Category Archives: Vocabulary

Vocabulary Pictures

I started having my students create pictures for each of their vocabulary words, and their vocabulary scores jumped immediately. Along with a few other minor tweaks and adjustments, my students–when they do what I ask–perform at a very high level when using new vocabulary words.


I included a picture that one of my students created for the word “culmination.” I like this drawing of the word because it simply and directly conveys the word’s meaning without any complex artistic ability needed. The students quickly present their pictures and explain how the definition matches the drawing, and the other students in the class may steal that picture or keep their own. Regardless, the students have a visual representation of the word.

DilemmaHere is another picture one of my students created for the word “dilemma.” I like this one because the student (with a sly smile) explained that she was trying to decide between finishing her vocabulary homework and her reading, and it was a dilemma since she “wanted to do them both at the same time” because they are the “most important.” This made me laugh because I joke with the kids that English is the most important and should be done first, and I enjoy it when the students joke back with me.

Non-linguistic representations are a key component of Marzano’s system of teaching students, and, when my district provided a training on Marzano’s research-based teaching strategies, I felt good about the ways I have my students work. I like routines as well, and the training reinforced my affinity for routines, so my students know which days we will practice vocabulary and when any quizzes might be given. I believe this reduces stress and allows students to feel more comfortable in the classroom.

Vocabulary Words Are All Around Us

Yep, that’s what I told my students: vocabulary words are all around us.

Frequently, I hear my students complain that they’ve never “heard this word” or have never “seen this word” and other such comments when we study new words. In the last month the students have received words, which they claim are never used, such as the following:

  • elegy,
  • obfuscate,
  • obloquy,
  • jingoism,
  • oeuvre, and
  • opus.

Thus, I said to the kids that I would bet them breakfast that within 10 days I would be able to bring in an example of each word in a pop-culture novel that I’m reading, a magazine I read regularly, or in a newspaper article in a local paper.

Mission accomplished!

I used Entertainment WeeklyRobopocalypse (a novel about robots turning on humanity), 11/22/63 (a Stephen King novel about time travel), and The Seattle Times to win the bet. The students were astonished.

Then, I challenged them to be honest and look for our vocabulary words in whatever they read whether that be a blog, a comic, a novel, a magazine, a newspaper, or other text. Truly, I did not expect the kids to take up this challenge, but within a week the kids (one class) had found 35 of the 40 words we’d studied so far.

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels provided quite a few of the words, which greatly shocked the students. They realized that I wasn’t lying about the prevalence of these words and that the students often skip over unknown words without looking them up (or even recognizing that they skipped a word!).

I’m hoping the buy-in increases a bit. 🙂

A New Direction

My blogging has slowed, and I think part of the reason is that I need to do something a bit different. In the past I have written about topical items and teaching techniques, which I think can still be a part of this blog, but I plan to use this more of a journal-type series of posts. Keeping a running log about what I do as teacher on a daily basis might be a more realistic view of teaching as well as allow me to record my history as a teacher. Maybe, just maybe, I can quash some of the misconceptions about teachers as well, try to show the public–even one person if I am lucky enough to have a non-teacher or two read this blog–that a school year really is a year in length.

Today, for example, I read 5-6 articles on education, explored my class roster for the upcoming school year, and shared some files with a colleague.

The article I spent the most time reading (and checking out the comments) is a Seattle Times editorial advocating teachers and their union to “focus on new reforms” without actually including any advice that really goes beyond following what the law already says teachers must do (e.g. include student test scores in the evaluation process, which is current law and not even a choice). This type of empty rhetoric simply allows an editorial board to promote a privatizing agenda without really saying anything of substance but still pushes the buzzwords in education such as reform, union, contracts, etc. The Seattle Times, now without a competing major newspaper since The Seattle Post-Intelligencer became an online only reporting agency, has become increasingly strident and heavy-handed in its disdain for the state teachers union in addition to becoming a mouthpiece for privatizers of education. I spent about an hour total reading all of the articles.

It looks like my classes will average 29-30 students each.

I explored my class roster today and learned quite a bit about my students. Since our records are available online, I decided to see what my students’ GPAs look like, how they did in English last year, and what their households look like. Overall, the classes look pretty accomplished with a number of students challenging themselves with their first upper-level English courses. Some teachers don’t like this, but I love seeing students push themselves academically; I firmly believe that a B- in an advanced course means more than an A- in a non-accelerated course. I think the records review took about 90 minutes in total.

Lastly, I shared some vocabulary files I created for my classes. I probably help my colleagues teach vocabulary more than just about anything else during the year. I maintain a steady routine each week for the kids to follow, so they don’t have to guess what is due each day or be surprised by the week’s schedule; however, I do try mix up the reviews and practices with puzzles, games, synonyms, antonyms, shared word parts, connect the words to the literature, sentences, stories, and so on. The more we use the words, the better the students know them.

