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Author Interview: '101 Strategies to Make Academic Vocabulary Stick'

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Marilee Sprenger, author of the book, 101 Strategies To Make Academic Vocabulary Stick, agreed to answer a few questions.

Marilee Sprenger is an experienced classroom teacher, educational consultant and speaker, and an author. She has written three books on vocabulary and ten others on learning and the brain. 101 Strategies to Make Academic Vocabulary Stick was written to offer teachers strategies to help students place Tier Two words in long-term memory.

LF: You focus on "Tier 2" words in your book. Can you give a brief overview of the "Tiers" and why you chose to emphasize Tier 2?

Marilee Sprenger:

One of the lenses through which we can view vocabulary breaks words into tiers. These tiers divide the words according to their usefulness and function. The first tier, Tier One, are the words students enter school using. These words are often labeled "basic" words and considered to be words that don't have to be taught. The truth is, if you are teaching ELL students, you do have to teach Tier One words. Tier One words are generally conversational words, and although some students use different terms due to their culture, neighborhood, and experiences, in general, they come to "terms" with the terms in the early grades. Examples of Tier One words are run, ride, drive, table, door, baby, and book.

Tier Three words are content specific. These words are often defined in the text or found in a glossary at the end of the text. Authors tend to repeat these words and try to make them more easily understood. Tier Threes are found most often in informational text, but we still run into some in literature. Because Tier Three words are vital to student understanding of content, teachers often work hard at teaching their meanings. Tier Three word examples include meiosis, lava, circumference, integer, and cardiovascular.

Tier Two words are what I call "everybody's" words. These words are often called "academic vocabulary." They are not regularly found in everyday conversations, although it would be most helpful if they were. Predominantly found in academic texts, Tier Two words are necessary to know for comprehending a multitude of text. Tier Twos are found in all content areas and include process words such as analyze, as well as descriptive words such as putrid. When I hear a four-year-old announce at her birthday party, "This is just what I requested!" I know that she is being read stories and books that contain rich vocabulary, and her parents are reinforcing academic words in their conversations with their child. This is not generally the case for most of our students.

I chose Tier Two words to write about because teachers need more strategies for academic vocabulary. If we are going to "upgrade" student vocabulary, these words will have the greatest impact. Tier Twos necessitate direct instruction as many are not content related but are necessary for comprehension. They also require a lot of repetition, understanding of how they are used, and an understanding of their morphology. Many of the strategies can be used to teach Tier Ones (if necessary) and Tier Threes.

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LF: I've heard various numbers for answers to these three questions:

How would you answer each one?

1) How often do you need to see a word used before you know it?

Marilee Sprenger:

Yes, one can read various articles, books, and commentaries on this question and find many answers. I have heard anywhere from three times up to twenty. We need to take into consideration each person's background experience and reading practices to find just the "right" number. We can fall back on the Marzano research that says 24 to 28 engagements to learn new content. Or we can look at some Harvard research that says 15 to 20. I begin with pronunciation (if they cannot pronounce it, they aren't going to use it! When a student can use a word correctly in a sentence (seven word sentences for lower grades; 11 words for upper), and can incorporate other Tier Two words in that sentence as well, he or she will likely have that word in long-term memory.

For instance, if peculiar and generosity are two of the vocabulary words students are studying, and a student creates the sentence, "It was peculiar for my uncle to show such generosity," I would think the student owns those words. It is a process that usually takes rehearsals over a period of time—three or four weeks. Learning requires sleep for the brain to sufficiently store new information. If I hear students using the new words in conversation, and they use them in their writing, that is the biggest indicator of learning to me.

2) How many new words should be taught each week to an English Language Learner?

Marilee Sprenger:

What is taught and what is learned varies from student to student. ELLs are learning Tier One words as well as Tier Twos and Tier Threes. From my experiences, my readings and my observations, much is dependent on the content that is being delivered in any week. ELL teachers are always teaching Tier One words through their conversations and instruction. (They need to learn the 2000 or so most commonly used English words, according to Michael Graves.) That being said, as far as academic vocabulary is concerned, it appears to make sense that as they teach a poem, words like stanza, analyze, and compare would be useful.

Pre-teaching those words before the poem makes sense. That would begin with saying the word and having students repeat it a number of times, discussing the word and creating a definition, writing the word, drawing a picture or acting out the word, putting the word on the Word Wall, and then relating the words to the poem.  Because these students are learning many different tiers of words, a specific number of words to be taught each week is hard to pinpoint. In an average text, native speakers may have four or five words to learn, and ELLs may have twice that number.

3) How many new words should be taught each week to an English-proficient student?

Marilee Sprenger:

Students who are native English language users and those who have become proficient in English, according to research, can learn eight to 10 new words each week. I always tell teachers that they are the experts in their classrooms with their students and can, therefore, determine whether that number is too high or too low. In my book I write a plan for secondary teachers that uses five words per week for critical vocabulary, the Tier Two words found in most standards. That is one teacher who has students for 45 to 60 minutes per day. Add to that other Tier Two and Tier Three words, these students are learning more than ten words per week. The key is continually using those words in academic dialogue, on formative assessments, and throughout the year.

LF: You have a lot of great instructional strategies in your book. However, I'm going to be unfair and put on the spot - can you share three-or-four of your favorite ones?

