Category Archives: Teaching Tips

Why Teach Vocabulary?

Let’s face it. Instructional time is precious. There is never enough time to teach the content students didn’t quite master last year, to teach the skills and standards they need to master this year, and to maybe throw in a little something, just for fun. So, why “waste” time intentionally teaching vocabulary?

This post will….

  1. Explain the importance of teaching vocabulary explicitly
  2. Help you understand which words to teach
  3. Give practical tips for teaching vocabulary in any content

Why is teaching vocabulary important?

First, let’s make sure we are talking about the same thing. There are actually four different ways a student can master a given vocabulary term: listening, speaking, reading and writing. Listening and speaking are both oral language, and reading and writing are both written language. Children begin to develop oral language skills long before they come to school, but for most students, written language skills begin to develop around the time they enter school. Generally speaking, a student’s largest vocabulary is listening. Students can understand words before they can use them in their own speaking, but the two are connected. In the same way, most students have a larger reading vocabulary than written vocabulary, but the two support each other. More on that in later posts.

Later we’ll get into specific strategies for improving language skills in the four areas. For now, the reasons for teaching vocabulary explicitly mostly overlap.

  1. Knowing the correct word helps students express themselves clearly and be understood – in both speaking and writing. Have you ever witnessed a two-year old’s temper tantrum? Likely, they are expressing their frustration in the only way they know how. They have an idea in their head but they don’t have the word. Then, an adult caregiver comes along and asks, “Would you like me to read this book to you?” The two-year-old calms down, and repeats, “Read.” Now they have the word they need and the frustration passes. Older students may not have temper tantrums, but they still feel frustration when they can’t make themselves understood. Vocabulary instruction helps them have the words to express their ideas and knowledge. Vocabulary = Being Understood
  2. The reverse is also true. When we teach complex concepts (like equivalent fractions), explicit teaching of the term leads to great understanding of the concept. When students understand that equivalent is similar to, but different from, equal, they begin to grasp the nuances of equivalent fractions. Vocabulary – Greater Understanding
  3. Explicit vocabulary instruction increases reading comprehension. That has been well documented in study after study. And it makes common sense. Obviously, students cannot comprehend a text if they do not know the meaning of key words. It has also been well documented that students LEARN new vocabulary through consistent reading. Wide reading = Higher Vocabulary, and Higher Vocabulary = Wide Reading.

Vocabulary = Being Understood
Vocabulary = Greater Understanding
Vocabulary = Wide Reading
Wide Reading = Vocabulary

What to teach?

So, the Oxford English Dictionary defines about 600,000 words. But, that’s not all of the words in English. Some estimates say there are over a million words in English, and it’s ever growing. Do you remember a time you didn’t know the word meme? I do. It was invented after I was born, but I’m pretty sure the first time I heard it was out of the mouth of my 14 year old son – probably in 2020. English is a living language – one of the beautiful things about it.

This causes a problem for teachers. Even if we stick with the 600,000 words in the Oxford English Dictionary, and forget all the new words being created, we could never hope to teach them all. The good news is, we don’t have to. In 2002, Beck, Kucan and McKeown published Bringing Words to Life. In the book, they explained that teachers should focus on teaching Tier Two words. Check out these blog posts for more in depth information on Tier Two words.

For now, here is a quick overview.

Tier One words are commonly found in oral language. They are typical words that most native speakers learn to understand easily. Because they are learned through spoken language, they might make great spelling words, but they should not be targets for vocabulary instruction for native speakers.

Tier Two words are generally not used in spoken language, but they are encountered in written language, so they are key for students to learn. These are the words that unlock comprehension, advance reading skills, and bring writing to life. Many content words fall into this category.  Because these words have the ability to be useful in many different contexts and domains, instruction on these words can have a huge impact.

Tier Three words are only used in a specific domain, and don’t cross into other content areas. They also might be very rare words. These are the words that students need to unlock key concepts in science and social studies, and should be explicitly taught as needed.

There are about 7,000 Tier Two word families. If you teach a word from each word family, and help students make connections to the other words in the word family, the whole process becomes more manageable. 7,000 divided by 13 years of schooling is 538.46 word families a year. Still lofty, but doable.

From Theory to Practice

Now we’ve come full circle. You understand why explicit vocabulary instruction is important, but I’m sure you’re asking yourself the question we started with. Where do I find the time?

The answer is simple. Consistent, easy routines that you weave throughout your day, in multiple content areas, will help you explicitly teach the vocabulary your students need to know. This FREE e-book gives you details on each routine.