Game 3: Reverse Taboo

Using taboo cards from the actual game like the one pictured here, I divide my class into three teams and have them group together. Once in the groups I begin the game, but not by using the actual game rules.

I read the first word on the card, which in the normal game is a word that cannot be said when trying to get a player to guess the pink word, and I give the team about 10 seconds to guess the pink word. For example, with the card here I would say, “pouch,” and the students quickly confer and give me a guess. The first word I hear is the guess.

If the team gets it right, I award them five points. If they answer incorrectly, I read the second word (in this case it’s “hop”) to the next group. If the second group answers correctly, the team gets four points. If wrong, the third team gets a guess with the third word (in this case it’s “animal”) for three points. The points decrease with each additional clue from 5 to 4 to 3 to 2 to 1. I continue through the five words until a team gets the word correct or no one answers correctly.

Once that card is used I put it away and allow the next team to start, and I repeat the process. It’s a blast and really gets the kids thinking and connecting information.

I have created my own cards using literature too. However, this sometimes requires a few extra word clues. I either play the game like I did above, or I (more likely) have the students play among themselves in groups using the traditional Taboo rules where the students cannot say the words below the pink word.

For The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (what the students need to guess), I put the words Huck, Tom, Jim, Mississippi River, Pap, Miss Watson, Widow Douglas, King, Duke, and Mark Twain. The students then have to get their teammates to guess the novel title using other words and phrases. It takes a while to make the cards, but it’s fun. I’ve also had students create their own and used them with the other classes.

Obviously, this game can be adapted in a number of ways which is part of its appeal. I use it every year, and every years my students enjoy it.

Integration Is Key

I’ve been on vacation and upon returning I had a full inbox of questions about how to integrate multiple language arts elements into a single assignment. I thought I would use an example from my own curriculum to illustrate the idea of integration.

One novel we teach during the Sophomore year is Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird, and we also teach SAT-frequent vocabulary words and grammatical skills. Thus, I now have three elements to combine. Many teachers prefer to teach each of these items separately–which may be fine for introductory lessons–but I prefer to combine them in the application stage.

A possible in-class assignment could be as follows:

Describe two types of courage in Part I of To Kill A Mockingbird using at least two cited quotations from the novel. In a response of at least two 3-5 sentence paragraphs, use at least four of our vocabulary words correctly and use each of the sentence types learned in this class (simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex).

This seemingly simple assignment forces the students to do the following:

  • identify and describe two types of courage in the novel (analysis),
  • locate, incorporate, and cite two quotations into the response (evidence and citation use),
  • organize the two types of courage into two short paragraphs (organization/structure of ideas),
  • apply the use of at least four vocabulary words (vocabulary application), and
  • incorporate the four types of sentence (sentence fluency and variation).

Of course, now comes the difficult part for the teacher. How do you score or assess the student products? Or, do you?

Possibly, one may decide not to score the products for the purpose of the grade book (an assessment of learning) but may decide to use this assignment as a means of improving the students’ skills (an assessment for learning). I would most likely not enter a score in the grade book with the students’ first attempt but might use this as a rough draft assignment to be edited and improved over time or as an introduction to another assignment using the same elements.

However, when I do decide to enter something like this into the grade book, I would recommend one of two methods. Either score each element separately for the grade book (the analysis, citation use, organization, vocabulary application, and sentence fluency) to reveal the students’ abilities in each of the five areas, or use a rubric separating each of these elements into a distinct column resulting in a final total score.

Regardless, the students need to know how well they performed in each of the five areas. I would hope that these five areas also relate to the course’s core requirements (learning outcomes, Power Standards, etc.). These five areas would either be end of course learning targets or skills leading to the end of course learning targets.

By integrating the elements in a course, the students can begin to add complexity to their products while also saving the teacher time. Plus, this mixing of skills allows students to see the interconnected nature of the course’s learnings.

P.S. I tend to have the students label each element for me before they turn in their final drafts. For example, I would have the students circle the four (or more) vocabulary words, label the four sentence types (and possibly the individual elements of each non-simple sentence), and number each description of courage (a 1 and a 2 would suffice). This simply forces the students to identify what they have and have not done as well as help me identify where problems may lie, much like showing one’s work in math.

Action-Research: SAT Vocabulary

I’m going to use an SAT-prep program with my honors students (which I used last year) along with my non-honors students, and I will use the same successful strategies as in the past. I figure they’re all taking the SAT, so they should all be prepared for it. Plus, I’m going to chart each class’ weekly progress and see how they compare.

If all goes well, I’d like to encourage my department to adopt the program for all of our students.

Teaching Diction Terms

Previously, I posted about a diction analysis assignment I use in class. While I designed it originally for my honors students, I have modified it to use with my mainstream students as well. I thought I would present an example of this here.

