Saturday, November 23, 2013

Managing a Vocabulary Routine

"Mrs. Kissner! Mrs. Kissner! Can I read my words to you?"

This has become a common question in my classroom during arrival time, dismissal time, and any spare moment that might arise. It is an interesting side effect of a vocabulary routine that I started this year.

Thinking about Vocabulary
In the past few years, I have come to see vocabulary as a huge issue in my classroom. Fourth grade readers are moving into more complex, difficult text. Many of the new words that they encounter are not typically heard in everyday speech. Unfortunately, wide reading alone is not enough to help students build their word knowledge.  (This pdf from Scholastic is a great source of background information for teaching vocabulary.) More instruction is needed. But what could I do to incorporate this instruction in a meaningful way?

Five Words
When creating new content for the classroom, it's often easiest to work in steps. I knew that a comprehensive vocabulary program was my eventual goal. But this is a huge thing to accomplish. What little steps could I implement right now, each week, to get on my way?

Last year, I experimented with vocabulary lists for texts that we shared in the classroom. As I built my reading homework packets, I pulled five words out from each text. Some of these words matched the master list of academic words that I had compiled two years ago. Others were words that I knew to be common in fourth grade texts.

I created vocabulary activities for these words, using a variety of drawing tasks, discrimination tasks, and word consciousness tasks. Each week, students have a short quiz on the words--matching and filling in sentences. The quizzes are fairly simple so that, with some effort, all students can experience success. (I also needed to make the quizzes easy enough to grade so that I can quickly return them to students.)

Word Rings

This year, I added a new component to the weekly homework/quiz routine. After some paper engineering help from my ninth grade son, I created easy double-sided flashcards. I attach these flashcards to rings so that students have an easy to keep set of words. Many students are still working on decoding multi-syllabic words, so these flashcards are helpful for them to practice pronouncing the words. With the definitions on the back, the flashcards also help students to learn the meanings.

But independent practice wasn't enough. So, with a fancy paper punch from the craft store, I added another step (borrowed from sight word work!): When students can read the word correctly and explain what it means, they get a punch on the card. When they have three punches, the card can be removed from the ring.

Lots of interaction
There are many benefits to this routine--both expected and unexpected. One expected benefit is that it is easy to explain to instructional assistants, substitutes, and volunteers. I keep a clipboard with a list of student names and anyone who reads words with kids can mark the date next to the student's name. Even our sixth grade tutors help out. When students are working independently or have completed a task, they can also come and read words with me. Each individual kid usually reads words with an adult once every week or so.

An unexpected benefit is that this becomes such a verbal, conversational interaction. Fourth graders love individual attention and sharing stories. Talking about these words has become a way to frame our conversations and make sure that everyone gets some personal interaction. I hadn't really considered this at the beginning--but hearing the interesting conversations that go on has convinced me that this is worthwhile. Kids and adults are talking, and they're using rich vocabulary words as the basis for the conversation.

Of course, there are some issues to consider. Some kids love the routine and will go through their words at lightning pace. The opposite is also true. I put each week's words on a different color so that they are easy to differentiate. This week, I did remove some of the early October words from the rings of kids who have been absent. Having more than 20 words on the ring at a time makes the process a little unwieldy.

I always try to work ahead and have the next week's words copied. For example, right now in my classroom I am adding the words for the week of 12/3 to their word rings. Kids then have the opportunity to see and experience words out of context before they read them in the context of the homework text.

Moving forward
My next step is to try to come up with a cumulative assessment. Right now we are working with one set of words at a time. In the future, it will be nice to have long term assessments to capture ongoing growth. Some kids don't finally learn all of the words for a week until several weeks after the whole group quiz. Anecdotally, kids are bringing me their independent reading books to show me vocabulary words that they have found.

Finding words
If you're interested in trying this, I do have vocabulary words and flashcards with my most recent reading homework sets:

I am working on a December set, and I'll add flashcards to the previous homework sets. Eventually I'll have the whole year.

...and this is the important bit: When starting something new for the classroom, work on just one step at a time. If I had set out to do the homework texts, word cards, and quizzes from the beginning I would have become quickly overwhelmed. By working on it in little steps, I've come to a workable, sustainable routine.

Reading words with kids is now something that I do about 3-5 times each day...and it is delightful!


  1. Love, love, love this idea! I have been struggling with how to embed vocabulary more meaningfully with my third graders. They love words and are constantly jumping on to interesting words from our read alouds and other text-based materials. Any suggestions for third grade?

    1. Thanks for writing! It would be fun to try to build weekly lists from the words that the kids are interested in...maybe try to collect 5 in a week, and then use them as the focus words for the next week? I'd love to hear how it works out in third grade!

  2. I'm going to try this with my ELL students!! Can't wait for some great conversations!! PS- are you going to have a cyber Monday sale on teacherspayteachers? I have ALL of your stuff on my wish list :)