Nov. 26 – Teaching Vocabulary with Image and Rhyme

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“Alright, we’ll take your word for it.”

Our brains are hard-wired to recognize images – we see image so much more clearly than we do text.  I am convinced that there is a way to make use of that wiring to teach college students new words.  This semester I decided to move beyond my own paltry imagination and lack of drawing skills and try out some of the college-level vocabulary cartoon books.  I made a list of the words for which I had cartoons, then we chose words to learn from that list.

For each new word, I shared my vocabulary cartoon resources with my students, then looked for feedback.  In quizzes, I asked them to identify which words triggered a memory of the cartoons and which of those remembered images helped them identify the meaning.  Many more students remembered the images than the meanings, which tells me that, even for professional vocabulary cartoonists (?) it is not easy to effectively connect meaning and image.

In previous semesters I have had the students create their own images, and I think that turned out almost as well as using these pre-made cartoons.  There is a lot of initial resistance to creating their own cartoons for their vocabulary words, even after seeing my pathetic stick figure drawings on the board.  Lack of self-confidence about drawing skills is rampant.  But I think that if I use the extensive context example practice first, we could come up with images for the words as a class.

Image is such a powerful trigger for memory that I don’t want to give up on finding a way to utilize that trigger as I struggle to help my students build up their lexicon, to even their chances of succeeding in the academic world.  A worthy goal, a mighty summit.  hi ho.  Next semester for sure.

Nov. 21 – Teaching Vocabulary in Context

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word cloud by wordle

Over the years of teaching vocabulary to college students, one of the biggest challenges is trying to explain exactly why their sentences are wrong when they try to use new words.  The dictionary definition makes sense in the context of their sentences, but the sentences are just … not right.  This fall I finally decided to tackle the problem head on.  We had encountered the word cascade in something we were reading, and no one knew it so I gave them the definition.  In a quiz a few days later I asked them to create a sentence using cascade.  The dictionary had defined the verb cascade as “to tumble” and so many of the students wrote of tripping and cascading down the stairs.  Hmmm.  Not so much.  My quest to find a way to teach accurate usage was back on.

What I decided to try this semester was example sentences.  I had them go to the lab and find three sentences online that used each word.  That was a challenge at first because they were determined to make up their own sentences and pass them off as  online examples, but it was confirmingly easy to recognize those efforts.  One student complained about having to use other people’s sentences – “How are we ever going to learn how to use these words if you won’t let us make our own sentences?”

My argument was that these example sentences would give them accurate patterns to model to help them learn to use the words.  We practiced it together in class, and at first students were frustrated and confused: “I can’t see any patterns.”  So we practiced regularly, with each new set of words.  By week five or six, most of their own sentences were indistinguishable from the example sentences, and if someone went astray all I had to write was “follow the pattern more closely.”  The students told me they feel confident that they can use this technique to learn new words and, more importantly, learn to use them correctly in their own writing.  I do love finding a strategy that really works and produces tangible results.  Huzzah.

Nov. 20 – Teaching Vocabulary: Choosing the Words

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Semester after semester, ever hopeful, I try out new vocabulary activities that promise acquisition without insult.  I want to make use of the research: research that tells us that simply providing a list of words to memorize is not going to add those words to students’ lexicons, brain research that tells us that we remember image and rhyme much more easily than we do text.  (And I must add that I feel I am living on the edge and throwing caution to the winds by not citing each instance of that research.)

The way I get around the first challenge – what words to teach – is to have the students create their own lists of words they’ve encountered more than once but still don’t know.  This semester, to make that process easier and give me material to use to teach the words, I made a list of all the words in two cartoon vocabulary books:  Picture These SAT Words by Philip and Susan Geer and Vocabbusters GRE: Make Vocabulary Fun by Dusti and Deanne Howell.  I chose those two books because I wanted to help students learn how to create images to go along with new words.  I’ll write about that effort in a follow-up post.

I gave all the students a copy of the list and had them choose the ten words they would most like to learn.  Then I tallied up their choices, took those choices and came up with eight new words to learn each week.  I then made a list of who requested which words and used that list to make sure that everyone had at least one word included in the weekly words.  And I added a few of my own (serendipity and discombobulated are high on my list of necessary words.)

Their new word list each week included the word, common definitions, synonyms, some kind of image, and at least three context examples.  Context examples are crucial for teaching students how we actually use the words – I will write on that too in a follow-up post.

I have learned that choosing words that students actually want to learn is the first step in a successful vocabulary acquisition project.  As a result, some students go out of their way to demonstrate their new words in every piece of writing they turn in.  I do love them when they do that, and finding reasons and ways to love my students is what it is all about.

Nov. 13 – “It’s Our Responsibility” – So Why Don’t They Do It?

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After our somewhat energetic vocabulary review yesterday, I thought I would check in with my students to see what they took away from the activity.  And, since I can never stop at just one question, I also asked them if they felt prepared for the test (to be given the day after tomorrow) and whether or not we should have spent more time in class reviewing for the test.  I was curious, as so many of them clearly had little memory of the meanings of these words we have been working with all semester (obviously not working enough.)

The reviews of the activity were consistently positive, ranging from “It was great to get out of my seat and wake up” to “It made me realize how many of the words I am not sure of.”  Students were from “40%” to “80%” prepared for the test, even if they had just acknowledged in the previous question that they didn’t know the words.  Yet.  That knowledge front is moving in fast though, and they’re going to be so ready, because they really want to get an A on that test.

