Saturday, June 14, 2014

After the Harvest: Growing Student Vocabulary

Author's note: Today's blog is a follow up to an earlier blog titled "Harvesting Vocabulary from Self-Selected Text."

    Vocabulary words are like newly planted seeds;  they must be tended.  If they sit, ignored, in student composition books, nothing will take root.

     Every now and then, some adventurous students will use new words without teacher prompting -- feed that impulse!  Early in my career, I noticed that a little girl had integrated a vocabulary word from our literature studies into a completely unrelated writing assignment.  Excited, I circled the word and wrote, "GREAT vocabulary choice!"

     While handing back papers in class the next day, I commented on how impressive it had been to see that word in Sandy's writing.  The comment was, of course, calculated to reinforce her efforts to experiment with new words -- and it did.  What I did not foresee was the effect my comment would have throughout the class.  Vocabulary words started springing up like wildflowers in student compositions!  As a novice teacher, I had not yet realized that learning isn't always the result of a scrupulously crafted presentation;  sometimes, it springs from one. casual. comment.  (Scary -- and thrilling!)

     Obviously, not all student writers are as daring as Sandy was; some require a little more nurturing.  Today, I want to show you how sentence models can help students start using words they've stored in a Vocabulary Harvest chart:

Initially, our "Words to Discuss Books" were gathered for use in book recommendations sent via Destiny Quest, a digital library catalog which allows students to communicate with each other online.  In other words, in this one assignment, students would be 1) using technology to 2) promote reading 3) to an authentic audience 4) by using newly acquired vocabulary to 5) craft well-structured sentences with correct 6) capitalization and 7) punctuation.  What a deal!  And, thanks to our on-going written communication about books, those skills were practiced and reinforced throughout the entire school year.

     The beginning sentence models we followed always included these four units of information:   book title, an adjective describing the book, genre/word to replace "book," and author's name.  For example: 
  • Dead End in Norvelt is a hilarious tale by Jack Gantos.
  • Warriors is an action-packed fantasy by Erin Hunter.
I am always grateful to my adventurous writers who forge ahead and experiment with embellishments beyond the original model.  Because they are risk-takers, those students typically raise their hands during sharing, too, thereby showing their classmates some new ideas for improving their writing.
  • Dead End in Norvelt is a darkly hilarious tale by award-winning author Jack Gantos.
  • Warriors is an action-packed fantasy series by best-selling author Erin Hunter.
Be sure to have the "daredevils" read their sentences aloud more than once, and point out to the other students the types of additional details that were used:  adverbs, additional info about the book and/or the author.  Sometimes, student creativity is inhibited by the desire always to be "good" and follow all the rules, so it's helpful to let students know it's okay to take risks in their writing.  When "clunkers" result from such experimentation, praise the students for their effort and thank them for providing another learning opportunity for the class.

     Here are some other sentences that result from models in which the same four units of information --  book titlean adjective describing the bookgenre/word to replace "book," and author's name  -- are used in a different order.   By mixing up the pattern of information, students are able to learn and practice using different types of punctuation.
  • Dead End in Norvelt, by Jack Gantos, is a darkly hilarious tale.
  • Jack Gantos' Dead End in Norvelt is a hilarious, action-packed novel.
     These sentences based on models serve very nicely as "beginner" book recommendations, but they're just the starting point in your students' development as budding writers. 

   Next up?  Things get digital in Tweeting Your Way to Better Teaching