Grab the book and then implement these strategies in your classroom today!

To increase oral language, use these routines:

  1. Capture the Word
  2. Fist of Five
  3. Examples and Non-Examples
  4. Hot Seat

To increase written language, use these routines:

  1. Interactive Notebooks
  2. Capture the Word
  3. Word Wonder
  4. Word Detective
  5. Catergories
  6. Tic-Tac-Toe
  7. Pictionary

These simple routines take little to no prep, and can be implemented in math class, science class, social studies…. Grab the FREE e-book today and give it a try!

Click the image to grab the FREE e-book!

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Nab Some Non-Fiction – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

In yesterday’s post I reviewed five essential fiction picture books for starting the school year right. The CCSS calls for equal amounts of fiction and non-fiction in the intermediate grades, and that means picture books too. So today, we will dive into five essential non-fiction books for starting the year right. These are books that I have used multiple times and they each offer a different insight for the beginning of the school year. Again, the links are to Barnes and Noble or Amazon in case you need to add any to your classroom library.

Manfish: A Story of Jacques Cousteau (Jacques Cousteau Book for Kids, Children's Ocean Book, Underwater Picture Book for Kids)

Manfish by Jennifer Berne

This is a truly marvelous book about an amazing pioneer. I read this story to students every year to launch my Writer’s Workshop. To get the FREE lesson plan, click here!

The book follows the life story of Jacques Cousteau. Not only was he an intrepid pioneer exploring the sea, he also had deep interest and knowledge in inventing, writing and film making. The writing is lyrical and the illustrations are vibrant. You will love this wonderful biography and your students will be inspired by him too.

The Mary Celeste by Jane Yolen

This book by the same author as Encounter is a beautifully written account of a true story – the disappearance of the Mary Celeste in 1872. The mystery has NEVER been solved, and students will have a blast keeping track of the clues and trying to solve the mystery. The last 2 pages of the book give 6 popular theories, but no one knows which one, if any, are correct.

When I read this book, I ask students to try to solve the mystery. It is an illuminating peek into their inference skills. Plus, it’s such a terrific read and it will fly off the shelves as students puzzle over the illustrations and continue to try and solve the mystery.

The Mary Celeste: An Unsolved Mystery from History
Your Fantastic Elastic Brain: Stretch It, Shape It

Your Fantastic, Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak

This book is full of charming illustrations and amazing facts about the human brain. It clearly explains how the brain grows and changes over time, and how mistakes are an important part of that. This is a perfect book to launch a growth mindset classroom. Your students will be stretching their brains in no time!

A Second is a Hiccup by Hazel Hutchins

This is a delightful book about time and perfect for launching the beginning of your time together. The book begins with all the things that you can do in a second and continues through a minute, and hour and so on until you reach a full year. And, it rhymes! If any of your students are still working to sort out time, this is great for them. But I like to read it and then do a little dreaming together. After reading the book together, we work through the Hopes and Fears protocol as we think about the year we will spend together. I learn a lot about my students, they learn about each other, and most importantly, the students start to feel some ownership in our classroom.

Unstoppable by Art Coulson

This is a biography about Jim Thorpe, an unstoppable Native American athlete. This story will really grab your athletes, and all of your students will resonate with the story of the underdog defeating the favorite. Many students will also resonate with Jim Thorpe, a young man who didn’t find school engaging. As I read, I watch the body language and listen carefully during turn and talks. The book and our discussion often open a window into how my students are feeling about school. At the beginning of the year, that information helps me build relationships with my students.

There are so many amazing picture book biographies in addition to the two I’ve mentioned here. Bringing non-fiction picture books into your classroom will help you meet your standards and expose students to new content, different perspectives and interesting ideas. And, you can do it in about 10 minutes!

Five Fiction Picture Books to Start the School Year Right! – 30 Days, 10 Minutes to a More Literate Classroom

Why use picture books in the intermediate classroom? Won’t the kids think they are babyish? Well, that might have been true once (although I could make the case that it was NEVER true), but in recent years, authors have been putting out some amazing picture books aimed at older readers, and even for adults. A high quality picture book has sturdy paper, brilliantly colored illustrations and engaging text. I use picture books in my classroom all year long. Here is why:

  • I can read them in about 10 minutes!
  • They are easy to reread. I often read a picture book for one purpose, and then revisit it for another purpose.
  • The pictures help carry the meaning of the story and provide important scaffolding for ELLs and students with low language skills.
  • Students love to reread them. A picture book doesn’t feel like a major commitment. Even in fifth grade, some students feel overwhelmed by reading chapter book after chapter book. High quality picture books can fill a gap and give students a little rest while still keeping them reading!
  • Students need to be exposed to a wide range of non-fiction, and picture books are a great way to bring that into the classroom. Over the 25 years I’ve been an educator, content standards have narrowed considerably, and it is causing students to be less engaged in school. I don’t blame them! Picture books are a great way to widen their horizons and help them find topics and content that interests them. I meet required reading and writing standards AND engage students in interesting content at the same time.