The first key idea that the kids have to understand is that a diction device is not the same as a literary term. A literary term is a broad category of Language Arts terms while a diction device is a subcategory of literary terms. A diction device focuses solely on word choice, the reasons why authors choose specific words and the subsequent effects (cacophony, euphony, connotation, denotation, dialect, colloquialism, simile, metaphor, symbol, etc.). Even subtle items can be included, especially when an author violates rules of grammar, syntax, or punctuation for effect. Literary terms such as climax, denouement, flashback, and so on focus on plot, not word choice; therefore, I have to focus the students on analyzing word choice (diction).

Let’s use a sentence from Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities as an example of how to analyze diction:

“Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend,” observed the Marquis, “will keep the dogs obedient to the whip…”

First, the kids have to know the context of the quotation. With this section of text, Charles Darnay has renounced his family’s name and money and left to live in England instead of France. He returns briefly to his uncle’s mansion in France and has a conversation with his uncle, the Marquis, and the disgust of one for the other is evident. The quotation above is the Marquis’ philosophy for keeping the commoners in line.

Secondly, the students need to know the definitions of every word in the selected sentence. My students asked about repression (the act of keeping someone/something under control), deference (respect), obedient (willing to comply or to give in to authority), and Marquis (a nobleman ranking below a duke and above an earl or count). I use right in front of the students to look up the words, so they see me look up words to encourage them to do the same. Here, I wanted to make sure the kids understood the denotation (the primary or most popular definition of a word) of the words, which is a diction device.

Now we can analyze. Here’s the sentence again:

“Repression is the only lasting philosophy. The dark deference of fear and slavery, my friend,” observed the Marquis, “will keep the dogs obedient to the whip…”

We looked at the words in the example, and I asked the kids which words they thought felt positive or negative. Essentially, we’re discussing the words’ connotations (the secondary or associated meaning of words; the feelings or emotions attached to words). They said these words were negative feeling, and I included what they said:

  • Repression (makes people feel powerless & takes away choices)
  • dark (seems evil)
  • fear (can’t be comfortable if afraid)
  • slavery (no control & horrible life)
  • dogs (people are not dogs because it’s wrong & makes people seem unequal)
  • obedient (feels like there is no choice)
  • whip (painful if hit with it & creates fear)

These are the words the kids felt were positive and how the words made them feel:

  • philosophy (ideas and idea systems are good things)
  • deference (people should respect each other & “I want to be respected”)
  • friend (friends make us feel good & feel wanted and valued)

Since we noticed more words were negative than positive, the students felt that the statement is meant to be seen as “a bad thing.” This is where we decided to use connotation as the first diction device to write up. Here is what one of my mainstream students wrote about the word “slavery.” This is rough but a good start:

Connotation is the feeling a person gets from a word. In the sentence from A Tale of Two Cities Charles Dickens used the word “slavery” to show how the Marquis feels about the common people on his land. Because people see slavery as something scary and giving people no rights, this is a word we expect the Marquis to use. The effect of this word is to show the reader that the Marquis does not want to give his people equality. They have to be afraid and poor and always working. This gives the Marquis control.

This example uses connotation, which requires an understanding of denotation, but we also used the following terms as well with that single sentence:

  • alliteration (“dark deference” – creates an emphasis on the “evil respect,” as one student explained, “to make people afraid”)
  • metaphor (“dogs” – makes the Marquis look arrogant like’s “he’s better than the [common] people”)
  • tone (based on the words used, the kids thought the Marquis was lecturing in a “sinister” way)

A single sentence incorporated five diction devices!

The entire lesson took a period, but it set the groundwork for numerous lessons and deeper insights into the literature and into the careful selection of words.

I can use this as an introduction into more literary devices, character analyses, and most importantly the students’ choices about their own diction when speaking and writing. This type of lesson can help students improve their reading, writing, and speaking abilities.

P.S. I have the students fit their answers into a specific three-part structure.

  1. I have the students start their responses with the diction device they believe is employed in a piece of text. [Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in words close together, often at the beginnings of words.]
  2. Next, I have the students identify exactly where in the selected text, they believe the diction device is employed. [Alliteration is used in “dark deference” because the ‘d’ sound repeats in two consecutive words.] Sometimes I make the students use the finger test; they have to put their fingers on the evidence of the diction device.
  3. Lastly, I have the students start with “The effect of this is…” to ensure they have selected an example that has an intended purpose; it creates an intentional effect and is not accidentally present. [The effect of this use of alliteration is that the reader is drawn to the phrase “dark deference” (based on the repeated sound) because Dickens wants the reader to see that the Marquis desires obedience from fear and not respect.]

All together now:

Alliteration is the repetition of consonant sounds in words close together, often at the beginnings of words. Alliteration is used in “dark deference” because the ‘d’ sound repeats in two consecutive words. The effect of this use of alliteration is that the reader is drawn to the phrase “dark deference” (based on the repeated sound) because Dickens wants the reader to see that the Marquis desires obedience from fear and not respect.