Some teachers offer no vocabulary because they don’t have time. Newsweek, yes. Time, no. Other teachers use vocabulary texts with 15 to 20 words in every chapter. This provides an easy (if boring) answer to “the vocabulary problem.” Other teachers still quiz students strictly on vocabulary that surfaces in the stories, novels, and essays in the curriculum.
If this were multiple choice, our 8th grade would fall under the “D: None of the above” category. You see, our vocabulary units are do-it-yourself. We choose our own graphic organizers, create our own handouts, and customize all quizzes to our students’ needs and interests. How and why might you do such a thing? Let me count the ways:
- You can choose what words you want your students to learn (oh, the power!). For instance, you could start the year with words you consider crucial to all the subjects on your team — words like evaluate, elaborate, clarify, analyze, paraphrase, facilitate, concede, apply, etc. Assume they know words common to educational processes? Don’t.
- You can focus on Greek or Latin roots, prefixes, or suffixes. Or you can refine yourself to SAT words.
- You can decide what graphic organizers you like best. Thus, a go-to book like Janet Allen’s Words, Words, Words can be mined for “go’s” that suit your classroom best. This may be one or two you use year-round or a caravan of different organizers to see the various ways they help students to make long-term memories out of short-term ones.
- You can tap into students’ background knowledge by starting each new unit with a Possible Sentences handout. The instructions are simple. Pair up students and have them put their heads together to write a sentence (with context clue) using every vocabulary word they either know or think they might know. On Day 2, give students a list of the definitions. Now they can first correct mistakes from yesterday by writing new sentences for those words, and second create sentences for the words they outright did not know.
- Create a quiz that features repeating characters with a storyline. Ours consists of Zeke, an excitable quarterback; Stuart, a science enthusiast with a penchant for blowing things up; Daisy Mae, a smart cheerleader who occasionally dates both the aforementioned Z-Man and Stuey; Vern, a dairy farmer who owns Bessie, a cow, and is wed to Maybelle, a milkshake devotee; Jim-Bob, a regular Joe who is addressed as “James-Robert” by his mother when she’s angry; Lulu, a girl with a funny name; Grandma Gertrude, an octogenarian who is whip-smart and who likes to do doughnuts in the senior center parking lot with her Lamborghini. Here is an example of a quiz that features some of these characters. It uses humor and word play to make the mundane (vocabulary) a bit more enjoyable.
- Practice handouts can feature these recurring characters, yes, but you can also give your students cameos by featuring THEIR names in sentences. If you do this every week, you’ll be amazed at how carefully every word is pored over after you hand the sentences out.
- DIY vocabulary also allows you to feature certain grammatical structures in your handouts. Been teaching participial phrases, the appositive, or gerunds in recent weeks? Use them in every vocabulary sentence. This way your handouts will not only test student comprehension of vocabulary, it will review concepts from grammar mini-lessons in class. Two birds, one stone, zero complaints.
- Once they are in the rhythm of DIY materials, students can be asked to create their own DIY handouts for each other. They enjoy playing the role of teachers and will relish the opportunity to create their own characters and story lines in the form of assessments. Variation: choose your favorites from class sets and make a quiz for the entire group.
- If all of this looks like too much work, try to create handouts and quizzes together in a department meeting. You’d be surprised at how much fun such word play can become when you revise and add to each other’s examples with one person serving as recorder. And no, that wasn’t a typo — I wrote “fun.”
DIY vocabulary is cheaper, customized to the students, aligned with your most recent lessons, and a hoot to hammer out together. It can be created during the summer or on-the-fly during the school year. What’s more, once you have your units, you’re good to go for many years to come. Case closed!