Following is a list of my favorite fiction books for starting the school year. Be sure to check out tomorrow’s post to get the list of my favorite non-fiction picture books for back to school. I will read all of these books to my fifth graders in the first month of school. There is a lot of junk out there, but I promise, these will all be great reads in your classroom too! Links are to Barnes and Noble in case you need to add any to your classroom library.

Odd Velvet

Odd Velvet by Mary E. Whitcomb

This book was published in 1998, and I have probably read it to a group of students every year since it was published. There is plenty here for all ages.

The main character, Velvet, is odd. It’s not just her name, it’s everything about her. She doesn’t have fancy clothes or a big box of crayons, and she doesn’t even like talking dolls! Then, using just eight crayons, Velvet wins an art contest, and the kids begin to see her with new eyes.

This is a lovely story for the beginning of the year because it is a story of learning to accept those who are different from ourselves. As you are building your classroom community, it’s a terrific message to send.

I use this book to launch my Graffiti Wall every year because the language is so marvelous. Be sure to check out the blog post and video where I explain how to do that!

Enemy Pie by Derek Munsun

It’s shaping up to be the worst summer ever. Jeremy Ross has just moved into the neighborhood, and he is public enemy number one! When the protagonist (who is not named) explains this to his dad, dad instantly gets it and helps hatch a plan – to invite Jeremy Ross over and feed him enemy pie. Dad makes the pie, and all the boy has to do is spend one day being nice to his enemy. As the boys spend a fun day on the trampoline and in the tree house, the protagonist realizes that Jeremy isn’t so bad after all, and he warns him not to eat the pie – the act of a true friend!

Enemy Pie (Reading Rainbow Book, Children's Book about Kindness, Kids Books about Learning)

This is a wonderful book to share with kids at the beginning of the year and talk about friendship. What makes a good friend? How can making assumptions about someone stop us from noticing their good qualities? Your kids will love the fun illustrations (by the same illustrator as Odd Velvet!) and you will love the way the discussion moves your classroom community forward.

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes

The Girl Who Never Made Mistakes by Mark Pett and Gary Rubinstein

Chances are, you will have at least one perfectionist in your class this year – one student who is afraid to take risks because they might fail. Chances are, it will be one of your highest performing students. This book is for that student.

Beatrice Bottomwell is known far and wide for never making mistakes. She never forgets her homework, she always makes a perfect peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the perfect amount of jelly, and she has won the city talent show three years in a row. She has fans waiting to greet her as she heads to school each morning. When she slips and falls carrying the eggs for a muffin recipe, she catches the eggs before they break. She is perfect! But she can’t stop thinking about her Almost Mistake. And she is so afraid of making a mistake that she won’t join her friends as they play on the frozen pond after school.

The night of the school talent show comes again, and everyone, including Beatrice, expects that she will win. But, her juggling act goes awry, and Beatrice finds herself standing on stage, covered in water, and trying to figure out how to handle the situation. That’s when the book becomes so perfect for the perfectionist. Beatrice laughs. And the audience laughs with her. What a wonderful way to handle utter humiliation!

This book is a really great model for handling life’s difficulties, whether students are perfectionists or not. Again, read this early in the year and have conversations about handling failure. If you make failure fine for your students, risk taking will be much more likely in your classroom.

The Other Side

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson

This book is told in first person by a young, black girl. As you can see in the cover art, she lives on one side of a fence, and a little white girl lives on the other. Both girls are warned not to go on the other side of the fence because it is dangerous. Eventually, the girls realize that there is no rule about sitting on top of the fence, and in that middle ground, they meet and become friends.

Woodson has such a lovely way with words, so you could easily read this book just for the language. But, it is also a great book to read and discuss the artificial barriers that keep people apart. You can easily bridge to the artificial barriers that likely exist in your own classroom: race, class, language, economic status, cool kids… I have always found that bringing up those issues early in the year before too many problems arise is the best strategy for preventing them from sidetracking your classroom community. This book will help your students find their own middle ground.

