You might be wondering what an ELA teacher could possibly teach a non-ELA teacher about the classroom. I’ll be honest: not much. I can’t teach you anything about your content, your standards, or your resources that you don’t already know. However, if your job is like mine, it includes catching up students until they perform at grade-level, in addition to teaching the content that is on grade-level. Though I have only taught for a few years, I have learned one classroom-changing lesson: the achievement gap is a literacy gap.
So how do we fix this? Well, none of us can do this alone, and we won’t bridge the gap overnight. However, if a huge part of the problem is low-literacy, we need to help our students become literate. The most direct way to make an impact is to make time and space for your content vocabulary.
Tip #1: Build a Word Wall
Making space for a constant visual presence of your content vocabulary is key. Even if you don’t have time to spiral back to a certain concept, your students will gain familiarity simply by looking at the words from that concept every day. Word walls can take a variety of forms, so if your classroom is lacking in wall space, get creative and use the ceiling, furniture, or door. They are so easy to make and tend, you can even appoint a student or team of students to design and implement them. If you have time and resources, you can laminate the words to make prep even easier for next year. Not creative? Check out Google Images or Pinterest; they have you covered.
Tip #2: Develop and Teach Memory Tricks
Because we are so familiar with our content, it is hard for us to remember what it’s like to learn a new set of vocabulary words in at least four different classes each day. It is our job to help students learn the language of our classrooms. When an important word comes up in a reading, question, lab, activity, or slide, we need to stop and invest the 30-seconds it takes to teach the word.
If I’m a science teacher and I know my students need to know what a neutron is, it would be beneficial to underline the “neu” and explain that that prefix means neutral, which relates to the charge. A math teacher might write the word “axis” with arrows at the end of each point on the “x” to visually create an axis. The point is to help students remember what the words mean as they learn them so they are prepared for the performance tasks that assume they have that knowledge. Trust me: 30 seconds of explicit teaching on the front end will save time and explanation when you pass out the exit ticket.
Tip #3: Make it Engaging
There are so many vocabulary games that work well in classrooms. I’ve never taught a class from 7th-12th grade that didn’t get excited about “the flyswatter game” in which students race to slap the correct vocabulary word when the teacher reads out clues. My middle schoolers especially love WORDO, which is exactly the same as BINGO, only their cards have vocabulary words and concepts instead of numbers, and the teacher announces definitions, synonyms, antonyms, or examples. Personally, I love lessons that are low prep and high engagement. This is why I play Pictionary and Charades with my content specific words and concepts. Teachers who have block scheduling have an advantage because they can reinforce vocabulary in this way every week. For teachers who don’t have as much time, vocabulary games are easy, fun, and effective to do during a review session before unit quizzes and tests.
Tip #4: Give Them the Resources
When students can look up information, they will perform with more confidence. If your students can handle it, give them the power to look up unknown words and ideas. If you have a low-tech classroom, secure some dictionaries for students to use along with a set of expectations so that students can feel autonomous in seeking out information without disturbing the lesson. If you have technology, a class iPad or laptop (or a set of them) makes looking up words convenient and engaging. When I taught in Chicago Public Schools, I had neither option, and so I set up expectations and norms that allowed my ELL students to use their cell phones for vocabulary clarification. Not only did I never have a misused phone (this was my reward for threatening some nasty consequences), but the quality of work also improved drastically from spelling to analysis because of this tool. Resources give students the freedom to pursue knowledge, and they give you the freedom to maximize the time you would normally be wasting explaining the same words over and over.
Maimonides famously said “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Though I once instinctively agreed with this precept, I have also learned the value of giving the man a fish. After all, how can people feel motivated to fish if they don’t know if they like the taste? Give the students a fish by explicitly teaching vocabulary. Make a big deal out of it! Break down the words, put them on the wall, and use them to play games. Then, once students have a solid foundation to build upon, they will become motivated to research words themselves. Instead of picking out the only words they know in a reading, they will pinpoint and wonder about the only words they don’t know. This change of habit will prove that our kids have jumped across the literacy gap to reach the side on which they belong.