Wednesday, March 11, 2015


I love slang. I love using outdated slang words and phrases like “mama jama”, “gettin’ jiggy with it” and “rock on”.

My favorite “jumped-the-shark” slang term is “cray-cray”. It means crazy to the next level. Like Super-Crazy. Crazy enough to say the word wrong -- TWICE! It was hilarious to say a few years ago. Now, it’s lost a little street cred and is used by lots of uncool grown-ups. Like me.

Speaking of uncool grown-ups, do you ever feel a little “cray-cray” about the cultural differences between you and your kids? During my first year of teaching, when I was 23, my students called everything “ghetto” -- to mean cool or good. As the history teacher, I couldn’t wrap my head around using the word “ghetto” which was associated with first, the Holocaust and second, with low-income housing projects. I couldn’t figure out what they were trying to say for awhile.

I tried to throw out some “cool” references to hip-hop by telling my kids to “pack it up, pack it in”  (from House of Pain’s 1992 hit “Jump Around”) but, somehow, the kids didn’t get it in the year 2000. Duh! Trace, they were, like, 5  when that song was cool!)

Sigh. I’m not super cool. Or cray-cray either.

Vocab matters. Whether the words are slang like, “groovy”, “swell”, “rad” or “cray-cray” -- OR they’re content-specific, like “allegiance”, “amendment”, “investment”, “reconstruction” -- kids need to learn a lot of words. The more words they OWN, the better readers they are. The better readers they are, the more they learn and retain about content.

Students need to learn 3000-4000 words a year to “keep up” with the rising expectations. In our classes, we’re lucky if they learn 200-300 over the course of the year.

We need to help them learn as many words we can -- but learn them well.

But there are so many words and there is so little time!  I had trouble figuring out the best ways to teach it.

  • I don’t want kids to copy definitions, because it doesn’t work for anyone but naturally verbally gifted kids. Average or struggling students don’t learn with that strategy. At all.   
  • I don’t want to do Frayer Models for every word, because, in Social Studies, that takes forever with the amount of words we want to teach.
  • I don’t want to do a Semantic Feature Analysis for every set of words because, sometimes, that strategy just isn’t right. The words may not be related enough.
  • I don’t want to do vocab sentences because half my kids write “cheater” vocab sentences -- the ones that don’t show that they know the word. Like “I saw alliances” or “He likes Marxism”. The ones that require no brainwork.
So what CAN we do?

According to Super-Researcher, Robert Marzano (ever heard of this guy?) there are three things that jump out at us in vocabulary instruction.

  1. When students copy a teacher’s or book’s definition of a term, it doesn’t do much for their learning. They have to explain it in their own words.
    1. Lesson: Have kids make their own meanings. That doesn’t mean they should look at a dictionary definition and change “a” to “the”. It means that they should put thought into the meaning and make it their own.
  2. When students draw their own explanation, they really process and absorb the word best. Well ...  when they don’t copy the vocab drawing from their neighbor, I mean.
    1. Lesson: Give the kids a definition and have them draw it. They may give you the “right to bear arms” (grrrr...) OR they may really make the meaning behind what they do.
  3. When students play games with vocabulary, they practice and retain the words better. Try some old favorites like Quizlet, or a new one of these.
    1. Lesson: Making learning fun and reinforcing vocab and content helps kids retain said content. Help them review or make connections with vocab games.

We know we have to teach vocabulary in context. We can’t take our vocabulary words out of context and make them a list that kids learn separately from their other reading or notes or content activities. So here are a couple of other ideas.

Word Questioning: Combine your word studies. Instead of asking about several vocab words separately, ask kids to examine them together.
  • How are Jacksonian Democracy and the spoils system related?
  • What connection might there be between the Parthenon and an acropolis?
  • How are stereotyping, prejudice, and racism alike? How are they different?

Ladder Strategy: Kids need to be able to decipher words on their own. Teach them HOW to break down words with the LADDER strategy. This is a strategy where the kids figure out how decipher the unknown words they come across on their own. The bonus of this strategy is that, when the kid is reading the newspaper or twitter and they don’t know a word, they might have some go-tools of their own to try to figure it out. They don’t need a teacher, a partner, or a worksheet.

L: Look Carefully at the word. Are there any parts of the word that you know?
A: Add what you learned from the word parts to your prior knowledge?
D: Define the word used in the context
D: Discuss multiple meanings the word would have in other contexts
E: Extend your knowledge of the word by checking out its origins or how its meaning has changed over time
R: Review the word by thinking about how and when you might use it in your speaking or writing

What’s your favorite vocabulary strategy in Social Studies? Do you use the Frayer Models for important concepts? What about the “B-list” terms? How do you teach B-list terms?  As usual, I love to hear and learn from you! Let me know your favorite vocab strategy -- or how it goes if you try one of these.

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