Miss Malarkey Leaves No Reader Behind by Judy Finchler and Kevin O’Malley

This is the book I use to introduce my Reader’s Interest Survey. Be sure to check out the blog post about how I do that, and grab the Reader’s Interest Survey on TPT!

Miss Malarkey is determined to find each student a book they will love before the end of the year. The main character is pretty sure she will fail. After all, he hates reading. Maybe you’ve met a student like that….

One by one, his friends and classmates all get bit by the reading bug. But the main character remains completely unimpressed by books. Undeterred, Miss Malarkey keeps trying as he comes up with one reason after another to dislike her picks.

I think you can see why I love this book for the beginning of the year. I tell my students that I am just like Miss Malarkey. I am going to get to know them really well (starting with the Reader’s Interest Survey) and I am going to help them find books that they love. This book opens that door and starts to build our relationship around books.

As June rolls around, Miss Malarkey has gotten to know each of her students, especially the main character, very well. That knowledge of her students helps her find the perfect book for him. She gives him one, final book, hoping to hook him, and she does!

Using picture books in the intermediate classroom opens so many doors and helps you accomplish so many standards! I hope that these books, and the others that you will discover on your own, help you have a more literate classroom this year!

More Ways to Use Picture Books in YOUR Classroom!

  1. Satchel Paige – Striking Out Jim Crow – This blog post talks about how to use this book to hook fans of graphic novels and sports. It’s a great gateway book that leads to more reading!
  2. Twelve Fantastic Picture Books to Teach Black History – This blog post has so many teaching points, including a full video demonstration of one of the lessons, that I needed two posts to cover it all. Check out both parts here!
  3. Players in Pigtails – This is a marvelous historical fiction book about the All Women’s baseball league featured in the movie a League of Their Own. It’s a delightful picture book to share with students!

Five Great Ways to Use Task Cards

In my last post, I gave you some strategies for dusting off all those Google Slides you made/borrowed/bought during distance learning. Now that you are back in the classroom, they still have a place! But of course, being back in person means we have the opportunity to use Task Cards again, so this post will feature my favorite ways to use them.

Why use Task Cards?

Anytime you are planning to use a work sheet, ask yourself if you could use Task Cards instead. Task Cards give students the opportunity to move around the classroom, to collaborate, to spend time with a concept or breeze through more quickly. A worksheet is more static and less dynamic. So, if you can use Task Cards, you will most likely increase student engagement, and we all know that minds on means more learning!

I use Task Cards:

  1. To give students extra practice with a skill.
  2. To give students choice.
  3. To review before a test.
  4. To get kids using target vocabulary and communicating about Big Ideas!
  5. Anytime I want students to be engaged and on task!

So, here are some of the ways I like to use Task Cards in my classroom!

Walkabout

This is a simple way to use Task Cards and get kids moving. This strategy works great for math problems or vocabulary words. It’s perfect for these Wander Words Task Cards.

To use this strategy, simply tape the Task Cards around the room, and even out the door and down the hall. Space them a few feet apart. Then, give kids their Recording Sheet and set them loose. This strategy works great for collaboration. I often pair students up with two Recording Sheets and ask them to agree on the answers.

One thing that is great about this strategy is that the kids can go in any order, so there is no congestion. Another thing I love about this strategy is that there is built-in differentiation. I organize the Task Cards strategically, and then I start the students strategically. For example, I might put the Task Cards in order from simplest to most difficult. Then, I start students who are struggling with the first Task Card and more confident learners with the Task Cards in the middle. As students rotate, they are appropriately challenged.

Scavenger Hunt

A Scavenger Hunt can be a fun way to keep kids engaged. If the Task Cards don’t include a Scavenger Hunt, it is easy to add one. Simply find a riddle (check out a book in the library or the internet for TONS of riddles) and then put one letter of the answer on each Task Card. As students solve the problem, the answers to the questions spell out the answer to the riddle.

What’s great about this strategy is how fun it is – I love it when kids laugh in the classroom! Students do not need to solve the Task Cards in order, and it can be helpful to have them start at different places in the Scavenger Hunt so that they are not bottlenecked at one Task Card. This strategy works great with a partner, and it is self-checking! If students have the answer to the riddle, they have the correct solutions to the problems!

These Task Cards have a Scavenger Hunt all ready to use! You can get them as a printable, use them in EASEL, or grab the Google Slides version! Click to grab them on TPT.

Scoot

This is another fun way to get the kids to use the Task Cards.  Students feel like this is a game, and the Task Cards do the moving, which is fun for the kids. You will need to make several copies of the cards – enough so that each student will have one card. I really like Scoot as a test review the day before.

