Monday, November 21, 2016

Image Vocabulary

For as long as I have been in the classroom (and I'm proud to say that I still am - professional development and advice from those out of the classroom, even less than a year, often seems too idealistic and unrealistic), I have known English teachers who have lamented to me about the struggles their students have with vocabulary. In those same conversations, I'll even have a daring (perhaps honest) colleague who will question his/her own approach to vocabulary, wondering "should I teach vocabulary in the context of the texts we read?" or "should vocabulary be taught with random words that they might see on some future test?"

The context/no-context debate has raged between strong-minded ELA teachers for decades, likely even centuries. While both sides are well intentioned, it's hard to find any English teacher, and especially any experienced English instructor, who hasn't tried a variety of approaches during his/her time in the classroom. Having spent more than ten years teaching high school English (mostly 9th and 10th grade), I have been given articles photocopied from journals, books, and magazines, most claiming to have the found the "Holy Grail" of vocabulary approaches, only to find that such methods are impractical, far too expensive (did I mention I teach in a high-poverty district?), or simply ineffective. I have, from those many sources, been able to put together what works for me and my students in my own real (far from utopian ideal) high school classroom.

First, I made the decision to focus on vocabulary exposure and approach at the same time. This meant getting rid of my typical-ELA teacher bell ringers (journal writing) in favor of doing a vocabulary word of the day. By making vocabulary my starter, it was my hope that students would see vocabulary and the power of words as a priority in my classroom (and I believe it has been effective in doing so). The routine exposure of students seeing words that they might not know well, or at all, is beneficial. Equally important to me was that students were able to see the new/unfamiliar word used correctly in a sentence with context clues. To that end, in addressing process, each day students first write down the sentence displayed via projector on the whiteboard. The sentence has the focus word underlined, and students are required to do the same on their vocabulary sheet / on their vocabulary chart. Students then are required to write what they believe the daily word might mean, and we discuss those thoughts aloud before I project the correct definition or useable synonyms on the board as well.

A sample student weekly vocabulary chart is provided above

While the new word, context clue sentence, and  correct definition all make a difference for vocabulary retention, it is the addition of a priority on images - the visual meanings - that makes my approach as successful as it has been over the last 7 or 8 years. In addition to the sentence with context clues, students also see an image projected on the whiteboard that somehow communicates a meaning or synonym for that daily word. Sometimes this image is directly related to the sentence, sometimes it is marginally related, and sometimes it doesn't have anything at all to do with the sentence. No matter what, though, the image is meant to convey a meaning or idea related to the vocabulary word's definition.

A sample slide that would be projected for a daily vocabulary word
(the synonyms - in bold - are only provided after students first record their own guess)

The connection between images and meanings is nothing ground-breakingly new. For decades, big-wigs in ELA instruction, such as Marzano, have been touting the importance of student-generated images. Such curriculum innovators stress that students are required to generate self-meaning through such drawings. I agree with this premise (as a result, students have to draw an image of their own on their daily chart).  However, the idea of presenting students with an image, not merely requiring them to draw their own, helps students learn and retain vocabulary, too. After first using this image vocabulary appraoch in my classroom, I actually focused on it for the topic of my M.Ed. thesis, which required me to first do a great amount of background research. I found that there were two schools of thought regarding images and vocabulary: those encouraging providing images to students, and those requiring students to generate their own images. I was not able, however, to find any studies on the use of both elements simultaneously - a fact that only served to give my own research more merit. Long-story-short, my data-focused research found that the duel-image approach was an improvement over just using one or the other vocabulary image styles, and it was a significant improvement over vocabulary instruction absent of images.

In an effort to provide educators with resources relevant to this image vocabulary approach, I have made two 8-week image vocabulary sets (incuding multiple quizzes for each) available in my TpT store.  If interested, both sets are also available for purchase as a bundle for a $4 savings.  The sets are designed around words that would be appropriate for grades 7-10.  Use the links below to access those products.

If you end up trying this image vocabulary approach, whether with your own words (or personal approach), or with the ready-to-use sets linked above, let me know how it goes with your students. Perhaps you have a suggestion of how you did things to make the approach even more successful? Definitely share your experience with me (and your fellow colleagues reading this blog) via the commenting section. Your feedback, ideas, and suggestions - just knowing there is an audience for this blog, even - would be more helpful than I could ever express.

Until next time, keep teaching your students with all the passion that I know you bring to each and every day in the classroom!

-A Teacher's Teacher

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