Archive for the ‘Vocabulary’ Category

Effective literacy instruction

Recommendations for effective literacy instruction based on my teaching practices

In my junior and senior high school English classes at a private all-girl k-12 prep school, I teach higher-order literacy skills through the selection and use of excellent age- and level-appropriate materials, the strategic use of a daily sustained silent reading (SSR) program, and frequent, direct, explicit vocabulary instruction.

Good materials – In our school, we English teachers have the freedom, flexibility, and responsibility as a department of choosing textbooks, workbooks, and supplementary readings that challenge our students and help them develop their language skills in a consistent, deliberate ways. From seventh grade until twelfth grade, we have chosen to have a comprehensive literature textbook, a vocabulary workbook with three hundred new words, a grammar workbook with the same topics revisited year after year in slightly more complex and challenging ways, and supplementary readings (an average of three novels per semester). We work with materials that have been created for native English speakers, since by the time our students reach middle school they are basically bilingual and can do the work at that level of proficiency.

DIVA time – After much research on best practices of literacy instruction in high school, I decided to implement a sustained silent reading program in my classroom. At the beginning of each of my classes, the students and I have ten minutes of pleasure reading, which we call DIVA time –an acronym for what I think reading is: Dive Into Vicarious Adventure. We have created a classroom library full of English language books that are interesting to teenage girls, and from which the students can borrow freely. Each student must keep her book with her until she has finished reading. Rules for DIVA time are simple: 1) Choose any book –in English– you like; 2) Always bring your DIVA book to class; 3) As soon as you arrive at the classroom, sit down and start DIVAing; 4) No talking during DIVA; and 5) Keep track of your reading by writing the title, author, and number of pages in your Daybook, each time you finish (or switch) a book. That’s it. I try to interfere as little as possible with the reading process, since the point is to help the students discover for themselves that reading can be pleasurable, that they can read actual books, and that they are READERS. We have been DIVAing for half a semester, and I see improvement already, particularly in the girls who self-identified as non-readers. In the longer term, I expect to see an improvement in their vocabulary, reading comprehension, and attitude towards reading. We shall see how it goes.

Direct, explicit vocabulary instruction – In our school we are committed to direct, explicit vocabulary instruction, particularly of the academic vocabulary students need to perform well in national standardized tests. We have vocabulary workbooks, quickly quizzes, online flashcards, monthly and quarterly review tests, etc. But that’s not all we do. Every day we call our students’ attention to words: fun words, weird words, spooky words, foreign words, antonyms, synonyms, roots, affixes, etc. Since we teachers love words, we convey that same appreciation of language to the girls in everything we do. So far, it’s working too. We are seeing steadily rising scores and best of all, the students frequently tell us anecdotes about how they used their new words in non-school contexts!


Fun vocabulary instruction is NOT an oxymoron!

Applying visualization in my classroom

I loved Eileen Simmons’s “Visualizing Vocabulary,” an accessible, jargon-free article offering easy-to-teach techniques for more effective –and interactive– vocabulary instruction.  I am inspired to try these ideas soon:

ABC books – Using vocabulary words as part of an autobiographical ABC book, students write and illustrate one page per letter, using whichever word most aptly describes them. I already assign my Juniors (whom I am teaching for the first time) an autobiographical PowerPoint presentation; perhaps ABC books would be a good way of having my Seniors (who have already been my students for one year, and are thus veterans) write about themselves in a different way. I could also implement ABC books as a capstone to the junior year of vocabulary study.

Biopoems – I would transform biopoems into Vocabpoems, perhaps incorporating a visual component, through the use of concept illustrations (where the word’s visual representation responds to its general meaning and not its literal definition).

Vocabulary cards – I would adapt this idea by transforming the cards into Vocab Stickies. My students already know how much I love post-its, so I think they would appreciate using sticky notes to further their vocabulary study. I would also simplify the information included; my Vocab Stickies would focus on prefix, root, and suffix(es), as well as part(s) of speech and definitions.

Vocabulary-related activities to share – This free online tool allows anyone to create word lists, play games with the words, and print flashcards. You can combine multiple word lists too. The premium service also allows you to upload visual representations for each word.

Discuss vocabulary word variants – When I discuss vocabulary with my students, we discuss denotations and connotations along with how to change the given words to its variants. This allows the students to practice broader grammar and word-sense skills, because they need to pay attention to the gender, number, tense, and part of speech.

Vocabulary Squares – I was inspired by English teacher (and author) extraordinaire Jim Burke to try vocabulary squares with my students. It’s a simple, straightforward strategy that my students enjoy. Download the template from Burke’s site: and try it. It’s flexible – you can adapt each of the square’s parts to suit the level and the difficulty that’s most appropriate for your students.

Read the Simmons article at

Building background knowledge = better readers

In our school, we build students’ background knowledge, and thus, their ability to activate schema to decode texts and increase their reading comprehension, by focusing on two key strategies: explicit vocabulary instruction and extensive reading. These two strategies, which Nigel Stott recommends in his article “Helping ESL Students Become Better Readers: Schema Theory Applications and Limitations,” form the foundation of an integrated approach to building the English language proficiency of our middle and high school students to native or near-native levels.

As a teacher of eleventh and twelfth grade English, here is how I do it:


Each week, we discuss the two new ten-word lessons from our Holt Vocabulary Workshop, focusing on word components (affixes and roots) as well as how to transform the given word to other parts of speech. The students complete practice exercises using the words (sentence completions, synonyms, analogies, sentence writing) and access the lessons on, where they can play word games and print flashcards as preparation for the weekly quiz. The 25-point quiz focuses on vocabulary in context and application through short answer questions. To force students to have multiple exposures to the words, and thus increase the likelihood of recall and incorporation into their working academic lexicon, I give monthly 50-point, 5-lesson review tests and quarterly 100-point, 10-lesson review exam.

In addition to this formal vocabulary study, we notice and discuss interesting words that we find in our literature selections and in the students’ free-choice independent reading. The students get a kick out of recognizing their new words in other contexts, and they encourage each other to incorporate the new vocabulary into their everyday interactions. Since I value words and reward word-sense, my students tend to feel comfortable playing with words as well. This playfulness comes in handy during the implementation of the next strategy: extensive reading.


I want my students to be immersed in what Kelly Gallagher in his book Readicide calls a “word flood,” a print- (and vocabulary-) rich environment that tempts kids to experiments with words, first through reading and then through writing. From seventh grade on, our students have assigned supplementary novels that they read on their own. By eleventh grade, the kids read three classic novels per semester; assessment of each reading is done through an objective test, and an in-class essay, as well as completion of a study guide (the students can work collaboratively and choose which questions to answer).

In addition to this mandatory independent reading, my students also have fun independent reading time: the first ten minutes of each class is devoted to silent sustained silent reading. The only rule is that the student must read a self-chosen book written in English. No homework, magazines, or Spanish allowed! I have already noticed how even my most reluctant readers look forward to this time, and how everyone, even the bookworms, has improved her reading fluency.

I believe this two-pronged approach of targeted, explicit vocabulary learning and extensive reading will lead to more –and better—readers who are also more effective writers, standardized test-takers, and lifelong learners.

%d bloggers like this: