Monday, March 25, 2013

IRC Conference, March 14-16, 2013, Words are Wonderful

Words are Wonderful
Susanne Picchi & Margaret Richek

While at IRC I committed to hitting at least one session on vocabulary until I felt like I had some ideas and theories to mull over for a while.  Thank goodness the first session I chose was "the one".  After going to see Susanne Picchi and Margaret Richek speak on vocabulary acquisition, I had much to consider as I thought about how this information could be applied at school.

Words Table
Picchi and Richek introduced their topic by showing their audience the slide to the right.  Interestingly enough, I realize now as I am writing this that I encountered this table just a few days ago when doing some extra reading on vocabulary instruction.  As stated in my most recent CRISS crumble, I think&nbsp our school is ready to really focus on vocabulary instruction.  Because of our demographics, our building already has a disadvantage in the area of vocabulary.  Around forty percent of our students speak a language other than English, and many of them grew up having little to no exposure in the language at all!  We also have a large percentage of those students who come from homes where books (in any language) are not very common, so their exposure to words in any language has been limited to what they have heard through basic conversation and television.  But just look at the exposure some of these kiddos are missing out on because they are not exposed to some of these things!  Even comics and magazines (which are not given much credit in our educational setting) are shown here as having richer and more challenging vocabulary than basic conversation and television.

Respected researchers and educators agree over and over again that one of the easiest ways to support vocabulary acquisition in our students is to expose them to new words regularly.  The more our students hear the words being used, the more words they soak up naturally.  When our babies, even before the age of one, begin to form words, we don't give them direct instruction in words like "more" and "no".  "Please" is one we might have to teach, but, generally speaking, our children learn these words by being exposed to them over and over again.  As the years go on, the process doesn't change, but the words do get harder.  I recall the word juxtaposed that a former choral director used over and over and over again during rehearsals.  After hearing the word a few times from his mouth, I began to encounter it in other readings - for whatever reason.  And soon I had a familiarity with the word that I hadn't before.  The other word that I loved is the word penultimate, also introduced to me by this same man, and I use this word whenever I can because it sounds cool!  How often does a single word become the "in" word to use, and soon every student walking down our hallway uses it.  Just last week, my third grade daughter brought the word epic home.  Really?  Now I'd heard the word used, but never in the way that it is being used today, so I looked it up.  Of course, on the third definition down said, "impressively great".  Ok.  I'll take it.  But it cracks me up the way words will just show up and then vanish from the mouths of our children -- all because of exposure.

So how can we support and increase those vocabularies?  Picchi and Richek gave some great suggestions, some of which are listed below:
  • Expect students to practice saying the words out loud.  If I can't pronounce a word, I won't remember it, and I certainly won't use it.  For some of our kids, just the act of learning how to pronounce a word is all it will take to give the kid a self-esteem boost to actually try using the word.
  • Use sentence starters.  Instead of asking students to define a word or use it in a sentence, ask them to give examples.  For example, "If I had to subdue a lion . . . " or "The obsolete computer was . . . ". 
  • Demonstrate how you would use a dictionary. Don't just send the kids to the dictionary.  Have you seen those dictionary definitions? They're as complicated as the words themselves!  Define the words and give examples.
  • Play a game.  The game Two in One is easy enough.  Let the kids play in partners or individually to come up with one sentence with as many of the words used correctly as they can.  Give them points (one word is one point, two words is three points, three words is five points, four words is seven points, and five words is ten points).  Allow students to change the form of the word.
  • TEACH MORPHOLOGY.  Use strategies such as direct instruction, having students go into their real-world text and find examples of words using certain morphemes, have students create nonsense words from morphemes they have learned (this is my favorite and the most fun activity), have students create prefix, root, suffix cards and put them together to create words.
  • Have students rewrite a sentence or paragraph in more common language (try the Pledge of Allegiance).
  • Connect Two is demonstrated above to the right.  A list of words on both sides must be connected somehow, but this activity is not just a matching activity - students must justify why they connected the words.  Matching a word to a definition is not the object - it's finding true relationships between words.  It's kind of an extension to analogies in that the words could be connected because they're antonyms or because one word is an extension of another.  For each, as shown in the example, the student must write the justification under the word to show their thinking.  Kind of like showing your work in math.  Sometimes students will connect words with new ideas and teach the teacher a thing or two!
  • Flashcards with pictures on the front to give students a visual cue.
  • Have students "name a business" using vocabulary words.  For example: Egregious Odors - We eliminate the bad smell! Or Stereotype Hair Salon where you can get the new and trendy hairstyle EVERYONE has.
  • Have students create pictures for each of the words and put them all onto a poster with a word bank.  Kids can use the poster to match the word to the picture.  This hits the kinesthetic and visual learners.
Each of the above activities made me think of ten more extensions for classroom application at school, and I'm excited to work on some of our teachers to get some implementation.  I heard, loud and clear, the challenge for teachers to use this language in their classroom settings and support the use of it by students in their classroom conversations as well. 

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