Teaching vocabulary in reading context with four-letter words

I have a spreadsheet of four-letter words.

Not those words.

My words are common words that can be used as more than one part of speech and/or in different contexts thereby changing the words’ meaning.

photo collage showing 3 turtles, 2 frogs, and a football team

Here’s what I’m thinking of using as an informal writing activity to arouse some interest in the boring but vital topic of the value and limits of using context in determining a word’s meaning. This activity is suitable for high school and college students.

Step 1. [Me to students] I’m going to show you five words. I want you to tell me in a sentence or two  if there are any of these words whose definition you aren’t sure you know. Here is the list:

  • test
  • mess
  • knot
  • walk
  • team

In your response, mention the words whose meanings you know and the ones whose meaning you aren’t sure about. You have 30 seconds to write.

[Students write.]

photo collage of people walking, two snails, and a duck

Step 2. [Me:] Now let’s see if you really know the meanings of those words.

I’m going to read you five clues [displayed or in hard copy so students can refer to them]. On your paper, beside the clue’s number, write the word that fits.  You have 90 seconds. [Read clues aloud.]

  1. You wouldn’t like finding one of these in your shoelace or in your shoes.
  2. Don’t ruffle members’ feathers by cheering.
  3. You take it in school, but a clam carries one everywhere.
  4. This moves slowly, but you could take a quick one.
  5. Unless you’re an iguana, if you make one, you clean it up.

Those are the clues. On your paper, beside the clue’s number, write the word that fits.  You have 90 seconds.

[Students write.]

Step 3. Give correct answers.  Students grade themselves.

Step 4.  In no more than three complete sentences, explain what this rather silly quiz shows that is important for you to know to be a good reader.  You have two minutes to write.

[Students write.]

Step 5. In no more than three complete sentences, explain something taking this silly quiz shows you that’s important for you to know to be a good writer. You have two minutes to write.

[Students write.]

Next steps. This informal writing forces all students to think about the process of deciphering a “strange word” they encounter in their reading. Some students will be able to figure out at least a couple correct answers from the total quiz context, but still not know the meaning of the term.

I’d probably have students work in pairs or small groups to find the actual meanings of the terms in the contexts indicated in the clues.

One point of the activity is to show students that they can use reading context to make educated guesses about words they don’t know, but to be sure they guessed correctly, they need to check a dictionary.

The second point is to show students that as writers they often need to provide indirect definitions of words (for example, by using synonyms) to help readers who may be unfamiliar with a term they use in a restricted or technical sense.

FYI A test is the hard outer covering of certain invertebrates, such as the clam. The other four words in the quiz are group names. A group of frogs is a knot. A group of snails is a walk.  A group of ducks is a team. A group of iguanas is a mess.

Comments? questions?

Keywords help struggling teen readers

Secondary students struggling to read at grade level need help that doesn’t make them appear dumb or babyish. A tip I picked up from a textbook publisher can help.

Before you assign students to read a nonfiction passage, set them the goal of discovering the keyword in the passage. Be sure students understand that the keyword  may be just a single word or it might also be a phrase such as “raising goldfish” or “web applications for creating infographics.”

After students read the passage and correctly identify the keyword, have them identify at least three details that support their choice. You can use informal writing instead of oral responses if you wish.

Besides aiding reading comprehension, the technique helps students develop skills for research and writing.

Middle and high school teachers may wish to click for more simple tips for improving students’ reading comprehension skills in any subject area.

The importance of buts

Even if your students are bright and read a lot, it’s a good idea to verbalize once or twice a year the changes that transition words signal.

Transitional words and expressions are not glue dots between sentences.Street sign indicates side street angles off to right

They are more like road signs showing how what’s ahead is different from what went before.

If your students don’t recognize the difference in meaning between

and ….. but

in the same vein….. on the other hand

however ….. similarly

they will have difficulty reading or writing nonfiction material.

About every other decade, English textbooks put on a drive to teach the meanings of different transitional expressions. When they slack off, students’ reading comprehension slides.

A whole cohort of graduates can get through school without learning that different transitions have different uses. I once ran across a very bright master’s degree candidate who couldn’t understand an assignment because she didn’t realize that the word but indicated that the words on either side of it had contrasting meanings.
Street sign show road curves left before straightening out
Sure, students should be able to figure out that the words on either side of but express contrasting ideas, but they may notice that fact if their attention is elsewhere. Students don’t have to be concentrating on extra-curricular activities to miss something in class. They could even be thinking hard about something the teacher said earlier.

To be sure students know the meanings of different types of transitional expressions,  teachers must teach that material.

I don’t mean teachers should present a lesson on transitions.

I mean teachers should point out at least monthly  in students’ reading or while you are modeling writing that a particular transition word is used because it conveys a particular meaning.  That won’t take more than 30 seconds, and it’s more like reach most students than devoting one class period in a scholastic career to transitions.

