Saturday, March 16, 2013

Vocabulary Blues Part I: The Problem

I think teachers middle school and up (and maybe younger... I don't really know...) can relate to the woes of teaching vocabulary at all different grade levels and in all content areas.

I can recall my own student experiences with learning vocabulary from sixth grade on, and I can tell you that there was never really anything to write home about about which to write home... (cliche vs. grammatical correctness... FIGHT!) During my middle school years, we had these vocab workbooks from Sadlier-Oxford. I would imagine many American English teachers have seen this vocab work book before.


For those that are unfamiliar with this book, each unit begins with a list of twenty or so vocabulary words with the part of speech, pronunciation guide, and (until you get to upper echilons of the series) it also includes the definition, right there next to the word. Each unit then has a Completing the Sentence activity, Synonyms activity, Antonyms activity, and a Matching activity, all of which I'm not really crazy about. Even now, as a third year English teacher and college graduate thank you very much, I still have to occasionally check the answer key because the wording in these activities is pretty much atrocious. The irony of poor wording in a vocabulary book is not lost on me. The book also comes with its own versions of tests, which I personally never use. I'm a book test hater.

In high school, our English teachers used this very same workbook as a source for words, but we didn't actually do the workbook activities. We just made a daily vocab card and had a vocab test every Friday. Depending on the level of the course, those Friday tests may have been cumulative and you may have also learned about the word roots. My 12th grade English teacher, whom I admired fiercly and still blame for my chosen career path,  quite frankly could not have given two shits about "teaching vocabulary" At least not this style of vocabulary. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The only non-English teacher I had who really emphasized the importance of vocabulary was my Biology II teacher, who was a word roots fiend. We had massive lists of word roots to memorize for that class, along with chapter-specific vocabulary. Many of my other science and history teachers were just like, "Okay, the definition of this bolded word can be found here. It means this. Moving on." While they were all, with a few exceptions, excellent teachers, they just didn't feel the need to really hit on the importance of the content vocabulary.

I never met a math teacher in my time in high school who was worried about the course's vocabulary. Which sucks. Because I'm a words person and, in retrospect, I think I would have been much more successful in math classes if I'd been given some words to help me out. Whatevs.

I will honestly say that I did not teach vocabulary my first year of teaching. I was too busy treading water in the Atlantic while watching my ship sink. (For more information about the first year of teaching, why don't you take a look at this post?)

Then I came to my current school and was completely dismayed to see those same Sadlier-Oxford Vocabulary Workshop books, and I was a little disgruntled to learn that I actually had to use the damn things. So I did the thing I knew how to do... I assigned each kid one of those books and attempted a vocabulary unit every other week or so. Oh yeah... and the books couldn't leave my classroom due to an extremely high incidence of cheating with these books (the answers are easily found online) which meant that all vocabulary work could only be done during class time. There for a while, I was spending three out of every ten classroom days on these vocabulary work books. It was one of the worst forms of learn-it-and-forget-it you can imagine, and it was sucking up very precious class time. I hated it, the kids hated it, their vocabulary scores were unimpressive to say the least, and there was exactly zero educational value to this system. I cringe to think of it.

Up until a few weeks ago, my system this school year has not been much better. This year, instead of giving my kids the book and saying, "Okay, go!" for the next three days, we have been doing daily vocabulary cards similar to what I did back in high school. Since there are twenty words a unit, it takes about four weeks to get through the unit's words, and then we still do the same song and dance of workbook activities (two days) and a test (one day). I think the cards have helped maybe a little, except for the fact the kids lose them over this four week span because there is no value placed on these cards. They just do not care and if I've learned anything over the past three years, it's that you have to figure out a way to make the kids care, even if it's just for a short period of time, and even the most diligent honors students will lose interest in this God-awful vocabulary system very quickly.

Then, a few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to go to a Smekens Literary Conference for two days and she dedicated an entire day to the teaching of vocabulary. I did a bit of complaining in this post about how long that day was, but I was definitely able to gleam some very important ideas that my fellow English 10 teacher and I are starting to incorportate as we prepare our students for the ECA.

Want to know what we're doing? Come back tomorrow for Vocabulary Blues Part II: A Slowly Evolving Solution.


P.S. - A big thanks to my reader kSm for suggesting this topic! I'm sending you many internet cat hugs.
Do you have a topic you would like for me to cover? Feel free to leave a comment or email me at stephanie (at) eatwriteteach (dot) com!