Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Keeping Up with a Vocabulary Routine

    I've wrestled with this question for many years. Many of my students come to fourth grade with huge word deficits and large gaps in speaking and writing vocabulary. Others come with an eagerness to learn new words and build upon what they have picked up from their reading. I need a vocabulary routine that helps students to be excited about new words...a routine that is manageable and practical...a routine that has lots of room for new additions and learning.
     Faced with the need to do something to build vocabulary, I decided to focus upon five words each week. Before I could choose these words, however, I needed to learn a great deal about which words would be most useful to teach. I made a spreadsheet of Averil Coxhead's Academic Word List, and then added words from the Common Core, the Nifty Thrifty Fifty, and a few other sources. I gathered information about the words, including roots and idioms, and eventually came up with this master list:

  As I created reading homework passages, I chose a mixture of words that were important to each text and words from the Master Word List. Each week, we learn five new words. The vocabulary instruction is not lifeless and dictionary-based; instead, I give kids the definitions and we use the words in sentences. Sometimes the prompts are silly ("Could a cat devise a system of writing?") and sometimes serious ("How can we honor veterans?") 

Word Rings
    Last year I wrote about putting words on word rings for students to study. Each word is put on the ring, with the definition on the back. Students read their words with instructional assistants, parent volunteers, and me. When a student can correctly read the word and explain its meaning, I use a fancy hole punch to punch the card. After three punches, students can remove the word. 
    Lots of good things are going on here! Kids are practicing decoding with multi-syllabic words. Kids are talking about words and their meanings, and get to have time with caring adults. For me, the routine is super-simple to explain to anyone who comes into my classroom to help--the aide who has 10 minutes free due to a schedule change, the parent who can come in one morning, the substitute teacher who has a free period.
    This year we've made some innovations. The wonderful ESL teacher who is co-teaching with me put our word lists on Quizlet and showed me how to print flashcards directly from there--how simple! The instructional assistant who manages all of the cards has even figured out how to engineer the paper so that the cards can be made with the fewest cuts possible. When kids get five cards removed, they earn a coupon for our classroom economy. 

     Because many of my students are strongly visual thinkers, I've started adding drawings to our routine. We have lots of tracing paper in the storage closet (why? Not sure), and kids have found it calmly peaceful and engaging to trace the pictures as we talk about the words. In the weeks to come, students will take over the drawing part of the routine.

Finding Words in New Texts
    During our independent reading time, kids are always showing me how they have found vocabulary words in their books. This gives us a great opportunity to talk about the word in context as we look at the sentence containing the word and talk about what it means. Kids copy the sentences onto notecards for us to display in the classroom. (The Amulet books by Kazu Kibuishi are especially rich in academic vocabulary.)

   Is this the best vocabulary routine ever? I don't think such a thing exists. Each new teaching book tries to tell readers that this new thing is the ultimate in teaching. However, I think that good teaching resides in the place where practicality, big dreams, and pedagogy meet. Hopefully you can carve out your own functional and delightful routine for teaching vocabulary!



  1. I struggle with teaching vocabulary to my fourth graders. Our adopted curriculum has 40+ words a week. I like the idea of focusing on five. Thank you for sharing your lists.
    Artistry of Education

  2. Wow--40 words a week! That would be hard for me to remember. Thanks for writing!