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Build Students’ Vocabulary as a Team

Found a great new resource for teaching vocabulary! 

Vocabulary at the Center by Amy Benjamin and John T. Crow (Eye on Research). Here are a few of its topics and resources:

  • Explains why vocabulary is everyone’s job, not just the English teacher’s.
  • Clarifies what it means to really know a word.
  • Helps us figure out what words to teach.
  • Describes how a word stays learned.
  • Provides very helpful appendices.  ex. words about cause and effect, words about amounts and degrees, & Latin and Greek word components

Teams can use the strategies and resources in a variety of ways.  Here’s one:

  • Choose one of the subsets of generic academic vocabulary (Appendix A) that contains words that are applicable in all of your classes.  A good example is Set Three: Words about space and divisions of space.
Words About Space and the Division of Space--chart

Words About Space and the Division of Space

  • Decide which members of the team will be responsible for introducing specific words.
  • Explore ways each team member can reinforce the words in his/her classes.
  • Determine how the team will assess student progress.
  • Set a time frame and build a calendar of who and when to keep the team on track.
  • Settle on one or two proven effective instructional strategies to use.

Benjamin and Crow offer a variety of strategies. The one that follows would be used to reinforce the meaning while serving multiple purposes:

  • Helps students internalize new words.
  • Reinforces content.
  • Teaches the structure of a complex sentence in a fairly painless way.

Here are the steps of the strategy (p.24)

  1. Have students use the designated word in a phrase (a group of words that make sense but are not a complete sentence).   Example: an array of colors
  2. Turn the phrase into a simple sentence. (for this purpose, ask that the sentence be something that can be declared true or false).  Example: The sunset at Key West is a brilliant array of colors.
  3. Have students use one of the following words  (subordinating conjunctions) to turn their simple sentence into a complex one. Be sure to model and explain the sentence transformation process! although, as, because, if, unless    Example: The sunset at Key West is a brilliant array of colors because of the lack of pollution that can lessen the effect of the red and orange colors of the light spectrum.

According to Benjamin and Crow these five subordinating conjunctions create sophisticated relationships between two complete thoughts. Making connections, using different contexts, and multiple practices make it more likely students will internalize critical vocabulary.

Free Literacy Strategies Resource

Many middle schools have a mandate to incorporate literacy strategies across their curriculum.  Quite often there is no professional development to go along with this mandate, and many middle grades teachers have no background in literacy acquisition.  Hence a huge disconnect occurs between the mandate and reality.

Middle grades teams have an advantage in that they can choose to use some of the their common planning time to work together to figure out how to approach literacy in the content areas.  They recognize that this type of planning is critical to the success of their students because:

  • The middle grades curriculum and now the Common Core Standards require that students read and write more complex material.
  • Many reading/writing skills are common across the curriculum and providing students multiple guided experiences in a variety of contexts will improve their skills.
  • It is impossible for one teacher to provide all-inclusive instruction and practice in the myriad of reading and writing skills that young adolescents need. (Spencer,J. (2010) Teaming Rocks! Collaborate in Powerful Ways to Ensure Student Success. Westerville, OH: NMSA.)

An excellent resource for teams to use is a free download from the Internet! The Content Area Literacy Guide is from the CCSSO’s Adolescent Literacy Kit. You can find simply by googling “Content Area Literacy Guide”, and you will be directed to a downloadable PDF file. For a quick look, go to tiny.cc/literacystrategies  — there are over 20 strategies.

The Guide provides a description of each strategy and suggestions for how it might be used in Language Arts, Math, Science and Social Studies. These strategies are certainly applicable in other content areas as well.

For example, one strategy is Cue Questions Based on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Below you see examples of questions on two of the Taxonomy’s levels.

Here are suggestions from the Guide for using these cue questions in the content areas:

Check out this useful resource and work together to incorporate some of these strategies into your instruction.  Be sure to start small–one strategy at a time!

  • Choose one that will work for everyone.
  • Decide who will do the initial introductory instruction.
  • Brainstorm ideas on how to model and use this strategy in your different classes.
  • Plan out when the other teachers will use the strategy and reinforce it in their instructional plans.
  • Reflect as a team on how well the strategy is working:
  1. How has it been used?
  2. What is the students’ reaction? What problems, if any, are they having applying the strategy to their work?
  3. How might the team tweak the strategy to make it more effective?
  4. To what degree is the strategy improving the students’ understanding of their work?

