Adolescent literacy learning #2 – vocabulary

Last Tuesday, some members from my school and I attended another Adolescent Literacy Learning conference in Norfolk. This workshop’s topic was on all about vocabulary instruction. As a foreign language teacher, this is kind of my thing. I will be the first to admit, though, that I am really great at vocabulary instruction in the lower levels (thanks to TPRS) but I am medicore in Spanish 3 and so far, an abysmal failure in AP Spanish. Ironically, I know that AP Spanish probably requires the most vocabulary instruction because of the level of materials we’re covering (for example, this week we’re attempting to tackle Sor Juana’s Hombres necios que acusáis) but as a teacher, the task is a little overwhelming.

One of the problems teachers might run into is not knowing what words to pull. My friend, the science teacher, scoffed at this assertation. In other content areas, it’s a little easier to decide what words students will need for the topic. For foreign language, we’re tasked with teaching all the words, but there is no way we can actually teach all the words, so after we cover the most frequent 100 or 1000… then what? Where do we go from there? It seems like in foreign language, we don’t realize we don’t know a word until we need it… and then explicit instruction is a little too late. I also find it really hard to keep up with the words we need to cover for each piece of input. (I teach all 4 levels, so 4 levels times prepping 1-3 pieces of input per class can quickly add up, even over the course of just one school day.)

The workshop started with an anticipatory guide with some questions about vocabulary learning and instruction. Me being the so-called expert I like to think I am, I was about half wrong (although two were on a technicality!!) about the research. What we did cover was that explicit vocabulary instruction is worth the time it takes. As a language teacher, I had to do a bit of exploratory thinking here, because I know that explicitly teaching grammar for foreign language, at least at the novice and intermediate levels, is not the best use of my time. But what about vocabulary? Then I realized that the very first step of TPRS and other comprehensible input strategies is to establish meaning. And establishing meaning is another way of explicitly teaching vocabulary. But just like in TPRS, this workshop showed that it’s not enough to just say the word once and go on; we need to have students do something with that language. And not just do something, but do something engaging and repetitive. As Dr. Feldman said, ‘get the words in their mouths’. No matter what discipline we teach in, students need to be making connections!

There were a number of strategies that we went on to discuss, such as having a vocabulary log, prioritizing words to teach, using academic language on our own and providing strategies and opportunities for students to respond using academic language, and using mnemonics. (You can view all the items from this workshop for free on the wikispace.)

The biggest takeaway for me was my whole philosophy on education and conducive to a growth mindset. Dr. Feldman mentioned ‘You have to be wrong to be right. It’s okay to be wrong, that means you’re in the game.’ This greatly echoes our keynote speaker from NILA, Linda Egnatz, who said that anything worth doing well is worth doing poorly at first. And me, I named this blog Making Good Mistakes for the exact same reason. Once kids are on the field and willing to play the game, that’s when we can work our teacher magic.

I wish I could find the link to a video that shows how including some of his simple strategies, like providing sentence frames, can turn mumbles, grumbles, and one word answers into collegiate, scholarly language in a snap. I think that was the most impressive part of the workshop. But since I can’t find it, you’ll just have to take Dr. Feldman’s advice and go for it! Are you in the game?

Student work sample

It’s funny to note that, for the last 2 years I’ve been blogging, my post count dips significantly in October and November. One act takes up a lot of my time, and pretty much any time I have outside of work, I am desperately trying to do fun and exciting things with my friends. (Not that I don’t enjoy play production or spending time with my students, but it is definitely a draining and exhausting season.)

So in lieu of a substantive post, here’s some student samples of work. These are from my Spanish 2 classes, about 6 or 7 weeks into the school year. We are recycling our school words and adding phrases like ‘arrived late’ ‘was mad’ ‘yelled at him/her’ and so on. I asked the students, in pairs, to write a story using the vocabulary from the unit and illustrate it. I collected them at the end of the period. The next day, I projected their pictures with the document camera and read a sentence from their story. The class had to match the sentence to the picture and show me their answer on individual markerboards. After doing this for a few stories, I mixed it up/upped the difficulty level a bit by adding some dictation for a few sentences. I don’t do a ton of dictation in my class because it’s not particularly engaging or exciting, but I do think it has useful applications of checking for spelling errors (I had a few students mix up llegar with llevar, for example) and training to listen for those Spanishy sounds, when used sparingly.

This example is from a group of students that are reaching their proficiency goal, but not really going above and beyond. Their writing is still bridging the gap from novice high to intermediate low.


This example is from a group of students who are two of my superstars. They are chugging along into intermediate faster than expected for this time of year.


Tracking school questions and answers

If you’re like me, one of the problems you run into (no matter how you teach, what you teach, or grade level you teach)… how do you keep student brains from flittering away the moment you open your mouth to teach? One of the things that I really like about comprehensible input strategies, and ones that are becoming more commonplace in trainings and workshops, is the idea of  ‘everyone does everything’. Our students should be making their learning visible as often as possible whether it’s through a think-pair-share, a writing activity, a survey, clickers, or however else we want to assess their participation. By requiring students to make their learning visible, there is no hiding. Some may process more and faster than others, but everyone has to do SOMETHING to improve.

There are many varieties of strategies, but one I’ve been employing a lot this year at all levels is the PQA + quick quiz format. PQA can be about whatever the topic is that I’m trying to repeat. (Bryce Hedstrom’s ‘special person’ series is a good example of the power of PQA.) However, as Carol Gaab notes, circling becomes pretty repetitive pretty quickly (the brain craves novelty!) so I have to give them something to do while other students are responding. This is especially important in the 1:1 environment because it is just so, so, so tempting to look at last week’s football highlights on Hudl or check out those new fall scentsy holders on Pinterest rather than listening to teachers and other classmates (even though they really need to, to get in those reps!)

To combat that temptation, I have students take notes during the PQA. An example from a few weeks ago is Spanish 2, where we are recycling class information and adding new chunks like arrived late, forgot, brought (or didn’t bring), is/was ready, etc. To recap what we knew from last year, I created a simple chart in Google Spreadsheet and pushed it out to my students through Google Classroom. (If you don’t have access, obviously students can easily make their own charts.) Then I asked each student if they had X class. If they did, then I assigned that class to them. Of course, I could pick anyone for core classes, but only certain students take art, ag, cooking, etc.

After getting repetitions of the question, I then settled in to the meat and potatoes – each student was interviewed about their particular class and the other students had to fill in the information on their chart. On this particular day, we ran out of time, but then I could give a quick quiz. My quick quizzes are similar to other CI teachers’ accountability options – a 10 point, cierto/falso listening quiz about our topic for the day. I use them as a formative grade as part of our daily activities.

Taking notes isn’t necessarily the most exciting or engaging way to keep students active, but it’s a good standby for days when even your most enthusiastic storytelling skills aren’t keeping them as focused as you’d like. I also try not to use it too often – once a week at most. Again, the brain craves novelty, so I’m always trying to cook up new ways to keep students listening and busy so they focus on those ever-important repetitions.