30 Weeks of Academic Vocabulary

Is there a teacher anywhere in the world who hasn’t been told to focus on academic vocabulary? It seems I can’t look at social media without seeing at least one post about a teacher wanting to include more of it in his/her instruction. There is good reason for this, especially when it comes to our English language learners.

A few years ago I too wanted to include more of a focus on academic vocabulary in my classes. I had noticed my intermediate and advanced students were struggling with tests, standardized tests in particular, not because they didn’t know the answers, but because they didn’t understand the question. They were constantly asking me to define certain words and I wanted to help them. Since I can’t help them during a test I decided to do my part to prepare them better. I took a look at the fifth through eighth grade Common Core ELA academic vocabulary lists and developed 30 weeks of vocabulary practice. Why 30 weeks when the average school year is 36 weeks? Because 30 is about how many weeks I (an average teacher) actually get to do instruction in an average year. Once you take out testing weeks (and as an ESL teacher I had an extra test to give), the first week of school, the last week of school, and other specialty weeks where regular instruction just doesn’t happen/work (i.e.: the week before winter break), 30 weeks is about all that’s left.

Each week’s unit consists of five vocabulary words, which I tried to theme as much as possible. On Monday my students and I would fill out the definition part of the graphic organizer for the week. We would also discuss the first word more in depth (see the next paragraph for what was included in our daily discussions). Completing the graphic organizer took the longest, but in total we spent about 20 minutes working on our new set of words each Monday.

Each day we discussed a new word in depth. We talked through the definition and example sentence (which I displayed on half-page posters clipped to small clipboards near our vocabulary wall, taking them down every Friday after school and putting up a new one each day of the week). We also talked about the part of speech for the word of the day and added its word card to the appropriate section of our word wall (these I left up all year). I’d give another example sentence and would allow several students the opportunity to share their example sentences as well. Finally, each student would write his/her own example sentence in the appropriate location on the graphic organizer. In total, our daily discussion took about five minutes.

Typically we would finish with our five words on Friday and students would take the graphic organizers home for the weekend. The next Monday we would have a short quiz over the previous week’s words, before starting on the new set. Our quiz consisted of several parts: 1. me verbally giving students the words and them writing them, 2. students writing a definition for each word, 3. a cloze section with the vocabulary words completing the provided sentences, 4. a writing section where students wrote their own example sentences for each word. Starting with week two, each quiz also included one word from the previous week’s list to review.

Another way we reviewed words was by playing Context Clues Academic Vocabulary Connect Four. This game allows students to practice both context clues and academic vocabulary in one game! Each version of the game (A and B) uses the 75 words and example sentences from one 15 week set of the academic vocabulary units. Played similarly to the classic game Connect Four, students choose a card and read the sentence. They state a definition for the underlined word (if necessary their opponents can check the definition in the provided glossary) and, if correct, place a marker on the board. Our preferred markers are milk jug lids, but anything can be used, including X’s written with dry erase markers. My students enjoy the game and it’s a great way to help them remember previously learned words and introduce new words, all while practicing context clues. While the academic vocabulary units themselves have not been digitized, a digital version of the Context Clues Academic Vocabulary Connect Four games does exist (you can read more about it in the linked blog post).

I would love to say that implementing this vocabulary instruction/practice instantly changed everything and all of my students flew through their exams, passing with flying colors. That would be a lie though. However, I did notice an increase in the use of academic vocabulary in our class discussions, a decrease in the number of terms I was asked to define during tests, and an increase in test scores overall. I’ve also noticed a difference in my adult students’ vocabulary and writing, so this approach continues to be a win for me, even after leaving the middle school classroom. Happy teaching, everyone!

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