Silent Sustained Reading as a Team Strategy

Silent Sustained Reading time should be a part of every team’s schedule! Everyone benefits when students have time to choose texts they wish to read, whether they be fiction, informational, print or digital!

  •  Providing time for students to read in school helps them develop the habit of reading for pleasure. Widely read students have more background knowledge than those who do not.  Marzano in Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement states “…the research literature supports one compelling fact: what students already know about the content is one of the strongest indicators of how well they learn new information relative to the content.(p.1)  Background knowledge correlates with academic achievement in all subjects, therefore it makes sense for a team to carve out time for silent sustained reading.
  • Reading leads to a wider vocabulary. A large written vocabulary is a huge indicator future academic success (Marzano).
  • Reading rate and fluency increase the more students read.  They need these skills to be well developed as they face more and more complex texts as they move up the grades.

Twenty minutes of independent reading three or four times a week is a fairly simple practice to implement. Robert Marzano in Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement summarizes the important characteristics of an effective SSR program:

  • Programs are continuous over several years.
  • Students have easy access to materials (classroom libraries, friendly well-staffed library).
  • Students are encouraged to read material that interests them.
  • The environment is relaxed and conducive to personal reading.
  • Students receive encouragement and positive feedback about the topics they choose to read about.
  • There is staff training that relates to the purpose and philosophy of SSR.
  • Students do not see SSR as just another class where they will be tested or have to show improvement.  SSR time needs to be non-threatening.
  • Students do need to interact with the text and with each other (sharing and discussing what they are reading).
  •  SSR needs to occur at least 2 times a week.

Team teachers need to model the behaviors and attitudes they wish to see in students: reading during SSR (not correcting papers!), sharing interesting books or articles or websites with students, and listening to students talk about their reading.

When researching SSR on the web, many sites pop up loaded with Thou Shall Not Do’s for students.  My suggestion is to create the feeling of a intellectually-fun book club atmosphere that includes using Web 2.0 tools for discussing what students are reading:

Team Androscoggin SSR Guidleines

Our SSR Motto: “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” Dr. Seuss

  1. Choose texts that you are really interested in reading!  During SSR, we all will be totally engrossed in our self-selected text or sharing  something cool from our reading!
  2. When you want to share something with another reader, please be respectful of others who need it relatively quiet in order to concentrate.  Move to the conference area of the room and use soft voices.
  3. Use headphones when listening to an audio book.
  4. Do share with everyone a great “read”! Ask for a reader’ circle or post to our SSR wiki.  If it’s from the web, include the URL.
  5. Sometimes partner up with a pal and read the same text so you can talk about as you go along.  You might partner up with a favorite adult outside of school.
  6. If you finish with a book and are willing to allow others to borrow it, please leave it in the classroom library.
  7. Remember we all agreed at class meeting that everyone would either post to the wiki at least once a week or share out loud during Friday’s Reader’s Circle.
  8. Be brave and post a review online!

It is important that the team collaborate in the organization and management of SSR.  Students figure out very quickly which teachers are not committed to the program, and SSR will disintegrate pretty fast.

Below are some sites where students can either look for book reviews written by other students  or write their own and submit them for publication on the web.

URL’s for sharing book reviews

Be sure to check these sites yourself before sharing with students.

http://eduscapes.com/tap/topic87.htm   Lots of sites to find reviews & submit reviews

http://www.buildingrainbows.com/home.php Book reviews and discussions

http://flamingnet.com/  Young adult books reviewed by young adult readers

http://www.classicalcharter.com/ForKids/BookReviews.html  Book reviews from the students at Classical Charter School in Appleton, Wisconsin

If one Googles “student book reviews”  lots of possibilities come up, especially school websites full of student recommendations for good books

Resources for Teachers

Powerpoint of the basics of SSR: www.liberty.k12.mo.us/ms/LMC/SSR/SSR.ppt

Ideas for organizing & managing: http://www.smallschoolsproject.org/index.asp?siteloc=tool&section=sustain

