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Teaching Vocabulary Focused on One Word

Teaching Vocabulary Focused on One Word

I had the pleasure of attending (and presenting) at the New York State Reading Association teachers’ conference last year with my colleague, Gretchen Breon. I took notes from educators sharing their expertise on reading and writing strategies. Teaching expert Laura Robb’s session titled Read, Talk, Write: Showing Students How to Think About and Analyze Texts, opened my mind to teaching vocabulary focused on one word.

Laura’s Lesson

Laura Robb actually guided us through her teaching strategies using a text called “Hoops Tryout” by Aninn Robb.  She modeled a jigsaw activity in the classroom, along with other great teaching practices.  All the while, I kept thinking about my own classroom and my students who struggled pulling evidence from the text that matched what the focus was for writing a paragraph.  For example, I sat with one young man while he read a passage about sharks. The directions were to write a paragraph explaining two unique features about the animal chosen. As an adult, I read his passage and thought about the obvious facts in the article: rows and rows of teeth, a dorsal fin, the fact that the shark is in constant movement to breathe, the ability to smell blood in the water, etc.  So many of what I thought were “easy facts” to identify eluded him.  He choose one fact mentioned that “a two-headed shark” was born one time. Even after questioning and discussion, he kept coming back to this fact.  I wasn’t sure how to help him…until I listened to what Laura Robb did with her lesson and came up with another idea.

Ah-Ha Moment

Her overall lesson had a different goal, but when I heard what she was saying, something clicked for me.  Laura’s first task was to pre-write with one word in mind.  She took us through a t-chart using the one word “try out”.  Our groups brainstormed a list of connotative meanings: auditions, winner, losers, risk-takers, anxiety, judges, practice, opportunity, etc.  Once we discussed these options, then we read the passage connecting some of the words to the text.  BINGO! BRILLIANT! I needed my struggling student to use one word, and really understand it to be able to search for the right clues in the text! I couldn’t wait to try the idea out with him when I got back in my classroom.

Well, not only did I try this strategy out with the young man, I also posed the task to the rest of the classes.  I was amazed at the text evidence they were choosing!  Teaching them vocabulary focused on one word in mind pointed the way! I was thrilled with the resulting paragraphs that easily spilled out of their minds. The difference was dramatic and quick.

How to Teach Vocabulary Focused on One Word

So, here are the steps I took to teaching vocabulary focused on one word:

  1. Using our word list packets, I picked an overused word (like unique) and together we brainstormed a list of better words together.  New words posted on chart paper included: magnificent, awesome, alluring, dazzling, breathtaking, unbelievable, appealing, fascinating, thrilling, incredible, grand, heavenly, adorable, glorious, charming.
  2. Next, we looked at the topic we wanted to write about (ex. Nature or How is an animal unique?) and decided on one word from the list to focus on while reading about that topic. We discussed ways we heard the word used in our lives.
  3. Next, keeping that vocabulary word in mind (ex. fascinating), the students read texts, identifying the evidence that proved that “Nature is fascinating”, etc.
  4. Lastly, the one word also helps students to begin their writing.  Starting a writing piece can be a struggle too.  When they looked at their evidence pieces and determined a central idea, then the rest all fell into place nicely.
  5. As we wrote, we shared a list of sentence stems that could be used as a lead sentence. You can see the various levels of writers: “Nature is fascinating.” or “Animals in nature are fascinating.” or “The physical features of ________________ are fascinating.” or “__________________ have some fascinating physical features that help them adapt to their environment in nature.”
  6. Finally, I required the final written paragraph to be copied and pasted into an online discussion thread (uploading the doc. adds an extra step and doesn’t let you see the paragraph right away) where other classmates could read it and post two positive comments and ask one question.  Then, the paragraphs with the most comments were shared out loud to the whole group the next day.

I WAS fascinated at how changing my writing lesson slightly, by teaching vocabulary focused on one word, opened the door and increased the quality of written responses dramatically.

Example using Sioux Code Talkers of World War II
  • Start with an overused word: exciting
  • Brainstorm list of synonyms: astonishing, hectic, dramatic, intriguing, lively, animating, hair-raising, spine-tingling, interesting, thrilling, exhilarating, etc.
  • Discuss which ones to stay away from and the reasons why: interesting (isn’t specific or higher level), lively/thrilling (tone doesn’t seem to match)
  • Choose One Word: intriguing (definition: makes someone be curious, show interest)
  • Whole class discussion- what, when, how has the word “intriguing” been used before?
  • Topic: Code Talkers in World War II
  • Read with that word in mind, searching for evidence:
  • p25 “John knows the men packed supplies for three days: it’s been more than three days and there has been on contact”
  • p27: “John hears more gunfire in his earphones.”
  • p27: “…holding their heads down…concealed from the enemy, yet poised to fire their rifles…in case of a face-to-face encounter…”
Example of a Written Response

The responsibilities of a Sioux Code Talker in World War II are intriguing and make readers curious to learn more about their secret duties. On page 25, the author provided facts like “the men packed for supplies for three days: it’s been more than three days and there has been no contact.” This fact piques the reader’s curiosity because s/he want to know why the soldiers haven’t been in contact and knows they are probably out of supplies. Where are they? Next, the author creates more intrigue with a line on page 27, “John listened on the radio at camp, waiting to translate messages, but instead heard more gunfire in his earphones.” Something dramatic is happening on the other end of the radio and the reader wants find out more. Just like movie action is exhilarating at times, the Code Talkers actions turned dramatic on page 27, when they were “…holding their heads down…concealed from the enemy, yet poised to fire their rifles…in case of a face-to-face encounter…” while on a reconnaissance mission. The curious reader learns that the secret duties of the Sioux Code Talkers took them behind the enemy lines in dangerous situations.

**To access the “One Word Written Response directions sheet” and other teacher/author/SCT resources, please sign up for my newsletter. More information below.

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by Andrea M. Page (Pelican Publishing Company 2017)
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Read the Kirkus Review here.

School Library Journal Review

Gr 7 Up—This well-documented title vividly brings to life the story of John Bear King and other Sioux code talkers during World War II. What makes this nonfiction text unique is the painstaking detail the author, the great-niece of King, took to research actual coded messages in military archives and transcribe them into the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota languages….The book is engaging from start to finish, with a well-written text that is enhanced by period photographs and reproductions of significant documents. VERDICT A valuable work for teens studying code talkers and American Indian contributions to the U.S. victory in the Pacific theater.—Naomi Caldwell, Alabama State University, Montgomery

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