Don’t Trust the Dictionary


photo by Joelk75 @ flickr

I have found a new site that solves a major vocabulary-teaching problem.

When teaching new words to my students, I used to struggle with the gap between dictionary definitions and common usage.  If students create a sentence based solely on the dictionary definition of a new word, nine times out of ten (made-up statistic) the sentence will sound wrong.  Trying to explain why it sounds wrong was a challenge I often struggled to meet.

So I started requiring the students to use online dictionary sites that include context examples.  It is surprisingly obvious when the students have made up sentences rather than copied legitimate example sentences, which taught me that the dictionary definition is not enough to help them learn to use new words appropriately.

Last semester we used a variety of dictionary sites, and I had the students rate them according to their usability.  I wanted sites that included context examples, but there wasn’t a lot of consistency about whether or not a site included context examples.  Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn’t.

Well, eureka!  I just discovered Wordnik, a site that exists to provide definitions and a multitude of example sentences.  I have revised my computer lab assignment, and now the students will be required to use Wordnik first, then find a similar definition and context sentence (if available) at another dictionary site.

Check out Wordnik – way cool!

2011 © HeyTeach101 &

Building Blocks of a College Reading Class

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photo by riekhavoc on flickr

As I prepare to teach our most basic reading course for college freshmen this fall, I find myself trying to distill what I know about teaching reading to its most basic, crucial components.  I will have these students five days a week, which is intimidating but also freeing – I know that active, creative teaching strategies take time, and meeting every day will give us that time.

So, what is at the heart of reading instruction?  At first I thought I would go micro to macro: start with the smallest parts – words and then details.  Once the students understand the words and recognize the details, the comprehension skills – identifying the main idea, seeing organizational patterns in text, recognizing author’s tone and purpose, etc. – will all start to fall into place.

But as I was writing this (the first time, before Word Press ate it and I had to start over), I realized that before I have students break down paragraphs for words and details, I want them to learn to preview the text before reading. So few students know how to do this or realize how crucial it is for understanding; many students identify previewing as the most useful skill they learn in my reading classes.  Previewing gives us a framework we use to make sense of the details.  So, our semester will consist of playing with words, discovering the power of standing on the mountain top and experiencing the view, then learning to analyze the details.

Today I tried out my plan when I met with a new adjunct teacher, gave her the textbooks and a brief summary of this post as a way to help her decide what to focus on as she begins to plan her classes.  Went well.  She was pleased and encouraged and said this approach made a lot of sense.  (She was also relieved that I didn’t expect her to cover the whole book, but that’s another post for another day.)  Sense is good.  I’m never quite sure how well sense translates to classroom success, but remain ever hopeful.  I’ll let you know.  It’s all in the details.

2011 © HeyTeach101 &

There are three kinds of …


Don't pee on an electric fence!

Who knew there was an international symbol for this?

“There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.” ~ Will Rogers.

A friend shared this on Facebook, and it got me thinking.  Just change “men” to “students” and you have my classroom in a nutshell.  I may have a student or two who learns by reading, but those who read to get their information don’t usually end up in developmental English classes in college.

There are a few students who get it through lecture and demonstration, which are passive teaching methods.  Only one person is actively engaged during a lecture – the lecturer.  But most of my students are doers – athletes, dancers, musicians, scientists, artists – and they need to pee on that electric fence themselves before the concept becomes real.  The impact on their academic success strengthens this analogy – hence their placement in remedial college English.

My challenge is to find ways to use those strengths to help them understand the abstract skills of academic reading and writing.  One can’t always pee on the fence, you know?

2011 © HeyTeach101 &

and we’ll have fun, fun, fun …

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Creativity, experimentation and play are not traditionally a part of developmental education, at least at the college level.  There is a deeply held belief among many educators that having fun while learning will somehow diminish the importance of both the teaching effort and the content itself.  This attitude, unfortunately, has been particularly hard on developmental students.  They are students least likely to suddenly begin to succeed with the traditional, worksheet-based methodology that has failed them so far.

Often course assignments in developmental classes focus on routine and uninspiring tasks that have not engaged our already detached students, while the exciting learning is happening in honors and advanced courses.  Surely we can provide struggling students with similarly creative, exciting learning experiences.  Let us enhance and energize approaches to presenting developmental reading and writing courses so we create classes that encourage, excite and actually teach the up-til-now disengaged students.  One of our goals should be to interest that well-known student in the back of the classroom who is half asleep, leaning against the wall.

Brain research does not support a stern approach to education.  We learn by playing, by wanting to imitate others who are doing what we want to do (Smith 10).  Fun engages the emotions, and when the emotions are engaged, true learning, as opposed to learning for the test, is more likely to occur (Nunan 74). The most successful learning experiences will be “sociable, pattern based, sensory, emotionally non-threatening, energetic, choice based, relevant to the students’ own world, and meaning based” (Benjamin 65)  Whew.  I will be referring back to that list a lot as I develop my plans for teaching our lowest level readers this fall.

I gained insight into the impact of that list through the “reading autobiographies” I have had my speed reading students write for years.  Consistently, students write that they loved to read when they were young children, but somewhere between 6th and 9th grades they began to dislike reading, and many of them mourned the loss of the joy they had felt as young readers.  Apparently, our educational system has been remarkably good at destroying the joy of a child in discovery, and we must make a conscious effort to restore the act of finding joy (en-joy-ment??) in learning.

I agree that we need to get back to the basics.  As Philip Pullman says: “the most valuable attitude we can help children adopt – the one that, among other things, helps them to write and read with most fluency and effectiveness and enjoyment – I can best characterize by the word playful” (Pullman n.pag.)

If our goal is to help our students read and write with fluency and effectiveness and enjoyment, and we are more in our hearts than just the language police, then we must move beyond the comfort and simplicity of traditional methods of teaching.  We must learn to teach in the ways our students learn, remembering that our students are not us, and that if they are in remedial classes they most probably do not learn as we learned.  We must have faith in ourselves and our students, that if we work our own way through the complexities of our subject in order to be able to explain the material simply and clearly and if we teach them in the ways they can learn, they will learn.

Sorry about all the citations – I think it’s a defensive reaction because I’ve encountered so much opposition to this position.  “See, it’s not just me who thinks this way.  Lots of credible professionals do too!”

Works cited:

Benjamin, Amy and Tom Oliva.  Engaging Grammar: Practical Grammar for Real Classrooms.  Urbana, Illinois: National Council of Teachers of English, 2007.

Nunan, Susan Losses.  “Forgiving Ourselves and Forging Ahead: Teaching Grammar in a New Millenium.”  English Journal March 2005: 70-75.

Pullman, Philip.  “It’s Time English Teachers Got Back to Basics – Less Grammar, More Play.”  The Guardian.  Web.  19 April 2009.

Smith, Frank.  The Book of Learning and Forgetting.  New York: Teachers College Press, 1998.

©HeyTeach101 and 2011