#3TTWorkshop–Teaching Vocabulary Through Independent Exploration


Students in Jackie’s classroom write vocabulary words on the board.

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.  This week’s conversation between Jackie and Shana explores the value of shifting away from the more traditional modes of rote memorization and more toward wordplay.

1. Why do you integrate vocabulary study into your classroom, and how do you approach it?

Jackie:  This is my first year integrating vocabulary into my freshman classes.  Previously I had taken a traditional approach, relying on the Oxford-Sadler books in my junior/senior Advanced Composition classes.  The problem was that by the end of the year, many of my students would forget the twenty or so words we had memorized every other week.  I knew something had to change, so I returned to the words of my mentors, Penny Kittle and Linda Rief, to gain a better understanding of how they approached vocabulary.  Now instead of having my students memorize lists of prescribed vocabulary, they find four words per week and store them in the dictionary section of their writer’s notebooks.

Shana: I love the study of words, so one of the things I always find myself noticing about an author is the type of vocabulary he or she employs.  Diction makes up a great deal of a writer’s style, so I think it’s important to study it.  I am fortunately not required to adhere to a certain program or set list of words, so I tend to approach the study of vocabulary more along the lines of noticing words that are in our reading and writing.  I don’t have a formula or routine for vocabulary study, although as a general rule I try to set aside mini-lesson or quick-write time about every two weeks.


Ryan’s words for this week include “nebulous,” “jettison,” “inchoate,” “unnerving”, and “aphorism,” all of which he found from his independent reading book Little Brother by Cory Doctorow.

2. What is the inherent value of vocabulary study?

Shana: Something I’ve been thinking a lot about is the inherent value of vocabulary study.  Vocabulary acquisition is just one little piece of the puzzle that makes up literacy, but it seems to get so much attention from the powers that be.  For example, last year our school had two schoolwide goals–one of them was “vocabulary.”  What does that even mean?  Do we want our teachers teaching more “vocabulary words?”  Do we want our students memorizing more “vocabulary words?”  What is the difference between academic and non-”academic vocabulary?”  I’m just not sure that vocabulary acquisition is as big a piece of the literacy puzzle as our testing/curriculum planners believe.

Jackie: I agree wholeheartedly with you, Shana.  I am not required to teach vocabulary, but every year I tell my students that reading helps build one’s vocabulary.  The more I thought about it though, the more I wondered how these skills translated, how my students would develop their own lexicons if they never actually stopped to think about the words they were reading.

Unlike your school, though, my school’s major initiative has been towards Common Core-based instruction.  Fortunately, part of the College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language requires students to “also have extensive vocabularies, built through reading and study, enabling them to comprehend complex texts and engage in purposeful writing about and conversations around content.”  I believe vocabulary study shouldn’t be about isolated memorization; instead, it should allow students the freedom for wordplay.  When students are given the freedom to not only pick their own vocabulary words but also share them with their peers, they are more likely to explore definitions, find connections, and play with usage.  I receive more questions about context clues, Latin roots, and parts of speech during bi-weekly vocab lessons than I have at any other point in my career.


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10 thoughts on “#3TTWorkshop–Teaching Vocabulary Through Independent Exploration

  1. […] words go on the page before that (see our posts here and here to know how we “do” […]


  2. […] scrambling for exactly how we would play, I happened upon the awesome conversation my heroes at Three Teachers Talk have been having all week. When Shana mentioned she has her kids write poetry with their vocab […]


  3. ladywalker November 5, 2015 at 7:37 pm Reply

    I teach social studies and ESL and am very interested in supporting vocabulary development. I look forward to your next post.


    • shanakarnes November 6, 2015 at 8:22 am Reply

      Thanks, ladywalker! We hope it helps give you a few ideas as far as how to go about helping students become agents of their own vocabulary development.


  4. […] is the second and last installment of this week’s conversation between Jackie and Shana on vocabulary instruction.  Please join the conversation in the […]


  5. nuzzyanne November 4, 2015 at 11:19 am Reply

    Agreed! I would love to hear more about these bi-weekly lessons!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jackiecatcher November 4, 2015 at 12:40 pm Reply

      Not to worry–the second part of our conversation will be up on the blog tomorrow! Thanks for being part of our conversation.


  6. Andy Mayer November 4, 2015 at 9:12 am Reply

    I love this idea and would love to hear more about how you incorporate your vocabulary instruction into your classes. I am moving more toward a workshop centered classroom and like the idea of students picking their own vocabulary words.


    • jackiecatcher November 4, 2015 at 12:39 pm Reply

      Hi Andy, I will actually be posting the second installment of Shana’s and my conversation tomorrow where we talk about ways we integrate our vocabulary discussions into the classroom, so stay tuned for tomorrow!


    • shanakarnes November 6, 2015 at 8:21 am Reply

      Hey Andy! Yes, definitely check out the new post, but I also was thinking about whether or not I’d made it clear where my students’ vocabulary words come from. In their “Personal Dictionary” sections of their notebooks, they are responsible for jotting down five words per week from their personal reading. This could be in their independent reading books, in books for other classes, or in articles they happen upon on the internet. Then, they do the activities we mention tomorrow with their ten words every two weeks. Hope that helps–and it makes celebrating words a big part of the workshop-centered classroom!


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