  1. Students sit in a large circle with their Recording Sheet on a clipboard.  You could also have them sit in table groups.
  2. They begin with one card and solve the problem. 
  3. Set a timer for two minutes.  At the end of the timer, the task card SCOOTS to the right, and students get two minutes to respond to a new challenge.
  4. This is a quick strategy, and sometimes students don’t finish in time, which can be frustrating for some students. Adjust the timer appropriately for your students and the task on the card.
  5. Students do not need to finish every card, so you can strategically arrange the cards to differentiate for your students.
  6. It is helpful to go over the correct answers so that students get immediate feedback.

These Task Cards give you a double whammy – learning important content and practicing prefixes at the same time! They work great for Scoot, or for your favorite Task Card strategy.

Relays

This is another great strategy for reviewing before the test. For this strategy, students work in pairs to solve problems. You will need enough copies of the Task Cards for each pair of students.

  1. Pair students, putting together one confident student and one that is still struggling to master the content. One student will be the coach and the other will be the “athlete”. The athlete has the pencil and the coach has the Task Card. The coach reads the Task Card to the athlete. The athlete has to solve the problem. The coach checks for accuracy, encourages the athlete and gives suggestions, but not the answer.
  2. Then, the athlete brings the problem to the teacher to check. If they have the right answer, the teacher gives them a new Task Card, and they become the coach for the other student. If they don’t have the right answer, the teacher asks them to to try again.
  3. Student keep switching back and forth until they’ve solved the problems and reviewed for the test.

These Task Cards also have a Scavenger Hunt, but they work great for a Relay! Students work together to solve word problems and tasks related to volume.

Small Group – Intervention and Extension

Task Cards work great when you are working with a small group. I used these Task Cards at the beginning of the year to review 4th grade place value concepts for my fifth graders. The 40 Task Cards provided plenty of variety and challenge for the different levels of my students.

If you have a good set of Task Cards with a good variety, you can easily use them for Small Groups. I sort the Task Cards in advance by challenge level. Then, I group my students according to their level. With some groups I use mostly the easier Task Cards, and with other groups I use the more difficult problems. A good set of Task Cards can easily give me a week’s worth of Small Group lesson plans!

These are my favorite ways to use Task Cards in my classroom. I hope you give one of these ideas a try and find that it helps engage your students and leads to learning!

Happy Teaching!

Susan

Building a Community of Readers – the Sticky Note data activity

My main goal as a reading teacher is to inspire a love of reading in my students. If I can do that successfully, the rest will take care of itself. Voracious readers become competent readers, although the reverse is not always true. If you haven’t read Donalyn Miller’s The Book Whisperer, you should. She’s a master at helping kids love reading.

As a teacher, the only daily homework I require is 20 minutes of reading a night. I’ve tried every type of reading log imaginable – daily slips with daily reinforcement at school, weekly logs, monthly logs, points systems, computerized tests…. You name it, I’ve tried it! And guess what? The kids who read at home in September are still reading at home in June, and the kids who weren’t reading in September were seldom motivated to read by any system I could impose.

So, I don’t use reading logs anymore. Instead, I’ve implemented some simple activities to build motivation and interest in reading. One of those is the Sticky Note data activity. I use it a lot, especially at the beginning of the year.

It’s pretty simple. Students will walk into class and find a blank sticky note on their desks. They know that we will start our day, every day, with at least 30 minutes of Independent Reading. As they filter in the door, I ask them to write the title of the book they read at home on a sticky, and not to put their name on the sticky. This is NOT about embarrassing kids, so it’s anonymous. If they didn’t read at home, they write Nothing on the sticky.

After their Independent Reading time, I call them to the rug and ask them to put their sticky on the board. We then organize the sticky notes, usually by genre at the beginning of the year since I’m working to build their understanding of different genre. We then have a data talk about their sticky notes. Sometimes, I turn it into a math activity and ask them to organize the data in a graph or line plot. Sometimes I ask them to create questions that can be asked and answered using the data. And sometimes we just discuss our noticings and questions.

This super simple, quick activity is motivating to many students. Don’t use it every day, once or twice a week is better. That gives students time to finish books so the data changes.

You can also vary the question. Other things I might have them write on their sticky are:

  • Where did you read at home last night (or this morning)?
  • When was the last time you read at home?
  • Who do you like to read with at home?
  • Are you reading fiction or non-fiction at home right now?
  • How long did you read at home last night (or this morning)?

Once the data is organized, I snap a quick picture of the board, and I send it to parents. Key to helping students read at home is getting parents on board, and a picture is worth 1,000 words!