Tag Archives: Vocabulary

Playing with Parts of Speech by: Tosh McGaughy

This past week, I began reading Martin Brandt’s new book about grammar, Between the Commas. His ideas about the “pillars of sentence instruction” made me think about meaningful and effective instruction for the building blocks of sentences, the parts of speech, and how I taught them to students.

I thought about all the different ways that I tried to teach these functions to my students through sentence composing (thank you, Killgallon), sentence sense (thank you, Charlene Tess), and my own student-sample mentor text work. Mere labeling and defining was never successful with my students, and I disliked spending much of my precious workshop time direct-teaching parts of speech. But, I also couldn’t get my students to grow as writers if we did not have a common language to discuss how their words were forming meaning and then how they could make craft choices with the selection and position of their words in sentences. 

As a seventh grade teacher, I knew that anything effective with thirteen-year-olds had to be repeated… often. For the fundamentals, they needed to revisit and reapply those concepts at least six times during the year to actually “get” them. Robert Marzano’s ideas about vocabulary acquisition pushed me to think about the role of “play” in the recursive vocabulary work I needed my students to do. After lots of trial and error, I came upon two ideas that easily wove into our Readers/Writers Workshop classroom and gave us opportunities to make connections to the terms we needed to use as writers and to reflect and revise our understandings of the terms throughout the year. 

Idea #1: Parts of Speech Personality Test

My social media savvy teens loved taking online personality tests, so I started the year with one of my own. The students were given eight different descriptors and they read them, discussed with friends, and then chose the descriptor that they most closely identified with. They had to write a super short rationale for why they felt the descriptor described them. I kept the labels a secret until the big reveal, when I would have each of the 8 descriptor categories come to the front of the room for a group photo and the part of speech that matched their descriptor. They would pose as a group with a large poster of the part of speech, and I would make the photos into posters for the walls.

The funny thing that happened in every class was how the students began calling each other by the categories. “Man, you are being such a verb. Take a walk and settle down.” Or, “Sarah is the best to have in a group because she is such a conjunction. She always helps everyone bring their ideas together.” Basically, they began to apply the functions of the parts of speech to actual people, and those connections and discussions helped solidify their understandings of the terms enough for us to be able to dive deeper into sentence work during our writing conferences, without having to do a bunch of “circle-the-noun-and-underline-the-verb” work in their papers. 

At different points in the year, students got to revisit the descriptors and decide if they had changed at all. (If you know middle schoolers, they are an ever-changing group of humans, so the changes and the rationales for the changes were some rather enlightening short writing pieces.) Also, when I needed a quick grouping, I could also ask them to “get with someone who is a different part of speech” or “get together with someone who is the same part of speech”. It enabled us to discuss the parts of speech during the workshop in a way that was rooted in function, but that also gave us an organic way to keep the terms on the tips of our tongues. (And, it eventually became like a “sorting hat” when new students arrived. The class would eagerly await for the newbie to choose a descriptor and then that group would welcome their newest member. Yes, the interjections were always the loudest.)

Idea #2: Parts of Speech Physical Metaphors

Once a six-weeks, writing groups would have a quick warm-up creating metaphors for the parts of speech. Every group would be given an identical set of objects. (In the beginning, I gave exactly 8 objects per group, but to make it more challenging, I would do 10 objects by the end of the year so they had more choices and could add parts of speech they had learned recently.) The groups would have a parts of speech reference (one-pager with the definitions and examples) and a stack of different student-focused grammar and style guides that they would then use as they created their metaphors from the provided objects. As they agreed on a metaphor, one group member would write out the group’s reason that the part of speech was that object. All groups would share out, and the class would agree on the “best” metaphors. By the end of the year, students would begin to bring in their own “sets” of random objects for us to use for this activity, and they enjoyed bringing very weird things to spark discussions as they discussed the best metaphors. 

Both of these activities were quick ways for my students to have conversations about terms that I needed them to understand on a deep level. Making them discussion points rather than paper-based “progress checks” succeeded in adding them to my students’ academic vocabulary in an open-ended and formative way. And, for the record, I am very much an adverb.

  • Sentence Composing for Middle School by Donald Killgallon, 1997.
  • Between the Commas by Martin Brandt, Heinemann, 2020.
  • Simple Steps to Sentence Sense by Charlene Tess, Kindle version, 2019.
  • Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools by Robert Marzano, ASCD, 2004.

#3TTWorkshop–Individualizing our Students’ Study of Vocabulary


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

Three educators. Three states. Three demographics. All practicing Readers and Writers Workshop in our Secondary Classrooms. Read more about us here.

We are the Modern PLC, and every Wednesday and Thursday, we share our behind-the-scenes collaboration as we talk about the most urgent moving parts of our classroom pedagogy.

Today is the second and last installment of this week’s conversation between Jackie and Shana on vocabulary instruction.  Please join the conversation in the comments!

What are your best vocabulary activities?

Shana: For me, best practices surrounding vocabulary all happen in the writer’s notebook.  Curating a personal dictionary in that particular section, sharing those words with friends, and doing fun, in-class follow-up activities with those words seem to work best to get my kids authentically reading to find new or interesting words in their books.  We do things like write a poem using ten of our words, create a pass-it-along story in which your sentence has to contain a word used contextually, or create an illustration of a particular word and hang it up.  The more play there is involved in our study of words, the more my students actually begin to pay attention to vocabulary in both their reading and writing.


A list of vocabulary words students found in their independent reading books.

