While Not Draining Me Or Driving Myself Crazy At the Same Time
A lot of times teachers, especially teachers of ELLs, worry that their students don’t know enough vocabulary; enough BICS or CALP words; enough academic language, etc. Whatever word you choose to refer to it, the concern is the same, and it’s very real. I have struggled this year with creating a culture of language appreciation in my room. Last year, it was much easier. In part, I credit the fact that I had far less students and my class size only grew toward the end of the year by 2 students. This year, my class size grew by 7 students within the first few weeks and kept growing. I feel I took it all in stride, but it wasn’t enough. I’m sure once I’m a seasoned veteran, I will have had enough of these sudden fluctuations to have developed a more systematic approach to them. Nevertheless, I now feel like i’m hitting a new stride that is re-grounding myself in what I did last year that was very successful. Not that things can simply be reproduced class to class, but I feel my students (and their teacher as well!) are now at a point where I can implement some of these things. Could I have done this sooner? Yes. But did I have a clear enough plan for it? No. Ok. Enough self-indulgent theorizing, let’s get to what the hell I’m talking about.
A word conscious classroom. Yes, there are books with the same or similar title, but I’m not so much referring to any specific book as I am talking about creating a culture of words. For example, last year I had my word wall right next to my meeting area, so it became a constant point of reference for the students and me. They were very conscious of their word choices and when doing things like turning and talking to a partner or jotting on a post-it, they would choose “cross” or “infuriated” over mad because it was a less common word and because we had acted out the difference. So, if their character was more than mad, they knew how to express it.
Ok, so acting out emotion ranges and using the word wall. A colleague helped me envision a better place for my word wall (finally! it’s now the third time I’ll have moved it!), so that it will be much easier to reference from the meeting area and their desks.
More synonyms. This was a hit last year with the emotions as I said above, as well as words we can use to describe characters (they were a separate color and had a sticker on them at the word wall). I also would have them act out the difference between different ways of walking: wander/meander, stomp, slouch, march, tiptoe, etc. Which I am going to do again starting now in a new way. When I call them to the meeting area, I will specify how I want them to walk. That’s a quick and easy way to make new words meaningful and memorable. You can do this with adverbs and idioms, as well (walk as if you were as tall as a tree, as shy as a mouse, etc… walk grumpily, respectfully… —after you have modeled, of course, or had someone model). It helps if the words can be raised in context. I remember last year I read the Ramona series to them, and Ramona is such a lively character that she allows for a lot of word work like this. (— Side note: They loved this series. It’s a Level O and, at the time, most of my students were level L and below, but oral comprehension is always higher. No one had wanted me to read such a “high” book with them, but I did it anyway).
I randomly use word webs, but I will start hanging them as charts around the room for things like this. Like, “Ways We Walk” and “Ways We Talk”… etc.
Also, as I told the kids today, as they collect new words through their reading — words they find difficult or interesting — and write them in their word collector box (you’ve probably seen it — it’s a sheet of paper with a box for every letter in the alphabet — X and Y share a box), if I find some that are particularly good, I will add them to our word wall and write their name on the word’s card so they are responsible for explaining what the word means if other students want to know.
I’m also going to have just a “you asked me how to spell….” area where kids can write down words other kids ask them to spell. This happens all the time, as you know, and I think it’s a good way for kids to share both their word skills and word questions. Again, they sign their name to it. I feel, this way, it becomes like a real accomplishment board (unlike the lame accomplishment board we’re required to have).
I’ll let you know how it goes! And, please, if you’ve had similar experiences or difficulty making ideas like this work in practice, share them below! This is important because we can’t simply create a carbon copy of each teacher’s approach or method and hope it works in our classroom. Each student is different and each class is therefore different (this is what many administrators seriously miss or forget). And I know I have read ideas like the ones above on other ESL sites or in books like the ones I list below, but until you do it or envision it with your own students, it simply will never come to life. Our experiences as teachers are different as a result of all that, so it’s crucial we share them. And I think the more we share our unique approaches, struggles and successes, the more we popularize the idea that teachers are not automatons and we aren’t simply nightly-news anchors who just need to read the best prepared text and all will be dandy (i.e., remove the human to get results). Our successes are often because of what makes us *unique*. </soapbox>
While I said I wasn’t referring to any specific book, I have in fact been inspired by these (there are many-a journal articles on this topic, too, and these books lack in the ELL area, but helpful and enlightening still):
The Word-Conscious Classroom: Building the Vocabulary Readers and Writers Need
Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction (my favorite).
And it’s follow-up text, Creating Robust Vocabulary: Frequently Asked Questions and Extended Examples (Solving Problems in the Teaching of Literacy).