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.
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.