But it was the response to the last question (should we have spent more time reviewing in class) that got me pondering.  Although a few students thought that more review would have helped, the vast majority felt that it was up to them to do the studying.  Well, yes.  It is up to them.  But clearly that isn’t enough to get them to actually do it.  Far too many of them are planning to learn 77 words in two nights.  So what can I, as a basic skills instructor (reading, writing and study skills) do to help them get more successful in their new roles as college students?  I feel like there is some motivational secret key out there somewhere, and I just haven’t found it yet.  Active learning, inquiry-based, community-building, all buzz words that I deeply believe in.  But there is another piece out there and, even though I haven’t found it yet, I am convinced it is there and waiting to be found.  My Eureka! moment is impending.

Nov. 12 – The Competition Was Fierce

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Today we had a review of the vocabulary words we’ve been working on all semester.  There are a few students who clearly have claimed the words and will do well on the test, but for most of them the meanings are still elusive, so I needed to get those words back in front of them before the test at the end of the week.  We have over 75 words that the students selected to learn from a list of SAT and GRE words.  They have the full list to work from, plus they’ve been having weekly quizzes (their choice – I took a vote) to help them work on the words.  And here we are, three days before the big test.

I decided to have them play a game – two teams, with the definitions on the board.  One member from each team had the opportunity to go up to the board and identify the correct definition when I called out the word.  In most of the sections the students had fun as they relaxed and cheered them team members on.  It was a good time and a reminder that they had a lot of work to do before the test.  (You know, of course, that I have been reminding them for almost a month to not leave this until the last minute.  How do we make that real before the crisis point arrives??)

My one mostly male, mostly rabid sports fans section, however, was a totally different story.  It was not about fun, it was not about the words, it was about WINNING.  And complaining about the other team cheating.  And blocking the opposing team’s player from getting to the board.  I was exhausted at the end of the hour, and there was a lot of tension and high emotion in the room.  But the most interesting thing of all to me was the one student who displayed a powerful skill at reading me.  (He has been slacking most of the semester and is now trying frantically to catch up – smart guy, but serious slacker tendencies.  In the last few weeks he has asked with every assignment, “Are you grading this?  How many points is it worth?”)  So, today, he was firmly in the game although he clearly had not yet learned the words (though I had specifically pointed out to him that this test would be a great opportunity to regain some lost ground.)  Instead, when it was his turn, he would ask me if I was sure that the definition was on the board, and he would watch my eyes.  His skill at identifying what definition I focused on as I checked to make sure it was up there was unnerving.  I know I don’t have a poker face, but I was trying really hard not to indicate anything in my look.  Apparently I didn’t do as well as I thought, for his skill and speed took my breath away.  If only he could read a textbook as well as he read me.

It made me think about how quickly and firmly we pigeon-hole our students, our friends, our family, and how many talents become invisible as we see only the pigeon-hole, not the person whole and entire.  I don’t know that we ever can see anyone that fully, but I know I can see more than I do.

“This is stupid” or How I Discovered Confusion

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photo by Dan4th on flickr, made available by Creative Commons license

Just had a lovely conversation with some students after class about the frustration of non-credit courses and the University’s unrealistic promotion of the goal of graduating in four years.

Three young women remained behind after class today, and we talked about what it takes to become a professor, recovering from mistakes, and being patient with the process of achieving long term goals.  What excited me so much was that one of these young women has regularly expressed her frustration in class with a strongly voiced “This is stupid!”  Today she told me today she really likes this class, and she finds comfort in my stories of having failed classes and taken an embarrassing number of years to finish my undergraduate degree.

Our conversation was a real pleasure, and I realized that, at least for that particular young woman, “This is stupid” is not judgment on my lesson plan, on me as a human being or as a teacher, or anything else but “I don’t understand this and I don’t know how to figure it out and I feel stupid and I HATE THAT.”

Earlier today, during their class, they were working in groups on a narrative that included new vocabulary words.  The definition of the word this young woman had chosen was ambiguous, and the dictionary didn’t explain the usage -the word is only used to refer to ideas, not concrete objects.  So, her story needed to be re-worked.

When I explained, she started to react in her go-to frustration “This is stupid” mode, but I just made myself go to a very calm place in my head and slow w-a-y down.  I showed her in her own context examples how the word is used, then helped her revise her story to make the change.

She got the changes made before the end of the hour, we had a lovely conversation, and she walked out of the room feeling positive about her ability to learn it, do it, get it.  Good day.

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Free Grains of Rice for Knowing Words

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I love this game!   You can play a vocabulary quiz game, learn new words, and donate ten grains of rice through the United Nations World Food Program for each correct answer.

Every semester I have mentioned the game to my students, but I doubt that they followed up and found the game on their own.  Most of them are not yet avid information-seekers.

I would bring up the game in the vocabulary unit as we discussed the value of knowing word parts – prefixes, suffixes and roots.  I told them about my experience of doing well even though I didn’t recognize many of the more difficult words.  I used word parts to make my guesses, and the rice just kept rolling in.

This semester, with my bi-weekly sessions in a computer lab, I decided to make them play.  So I put this link on Blackboard and had them play the game for the first five minutes of class.  When I asked how many grains of rice we had donated, there were excited shouts: “Five hundred!” “Three hundred twenty!” “Fifty!”  We had easily donated a bowl of rice in each class.  Cool.

One of the many things I like about this game is that if a player gets answers wrong, the questions get easier, but if the answers are right, the questions get harder.  The weaker students can succeed and the stronger students are challenged, all in the same activity.  Lovely.  And we are helping feed a starving soul somewhere in our hungry world.  Amen.

2011 © HeyTeach101 &