Sunday, May 21, 2017

Finding Time for Productive Vocabulary Play

Today I am pleased to present this guest post from Lesley Roessing, Director of the Coastal Savannah Writing Project and Senior Lecturer in the College of Education, Armstrong State University. Lesley is the author of No More "Us" and "Them": Classroom Lessons and Activities to Promote Peer Respect and Bridging the Gap: Reading Critically and Writing Meaningfully to Get to the Core both From Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

By Lesley Roessing
What can teachers do when they have only a partial class period, a day of high absenteeism, or students who have lost focus because a holiday break is overshadowing academics and every other class is showing movies? What can teachers do when their six students athletes are leaving early for a championship game, when the nurse’s office is calling students one-by-one for dental checks, when 60% of the class is out because they have Confirmation practice, Take Your Child to Work Day, or the flu, when class will be interrupted by a fire drill or an assembly, or when class follows a grueling morning of standardized testing? These interruptions and distractions happen more frequently than we would care to admit, causing teachers to lose productive academic time. So how can teachers use this time and maintain academic integrity? Play word games.

Vocabulary is a reading skill. Vocabulary is one of the greatest predictors of reading comprehension. Knowing lots of words supports fluency; the more exposure to words, the better readers read and comprehend. Teaching vocabulary is a strategy for increasing reading comprehension in all disciplines. But this isn’t a blog about vocabulary-teaching strategies—it is about finding time for more vocabulary exposure, more time with words, and using that disrupted time to do so. Research shows that two strategies for increasing vocabulary knowledge are active engagement and motivation, i.e., wordplay. Teachers can employ those interrupted, distracted periods for active engagement and wordplay.

I always had six or seven Scrabble boards in my classroom. I favor the turntable type for two reasons: the spaces for tiles are recessed so if students bump the board, the pieces do not fall off. Also the board can be turned without disturbing the letters, and students don’t need to move to see the board. These boards may be more expensive but last much longer and are often available at yard sales.

On Scrabble Days, I divided the class into groups of four and gave them the time to play. Often I would let them use dictionaries to find words because, when they employed a word from the dictionary, they had to explain the word to their group, and, in that way, all were learning more words. The rules can be altered to earn fewer points for words discovered this way, but my goals for the activity were engagement, word usage, and learning new vocabulary. Scrabble is differentiated because students work with words they know or are able to read and understand.

In disciplines other than English/Language Arts, such as science, history/social studies, math, health, art, music, a requirement can be that the words formed have a connection with the discipline, no matter how tenuous. When challenged, the player has to make the connection. For example, the word cell would have a different connection to science than to history or social studies. In history class, a student might say that a particular historical figure spent time (or should have spent time) in a prison cell because of his illegal actions (giving examples of those actions). In English-Language Arts, players can earn extra points for literary terms, such as simile.

My other “Go-to” vocabulary game is Taboo. In Taboo the goal is for the player’s teammates to deduce a word from the player’s verbal clues. To elicit answers, the player cannot say any form of the target word or the five other words that are listed on the card beneath the word, those words being “taboo.” Players have to explain their words, provide synonyms of the word or the taboo words, or give examples of the word for their team to be capable of discovering the answer. This game can be played with as little as ten minutes, and a point tally can be maintained for each team.

In a content area class, the students can create cards featuring the vocabulary words learned or to be learned or disciplinary terms, adding the five words players would be most likely to associate with the word and are, therefore, taboo. They then can play History Taboo, Science Taboo, Math Taboo, Health Taboo, etc. with the cards.

I always maintained that if an administrator were to enter my classroom and inquire about what the students were doing, the unequivocal answer would be “word study,” citing the appropriate standards, such as the CCSS Anchor Standards for Language Vocabulary Acquisition and Use.

Sometimes those little hidden minutes can be a gift to try something new and academically valuable.

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