SSR & the unmotivated reader: http://www.hotchalk.com/mydesk/index.php/component/content/article/148-language-arts-blog-by-theresa-hinkle/849-ssr-and-the-unmotivated-reader

General overview: http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/curr038.shtml

A must read on the research controversy: http://www.trelease-on-reading.com/whatsnu_nrp-ssr.html

Webcast On Vocab

Three BIG Reasons why everyone needs to play an active role in helping students develop a broad vocabulary:

  • The size of a student’s written vocabulary is a sure-fire indicator of his/her potential academic success
  • Reading comprehension in all content areas is affected by a student’s breadth of vocabulary knowledge
  • People need 25-30 encounters with a new word to truly internalize it.

The questions is how!?!  Here’s what not to do:

  • Assign a list of words for the students to look up in the dictionary.
  • Ask students to use words correctly in a sentence after a brief introduction to the words.

These are two of the least effective ways to help students internalize new words.

If not these traditional practices, then what!?!

Join Barbara Greenstone and Jill Spencer on a MLTI Webinar, Thursday, March 31st at 3:15 (eastern) or 7:15 (eastern) to participate in a conversation about effective vocabulary instruction.

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by chrisjohnbeckett @ Maine121.org

March 31 Webinar – Vocabulary: There’s a Word for That!

“Every teacher, at any grade level or in any content area, faces the challenge of teaching vocabulary. The traditional practice of having students look up the word, copy the dictionary definition, use the word in a sentence, and then memorize it for a test has been proven ineffective. How can we help our students truly expand both their receptive and productive vocabularies?

In this webinar we will examine some of the research on best practices for vocabulary instruction as we explore how we can use some applications on the MLTI MacBook as well as some online resources to help our students learn new words, make strong connections, and retain the vocabulary they need for academic success.”

Here are the outcomes for the webinar:

Participants will:
• be aware of what research says about vocabulary instruction;
• know some practical strategies and techniques for vocabulary instruction;
• be aware of MacBook applications as well as online tools and resources that support vocabulary instruction;
• know where to go for more information and help;
• share resources, ideas, and experiences with the group.

If you you have never participated in an MLTI webinar you will find it quite easy.  Everyone is welcome even folks beyond the great State of Maine!

  1. You need both a phone and a computer.  It is best that the phone be on a direct line and not go through an automated voice mail system.
  2. Go to http://maine121.org/webcasts-2/ and scroll down to the calendar to March 31.  Click on the time that you wish to attend: 3:15 (eastern) or 7:15 (eastern).
  3. Follow the directions to join the webinar.
  4. If you cannot attend the live webinar, they are all archived.

See you online!

Mix and Match: Vocabulary Review Strategy Podcast

Here’s one more strategy for helping students master new vocabulary.  It will work in any curriculum area and is especially effective with content-specific words:

Just for your information, this enhanced podcast was made using Garage Band and Keynote on a Mac. Podcasts are another way that students can demonstrate their learning.  They are also an excellent way for teams to share information and good stories with parents and the community.  It’s not a complicated process and an easy way for a team to experiment with digital learning. Here are a couple of sites that explain how to make a podcast–they are not all Mac specific:

Review Vocab with Images

In an earlier post (Teach Academic Words as a Team) I mentioned that it may take 15-30 encounters with a new word before any of us really internalizes it. Here’s a strategy to review multiple words at a time that anyone on the team can use. You need chart paper and markers.  Or your students can use a draw program on their computers or mobile devices like I did for the example below.


  • Decide on 4 to 6 words you want to review and list them on the board.
  • Break the class up into groups of 2 or 3.  More than that and it’s too easy for an individual to remain hidden in the group.
  • Give each group a piece of chart paper and markers.
  • Have them fold the paper in fourths or sixths, depending on the number of words you are reviewing.
  • Have one student in each group record a different word in each of the blocks.  Be sure to specify that it shouldn’t take up more than small part of the block.
  • Then ask each group to work together to create images in the block that explain the terms.  Give them a time limit.
  • Share the work at the end of the time.


