My dogs know quite a few words: out, walk, cookie, ball, and grandma are particular favorites. They acquired this vocabulary through association. I held up a biscuit and asked, “Who wants a cookie?” and, because everyone wants a cookie, they quickly learned to associate that word with the snack they enjoyed so much. It is important to note that the concept of a cookie preceded their acquisition of the word “cookie.”
In much the same way, very young children acquire vocabulary by pointing at things and making some sort of questioning vocalization. Parents then give them a label for the thing. “That’s a doggie! Can you say ‘doggie’?”
At age three, my nephew scored off the charts verbally in large part because my sister and brother-in-law brought him to museums and aquariums and gave him picture books, exposing him to myriad items for which he desired names. He could discern a backhoe from a bulldozer and a stegosaurus from . . . some other dinosaur. Ask him. I’ve forgotten most of that stuff.
In school, we tend to approach vocabulary in reverse. We first offer students a new term—adjective, velocity, transpiration—and afterwards show them examples. Without a mental model to anchor the terminology, vocabulary has nothing to hold it in working memory. Students forget the words and what they mean.
Sometimes we give them several related terms at the same time: conduction, convection, and radiation; comparison and contrast; associative, distributive, and commutative. Again, without some mental model that allows them to keep each term separate, they conflate them. If you’d like to see the truth of this, ask a random third grader to tell you the difference between narrative, persuasive, and expository writing.
I have become convinced that a better way to introduce content-specific vocabulary is to provide the examples first. Let students figure out what the distinguishing characteristic is and only then give them the academic language.
In a recent seminar, a young teacher mentioned that her students struggled to correctly identify common written organizational strategies: chronological, process/sequence, etc. I pulled together several bundles of paragraphs, each on a variety of topics but organized the same way. Without any preliminary instruction, I gave groups of teachers a single bundle and asked them to figure out their commonality.
When I checked in with the teacher whose classroom struggle had prompted the activity, her group had correctly identified their paragraphs’ structure as problem-solution. She said, “I like this so much! Instead of me telling them what it is, it’s like I’m drawing it out of them!”
I grinned for two reasons. First, I love it when teachers see value in an activity I have offered them. Second, she had unwittingly excavated the etymology of the word “education,” which comes from the Latin educere, meaning “to draw out.”
I often hear teachers lament, “Our kids don’t have any background knowledge!” when they merely lack content-specific background knowledge.
Knowing this, we are probably best served by determining what general knowledge can be brought to bear on our content. Students may not think they know anything about thermodynamics, but they can tell the difference between a large container of water that won’t scald them and a small container that will.
Instead of giving them the scientific terms heat and temperature and then letting them perform the lab, why not let them perform the lab first? Let them explain what happened in their own words: “That big pot of water changed the temperature more than that little one with the boiling water, ‘cuz there was more of it, you know, so it, like, had more, I don’t know, like, power.”
“Power, nice! In science, we call that ‘power’ heat. Why does the big pot have more heat?”
“Because there’s more water in it!”
“Specifically, there are more water molecules in it. So, heat is the sum of all the molecules together.”
The teacher I mentioned earlier put together a series of activities to engage students in recognizing text structure. In addition to having them identify the common organization of several different paragraphs, she created puzzles with each sentence of a paragraph on separate pieces. Students who placed the sentences in the correct order could more quickly assemble their puzzles.
I checked in with her recently to see how her students were handling the concept of text structure and organization. She shared, “I had one student in particular say that he finally gets relationships between sentences.”
Over the course of my career, there were many days when I worked so hard in class I felt I should be wearing tap shoes and a sparkly outfit. When the bell rang, I was bathed in sweat and physically exhausted.
Great teachers are choreographers, not dancers. You plan the moves that will bring the results you desire, but it should be your students who execute them. It’s a more sustainable tack for you, and it is likely to lead to more learning for them.