I also don’t mean that only English teachers should do this.  Pointing out the importance of transition words is the job of all teachers — from the art teacher to the zoology teacher —who expect students to read nonfiction in their classes.

Photo credits: “Road Splits” and “Road Curves” by Linda Aragoni ©2012

Formative assessment of graphic awareness

Assessment is an essential part of teaching.  Unfortunately, schools focus on summative assessments that, even if appropriate, don’t provide either student or teacher with information about to get to their educational goals.

For  “how are we doing?” help, you need formative assessment.

Our tendency as teachers is to use formative assessment to see how well students learned what we taught. However, formative assessment can also be used in determining what you need to teach. Students may know more than you think—or they may know something quite different from what you think they know.

I find the best formative assessment tool for my nonfiction writing classes is informal writing in response to a writing prompt. Misunderstandings about the meaning of common English class terms are a routine problem.  I use informal writing to uncover such problems.

Another potentially serious source of misunderstandings are graphics.

I started thinking about the problems inherent in graphic representations when reading Richard McKenna’s The Sand Pebbles. Early in the novel, Jack Holman  attempts to teach an illiterate Chinese man how a steam engine operates. Jack’s first attempt is frustrated by Po-han’s lack of numerical literacy. Since Po-han does not understand numbers, he thinks the larger the type size on a dial the greater the amount of pressure in the engine.

I teach students to use graphic elements such as heading size as reading comprehension tools. It had not occurred to me how important it is be sure students are correctly reading graphics that are supposed to help them understand course content.

When I thought about it, I realized it’s not just illiterate coolies that can misunderstand graphic representations. Literate people can misunderstand a graphic that they interpret with a different set of associations than those held by the graphic’s designer.

Take, for example, the little magnifying glass icon. If you use the web regularly, you know clicking the magnifying glass icon will bring up a search box. You may assume that everyone will interpret the magnifying glass as you do. However, if you were to ask a group  of folks who are not regular web users to write a sentence or two telling what they would expect to happen if they clicked on a magnifying glass icon, you might  learn many people  assume that the magnifying glass icon will make the type bigger because that’s how they are accustomed to using a magnifying glass.

Another problematic icon in education is the pyramid representation of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives.  Many people interpret that graphic as meaning they must spend much more time on the broadly based objectives than on the more narrowly based ones, which fits the graphic image but is a total misinterpretation of the taxonomy. (The graphic, incidentally, is not in the Bloom’s taxonomy, which presents the objectives an ordered list.)

If you use many graphics to communicate concepts and procedures, as I do, you can identify potential  graphic misunderstandings by using informal writing for formative assessment.  Simply have the learners write a sentence or two explaining what they think a particular graphic feature means. For example, you might ask, “What would you expect the relationship between these two items to be?”

Or ask, “How do you think the information represented by the yellow area of this graphic is likely to be related to the information represented by the blue area?

Such formative assessment writing prompts are not hard  to prepare, and don’t take long to administer, but the answers can go a long way toward improving teaching and learning.

[Removed links to information no longer available 04-03-2014.]

Reading key to achievement for neurosurgeon Ben Carson

Earlier this week I watched Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story based on the memoirs of neurosurgeon Ben Carson.  The 90-minute video is inspirational and instructive viewing for students, parents, and teachers.

Excerpts from the drama are available on YouTube.   The full version is available on DVD  from NetFlix, and is on TNT.tv.

Carson was a black kid from Detroit with a violent temper and the conviction that he was dumb. His  mother realized part of Ben’s problem was that he couldn’t see well enough to make out the letters. The school hadn’t figured that out.

When Ben got failing grades, she refused to let him and his  brother watch TV until their homework was done. She insisted her sons read two library books a week and write a report on them for her, though she herself could barely read.

Curious about a rock he’d found, Carson read a book about rocks. When he shared his knowledge in science class, he astounded his teacher. More important, Carson realized he wasn’t dumb.

He graduated high school, attended Yale, went on to medical school, and became top pediatric neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins.

Carson’s memoir is available in paperback,  ISBN 0310546516, at many online and storefront retailers.

Watching the video got me thinking about how it could be used as a jumping off place for writing.  (I’m working on a collection of nonfiction writing prompts on topics from the ELA curriculum, so almost everything suggests a writing prompt to me.) Here’s one of the writing prompts I came up with:

Ben Carson’s behavior was determined in a large part by the way he viewed himself. When he stopped believing he was stupid and helpless to learn, he began to learn and to be smarter. The idea that self-perception influences behavior is a well-accepted tenet of psychology.

Write an essay in which you discuss how self-perception impacts behavior. In your response, include one example from your personal experience or personal observation, and examples from any two of the following:

  • A fictional literary character
  • An historical figure
  • A sports figure
  • A scientist or doctor
  • An explorer
  • An artist or musician

You’ll find a biography of Carson on the Achievement.org website, where you can hear a podcast by him, see or watch interviews with him, and find lesson plans that pick up on themes from his life.
[Deleted broken links 2014-11-29/]