageable.

Scanning for Vocabulary

I presented my students with an article with many challenging words. We scanned it as a class, created a word tracker, and completed the tracker with easier English synonyms (see Scanning for Vocabulary handouts). I observed that only a few students really took the responsibility for the work, while others did not feel the urgency of making sure they understood the unknown and unfamiliar vocabulary.

Currently, we are working on writing arguments, so they will need to be able to paraphrase and cite the text in their essays. While reading, they seemed to understand the gist of the article, but when it came time to write, they admitted they did not fully understand parts of the article. I decided to repeat the necessary work of scanning for vocabulary, but this time I approached the task differently. I assigned each student one paragraph. The paragraphs were fairly short but each paragraph contained a few difficult words. Each student had the task of becoming the expert on the assigned paragraph. They were able to use computers, dictionaries, the teacher, and each other as resources. The following are the steps I presented to the students….

  1. Identify all unknown/unfamiliar words in your paragraph.
  2. Think about and anticipate the words your classmates will need. (I explained that we all know and understand different levels of words, so try to think about the needs of others. I told them, “Just because you know the word, it does not mean all of your classmates know it.”)
  3. Write the paragraph number, the word, and a definition or synonym in easier English.
  4. Be prepared to present the words and concepts from your paragraph to the class.

The results were awesome! Each student worked with three to four words each instead of close to 50 words each. I had to assign some paragraphs to more than one student since we had more students than paragraphs. I observed all students actively engaged in the work and asking questions. They felt the urgency and the responsibility since they were accountable for their paragraphs. Once they finished scanning and defining, they checked with me to make sure they defined each word in the correct context. They were all working at different paces, so I was able to walk around and check for understanding. When they asked me to check their synonyms/definitions, I asked, “Can you read the sentence so we can hear the context?” I want them to understand that words can have multiple meanings, so before we define, we need to understand the context and the part of speech. My students are used to going to a dictionary and selecting the very first definition they see. We have worked very hard this year to change that bad habit.

Once students realize they are accountable for their own learning and the learning of others, they are more likely to complete the task. All of my students were engaged in this process and they all contributed equally to the task. The next step was to share their work with others. I had them turn the paragraphs into short presentations. The students took notes on the difficult words and concepts as each student practiced speaking. The more they talked about and heard about the article, the easier it was for them to write about it. After the activity, we discussed the process. I am learning students need to be reminded of the “big picture” as we move through the reading/writing process. I compared our work to math class. They understand that in math if they miss a step or skill, they have a difficult time completing the work. The same is true for the reading/writing process. In order to write about the text, we need to understand the text. We can’t do that if we cut corners or decide not to do the work at all. Through this process, they are learning that each step is vital to their success.

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Literacy Standards In Action

We've mapped our literacy lessons and reading, speaking, and writing skills to state standards, Common Core, and NGSS. The standards are "the what" to teach. Our lessons are "the how" to meet the expectations defined by the standards. Click on the links below to view our quick reference table that maps standards to literacy lessons.

Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English grammar and usage when writing or speaking.
Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.
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