Peculiar and Curious Vocabulary

I review a lot of sample lessons and often I pull samples to post on our website's resource area. But a lesson I looked at today just got my mind spinning.

Mike Scott of Alachua County Schools in Florida designed and lead a vocabulary lesson in a middle school ELA classroom. Being the quality CRISS District Trainer that he is, he ensured students experienced this new information following the Framework for Learning:

  1. Prepare: Students brainstormed synonyms and antonyms for the word "Peculiar" and then used Vocabulary Rating to assess their starting understanding of some vocabulary words they would run across in their next novel.
  2. Engage & Transform: They were taught the format of a Vocabulary Map and practiced as a whole class with the word "Curious". Then, students were divided into smaller groups and assigned two words to complete together.
  3. Reflect: Mr. Scott led them through a reflective discussion.
During the class reflection, students said two powerful things. 1) Vocabulary Maps are useful (they would rate themselves differently on the Vocabulary Rating activity now that they've completed the Vocab Maps) but they take too much time to do for each word and 2) "It’s confusing when so many words mean the same thing...For example, why does it matter if you're curious or inquisitive?"

The first point underscored how important reflection is for students. Vocabulary Knowledge Rating is metacognitive right off the bat - students have to think about what they know about a word and convert that to a scale. For example, I know it/have a hunch/somewhat know/no idea (OR my more realistic scale of Call on me!/I'm not embarrassed by my guess/I'm deliberately avoiding making eye contact with you/I will literally crawl under my desk and make whimpering noises if you call on me). Then, students need to learn the words. Through reflection, the class came to the conclusion that Vocabulary Maps are useful for learning words but boy do they take up time. It seems that some words are better suited for looking up in a dictionary or glossary and some may need a more thorough study with Vocabulary Maps. Because the Vocabulary Maps (in this case) have space for a definition, some students probably realized they may just want to start with the dictionary. If it helps them right away, then a more comprehensive map isn't needed. But if they are still confused or think they might forget, perhaps they should finish the map. And, other than the definition, what might predict if they need a Vocabulary Map? Their initial rating of the word! If they are honest with themselves and dig deep into their heads to drag up prior knowledge, they may discover they knew more than they thought and they can save their time for the harder, less familiar words. Reflection leads to metacognition which leads to appropriate learning choices for the content and kiddo. The students may not have said this verbatim but they are 6th graders on their way independence.

Mr. Scott jumped/leapt/bounded/vaulted to his feet with a great activity for his students following their reflective question: Linear Arrays.

As far as I can tell, it's based on Linear Arrays first described by Janet Allen in her book Words, Words, Words: Teaching Vocabulary in Grades 4-12-If you know a different source, please let me know! The strategy is pretty simple: Create a chart where the top read Opposite, A little less like, A little more like, Almost the same, then a column for the target term. He used the word ecstatic as an example:
Linear Vocab Array

Of course, you can modify this. Pick terms like "said" and "whispered" and create a continuum that doesn't start with the opposite. Or change the headings to focus different relationships. For example, my science students got bogged down with vocabulary related to DNA (DNA, nucleic acids, nucleotides, genes, chromosomes, chromatids, homologous pairs, etc.)

Nuances are hard for students to grasp but very important to consider not only in their own writing but when assessing other texts (it's no coincidence Common Core Reading Anchor Standard #6 is about author's word choice and bias). Why would a newspaper issue a correction that fixes a single word? Why might someone value the impromptu responses of candidate debates differently than those of a prepared speech? How does modern communication via Tweets and texts and Instagram posts impact understanding? Is carefully considering the nuance of a term and word choice more or less important given the size constraints of the medium? As readers or writers, how do we communicate with individuals who balance word choice/space constraints differently than we do? What issues might that cause? We're a very visual society now: What are comparable visual nuances? My mind is going deep down a rabbit hole now as I'm sure you can tell.

Back to the point: What started as a straightforward introduction to a vocabulary/definition strategy ended up somewhere else because the students had a chance to be metacognitive and, as a group, they were finally able to verbalize and important question about word choice.

Most teachers find it a struggle to teach vocabulary effectively. What I really appreciated about this lesson wasn't that students walked away knowing 10 words, front and back. No, he really empowered the students to learn on their own. He was selective about the amount of vocabulary each student would tackle. He modeled the new strategies. He used discussion. And he asked students to reflect and the start and the end and then capitalized on what he learned during the reflections to add in a new strategy that built off student interest.

Nice work, Mr. Scott! If you want to see a little bit about an other lesson he read, just click here.