  • Because the point of this exercise is to help students internalize these words, encourage them to share information.  In fact you might say, “You have two minutes to talk to anyone in the room about these words before your start to draw!” or “You have 2 minutes to check any resource in the room to help you design a really accurate depiction of what this word means!”
  • Give different words to each group. Put your highest performing students together and make sure at least 1 or 2 of their words are new or the most difficult to grasp.  I wouldn’t put the lowest performing students together–they need to hear more articulate students discussing the words.
  • Have students pick their own words and create the images.  If they don’t include the words in the boxes, others can circulate and use sticky notes to indicate what the images are depicting.

Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock in their book Classroom Instruction That Works list non-linguistic representation as one of the nine strategies that has a high probability of increasing achievement. This activity is a simple approach to non-linguistic representation that is easy to implement. It ensures that

  • the students hear words discussed several times
  • the students see multiple visual representations of the words
  • the teacher has an opportunity to coach students in a non-threatening situation (no grades)
  • the teacher can observe who is understanding the new concepts and who isn’t and make suitable adjustment to upcoming instruction.

Imagine if the math teacher taught the students this activity and used it a couple of times so the students knew the process cold.   Her teammates could then use the same strategy in their classes, only they would not have to reteach the process! Time would be saved and learning would proceed.

I don’t have a name for this activity.  Make one up for your team that is catchy and the kids will remember–the Kennebec House 4 Square or the Red Team’s Vocab Pictographs.  A broad vocabulary knowledge is a gift a team can give to their students that will last a lifetime!

Teach Academic Words as a Team

One of the biggest predictors of student achievement is their breadth of vocabulary knowledge!  Children entering kindergarten with few literacy experiences such as books in the home or having been read to or talked with know and use many fewer words than their classmates who have enjoyed multiple literacy experiences.  This vocabulary gap continues to grow throughout school unless curriculum and instruction explicitly address vocabulary acquisition.

Do you realize that it takes 15-30 encounters with a new word before most of us really internalize the word?   What do I mean by internalize?

  • Use correctly in written and spoken language.
  • Understand its denotations, connotations and how context can change its meaning.
  • Comprehend its meaning when we read it or hear it.
  • Recognize examples in real life.

Middle grades teams are in the perfect position to provide 15-30 meaningful encounters because teachers can collaborate throughout the day and across the curriculum.  Someone is thinking right now—isn’t that the language arts teacher’s job?  Yes and No–It’s everyone’s job and here’s why!  Reading comprehension in ALL subject areas is affected by a student’s command of  “academic words”.  Academic words, sometimes called Tier 2 words, are found more in written language than in conversations and are sophisticated synonyms for commonly known words (e.g. leery for suspicious). These words are in textbooks and newspapers, online, and used in the media.  Without a broad academic vocabulary, students will have difficulty understanding text even if they have learned content-specific vocabulary.  This comprehension issue is a powerful reason to work together as a team to build vocabulary.

Here is a strategy teams can use.  Each week during common planning time identify 3 academic words (remember these are not content-specific words like isotope or tetrahedron or butte) that the team will teach in a collaborative manner.  Find a list of academic vocabulary at

Or, look through your texts and identify words you anticipate might cause your students some problems.  Then decide which of you will explicitly teach the word and how everyone will find ways to use the words in their instruction. Here are some ideas:

Explicit instruction


Frayer Model

Concept Circle for Democracy

Follow-up encounters

  • Homeroom contests using words in limericks, short poems, raps, & song lyrics
  • Word walls (http://www.educationworld.com/a_lesson/lesson/lesson328.shtml)
  • Using the word when teaching; be sure to mention you are using a word of the week or make it a contest for kids to catch you using these words
  • Student made posters
  • Students using words in their writing

Using Academic Words (sly) on Posters and in Writing

Please notice that nowhere do I suggest you ask the students to look up the word and use it in a sentence.  This strategy is probably the least effective way to help students build their vocabulary knowledge.

Last word—be playful with word acquisition.  Avoid at all costs of making it tedious and full of drudgery.

Teaming Rocks! Collaborate in Powerful Ways to Ensure Student Success has an entire chapter on ways teams can collaborate to address the vocabulary gap. For additional information about vocabulary instruction, check out the work of Janet Allen, Isabel Beck, Kate Kinsella, & Robert Marzano.

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