Jackie:  For the past couple of years I have wanted to integrate vocabulary instruction into my curriculum, but it wasn’t until this year that I moved forward with the process of carving out a specific section of students’ writer’s notebooks.  As Linda Rief says in Inside the Writers Readers Notebook, “We also need to ask them to pay attention to words in their own reading and their own listening, to notice words that they don’t quite have a grip on as writers and speakers but which they come across fairly often” (Rief 23).  As Linda Rief suggests, my students collect four words from their independent reading book or whole class reads per week.  They record these words as well as the parts of speech, synonyms, and the sentence in which they found the word under a separate dictionary section in their Writer’s Notebook.  

At the beginning of the year I was worried about summative assessments and meeting the needs of my students through our new competency-based grading system.  I “assessed” my students on their vocabulary by having them first memorize the words and then complete whatever the task-at-hand was for that day.  I’ll admit that a quarter into the school year I have already abandoned this method after growing frustrated with the results.  Naturally, students chose easier words when there were higher stakes assessments at hand.  They sacrificed learning for grades and in turn, asked fewer questions, instead focusing more on grades and less on word acquisition.

This is where you helped me most, Shana.  After tossing aside the summative assessments, I had students compile a dictionary of their words on the board, and we spent 15 minutes simply playing with the words and writing stories and poetry.  These biweekly activities breathed life into an otherwise stressful vocabulary lesson.  Soon my students were asking questions about how to use the words through context clues, and I was giving minilessons on integrating words into sentences based on the parts of speech.  For the first time, students began playing with vocabulary instead of trying to find shortcuts around the system.
Do you use independent vocabulary instruction? What activities do you use to help familiarize students with new vocabulary?

#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.

Four Ways to Formatively Assess in Workshop

dtrfyguhujSometimes I wake up in the morning, thinking about what I’ll be teaching and learning that day, and feel like a rebel.  That’s right–I think to myself, feeling inexplicably cool–I teach workshop. Yeahhhhh.  Even though this is the most research-based, data-driven form of instruction I’ve encountered in my teaching career, a successful workshop is still such a rarity that I feel like I’m breaking all the rules by employing it every day.  I’m a rebel with a cause.

Still, when I stop feeling like James Dean and reality bites me in the butt, I know I need to be practical and follow the rules by putting some grades in the gradebook–once per week is the suggestion at our school.  If I had it my way, I’d go gradeless and celebrate the myriad acts of literacy within the confines of a classroom.  That’s not possible right now.  I needed another solution, and I think I found it in Amy, right here on this blog.  She writes powerfully about formative assessments in this post.  Her thinking mirrors mine:

I know when I am learning a new skill, I want to be able to practice–free from judgment–so that I might build some confidence before I am formally evaluated.  The same is true for kids.  We should give them opportunities to practice and build confidence.

One grade per week, when I’m grading to evaluate, is impossible.  We don’t master a different skill every single week.  Mastery requires practice.  So, I’ve focused lately on formative assessment for eight out of the nine-week grading periods, and summative for just one.  Here are the four categories I see formative assessment broken down into, and how I put them in the gradebook.


Un-gradeable, amazing writing

1. Writer’s notebooks – I collect writer’s notebooks every two weeks, and students can receive up to 20 points per collection.  If all of our prompts and exercises are present, and I can see the student’s effort, he or she gets the full 20/20.  I also ask students to mark for me anything they’d like feedback on.  I check to see the status of their to-read, wondrous words (vocab), and cool craft (quotes) sections, but I also look for a telltale pink sticky note.  If I see one, I read the marked piece and write back–just feedback.

2.  Reading logs – Our reading logs are quite messy; you can see one example here.  There are arrows everywhere, new reading rates scribbled in, and tons of titles being read every week.  When students complete their reading goal of two hours per week–determined by individual reading rates–they get 10 points, every week.  Reading logs show me the big picture of a class’s progress, while conferences help me go deeper.  The reading log lets me know, at a glance, who’s soaring and who’s not–helping to give my conferences direction.


Word play

3.  Vocabulary – I still remember my orange Sadlier-Oxford vocab books from high school.  Those well-worn paperbacks were the source of many a cramped hand and a frantic fifteen minutes of homeroom before English class.  I know from personal experience that I don’t retain new words by completing fill-in-the-blank exercises–I learn by reading widely.  So, I ask my students to maintain a “wondrous words” section in their notebooks, writing down unfamiliar or unknown words as they read.  Then, I give them a different activity to complete with those words every two weeks.  The activities are worth 10 points each, and run the gamut from writing stories using the words to drawing pictures illustrating their meanings.

4. Honest self-assessments – When we finish a unit of any kind, usually about once a month–a writing unit, a reading unit, a book club, a challenge–I pass out a half-sheet with self-assessment questions on it.  I begin each half-sheet with a disclaimer:  “Be honest.  There’s no judgment here.  I just want to know why you were as successful as you were with this unit, and to know how I can help others be successful in the future.”  Students answer very truthfully, sometimes humorously so.  If their answers are thorough, they receive 15 points.

These four formative assessments total about 115 points per month.  With 9-week grading periods, students’ grades therefore are made up of about 2/3 formative assessments (230 points or so) and 1/3 summative assessments (100 points or so).  Well over half of the formative assessments are credit for the simple acts of doing the assigned reading and writing–no evaluation of those acts, just credit for the effort.  I value practice and process over product–and this grading system reflects that.

How do you handle grading, formative assessment, evaluation, etc.? Please share in the comments!

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