Marilee Sprenger:

It's in the Bag! A vocabulary bag in the classroom can add to the excitement of learning new words, serves as a tool for those extra few minutes that need to be filled, and can be used for a formative assessment. This involves bringing a bag to school—any kind of bag will do—labeling the bag in some way, like "Mrs. Sprenger's Class Vocab Bag,"  and as a word is introduced, ask a student to write the new word on a small piece of card stock and placing it in the bag. As you add words each week, it is fun to pick up the bag and shake it so students can hear the number of words they've learned!

For those extra minutes, have a student pull a word from the bag and ask for: a definition or a synonym or an antonym and eventually even a sentence. As formative assessment, you can use it as an Exit card ask by pulling three words and asking students to write one of the above suggestions and hand it in before they leave.

Word Up! This encourages us to read aloud to the kids, gets them listening, and helps with word recognition (great for ELLs, too!) Pull a few Tier Two words from whatever you are about to read aloud to your students. Write them each on their own index card. Pass out one or two cards to each student. (Words can be repeated) As you read the selection, students hold up the appropriate card each time it is read.

Vocabulary Song Lyrics! Writing expanded definitions of academic vocabulary in the form of a song is a great encoding experience. Using any well-known songs from childhood, television show theme songs, or their own special tune, students sing about their word. This should be done in groups. I would always give each group a different word and have each group get up, sing their song, and teach it to the rest of the class. It's fun and a great learning experience for all types of students!

Wear the Word! This is an engaging strategy for introducing a new word. I used masking tape, but you can use name tags or whatever you can think of! Take the new word and write it on a piece of tape. Then come up with synonyms for the word and write each on their own piece. Tape the words to your clothing. (anywhere they can be easily seen and read) Give the students time to read the words as you are standing at the door to greet them, as you walk into the room, take attendance, etc. You don't even need to do the lesson right away.

If they ask you why you have words on you, you can look puzzled as though you don't know what they are talking about or say something like, "I decided to add to my vocabulary!" At lesson time, you ask them if they noticed something different about you. Then take the new word off of your body, hold it up, pronounce it, and have the students repeat it. Then have them repeat it again. Tape it to the board and ask students if they have heard the word before and in what context. After hearing those accounts, ask what they think the word means. Once you have created a kid-friendly definition, ask them why you have the other words taped on you. Take each word off, one at a time, and discuss how they mean the same thing. Make sure you say the words and have them pronounce them.

This is fun for the kids, engaging, and you will get lots of attention!

LF: Unfair question number two: Again, you have a lot of excellent vocabulary assessment ideas in your book. Can you share three or four of your favorite ones?

Marilee Sprenger:

The Frayer Model.  I like this graphic organizer for vocabulary because it can be used for introducing, rehearsing, reviewing, and assessment. I really like to have students make their own Frayer. I give them a blank sheet of paper and ask them to fold it into four quadrants. (hamburger fold and then a hotdog fold) Unfolding the paper, I ask them to  write the vocabulary word in the center of the paper where the fold lines meet. They then label each quadrant. Upper left is definition or description, upper right is definition, lower left is synonyms, and lower right is antonyms. These labels are not written in stone. I am use examples and nonexamples in the lower quadrant, or I may label one quadrant picture and another sentence. It depends how far along they are in their learning. This is a good formative or summative assessment. For ELLs I might skip putting the word in the center and use Word as the label for the upper left quadrant.

Cloze. A cloze assessment would consist of a number of sentences with blanks for the vocabulary words. Students must decide from the context of the sentence which word goes in the blank. You can differentiate this assessment by providing a word bank at the bottom of the paper for ELLs and any struggling students.

To be or not to be? This strategy involves using student papers and circling every form of the verb "to be." Students must change the word and use a strong verb from the Word Wall or vocabulary list. This can be very challenging!

LF: What do you think are some of the most common unhelpful ways used by teachers in vocabulary instruction and what questions would you suggest they ask themselves (or someone else should ask them)?

Marilee Sprenger:

As the queen of the unhelpful vocab teaching strategies in my early years, this is not difficult to answer.

Assigning a long list of words is not helpful. Ask yourself, "If I introduce words individually, won't students be less daunted by vocabulary?"

Having students look up words in a dictionary is unhelpful. Ask yourself, "Won't students remember definitions better if they work together to come up with it themselves?"

Grading formative assessments is unhelpful. Ask yourself, "Won't feedback provide the information the student needs to continue the learning?"

Matching and multiple choice quizzes are unhelpful. Ask yourself, "Will this really show me that a student can use this word successfully? If not, what would?"

Assigning students a group of words to write down, look up, and write sentences using them is very unhelpful. Ask yourself, "What kind of notebook would inspire students and get them excited about words? Could a vocab scrapbook add more to their learning? Are they ready to write sentences with only a definition?"

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LF: Is there anything I haven't asked that you'd like to share?

Marilee Sprenger:

My mantra has become, "Tier Two words are Forever words!" We need to change our own vocabularies in our classrooms. The more we use academic vocabulary in the classroom and on our assessments, the more likely students will begin to use them in speech and writing. And most importantly, make vocabulary fun! Use brain-compatible teaching strategies and remember repetition is good for the brain!

LF: Thanks, Marilee!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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