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Academic Vocabulary: Discover First, Define Second

My son was a strong writer at an early age. He even wrote a novel when he was 12. And his writing was enriched with literary devices such as metaphors, personification, and hyperbole--especially hyperbole (he used it more than he breathed air). Yet when he took a diagnostic reading test at age 10, my son had no clue how to answer this question: Which of the following is an example of a simile?

How could a kid who used similes in his own writing be unable to pick one out when it was staring him in the face? Simple. My son's writing skills weren't taught. They were acquired. Acquired through early and avid reading. He didn't learn to write from a textbook or teacher. He learned to write from authors such as Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket), Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid), Dav Pilkey (Captain Underpants), J.K. Rowling (Harry Potter), and Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes).

My son's "teachers" exposed him to similes, but never pointed them out or told him what they were called. That's why he was stumped by the test question, and why he didn't know the definition of simile until long after he had begun using similes in his writing.

My son's experience is a model for how teachers should approach academic vocabulary in their classrooms. Give students opportunities to experience, observe, or discover a concept first, and name and define it later. That's exactly what my colleague Ariel Sacks, author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class, does as a middle school English teacher. Watch this video in which Ariel defines a literary technique only AFTER students have cited examples of it during a novel discussion:

Student Voices on Connections from Whole Novels on Vimeo.

What Ariel Sacks does as an English teacher applies to other subjects too. In Geometry, for example, consider all the vocabulary involved when learning about angles formed by a line intersecting two parallel lines: transversal, same-side interior angles, alternate interior angles, corresponding angles, and alternate exterior angles. Yet students don't need to know any of those terms in order to learn what matters most: the angle pair relationships. So rather than clutter students' minds with definitions, direct their energy toward exploring and drawing conclusions about angle pair relationships first, then come back together to name the angle pairs.

And perhaps no subject is more conducive to this approach than science--whether through hands-on labs or virtual activities and videos. I recently saw a teacher use a BrainPOP roller coaster simulator that allowed students to understand kinetic energy and potential energy without being familiar with either of those terms. I've also seen teachers use MythBusters videos that support this approach.

The point here no matter what you teach is to create opportunities for students to learn academic concepts before you formally define them. Doing this is far more meaningful for students than the traditional approach of defining terms up front with little or no context. And students are more likely to internalize and retain definitions as a result. That's why, when it comes to the meaning of simile, my son's memory is like that of an elephant. He's 15 now, and not only continues to use similes in his writing; he recognizes them in others' writing.

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