Thursday, June 12, 2014

Harvesting Vocabulary from Self-Selected Reading

     Extensive reading expands a student's vocabulary.  That's a given.  But while some kids effortlessly soak up new words as they read, others seem to acquire very few without systematic instruction.  How, then, can a teacher address vocabulary with everyone reading a different book?  Is systematic instruction even possible?

The Harvesters by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

     Those questions alone might account for teachers' reluctance to attempt a curriculum based on self-selected materials.  It worried me, too.  But I have an idea for you today, a routine called the "Vocabulary Harvest," that I use successfully with students grades six through eight. 

     Step one in preparing for the Vocabulary Harvest is having students create a repository for the words they glean.  We title several pages of our composition books "Words to Discuss Books" and on the first of those pages, wrote brief definitions for three parts of speech:  adverbs, adjectives, and nouns.  It's also helpful to include this reminder:  "The three most common noun signals are a, an, and the."  

     The remaining space designated for "Words to Discuss Books" will eventually be filled with three-column charts like this one:

     Step two:  Teach your students how to find reviews on the book jacket and in the first few pages of their Silent Sustained Reading books.  (The reviews will be in quotation marks, and the source for each quote will be listed immediately after.  I initially made the mistake of assuming my students would just recognize the reviews and ended up with kids trying to work from summaries, synopses, author biographies, and all manner of unrelated silliness.)

     Step three:  As a class, look at the back of a book jacket like this one from Wonder by R.J. Palacio:

     Ask your students how many reviews they see -- "Three!" -- and then examine each quote for nouns to replace the word "book."  This year, I actually used our first Vocabulary Harvest to review (and in many cases, teach) "What is a noun?"  That discussion flowed beautifully into a mini-lesson about the importance of varied word choice in writing, and the value of using more specific nouns like "debut" and "page turner" in lieu of the word "book."

     After identifying all the adjectives and adverbs in the reviews, your students' final charts should look something like this:

     As an immediate extension activity, have everyone pull out a thesaurus to find synonyms for each adjective:

     Or, you can have the class use newly gleaned words to practice inferring a word's definition from its parts.  "Unexpected," "memorable," "life-affirming," and "page-turner" all lend themselves nicely to that conversation.  Because that skill has always been easy for me, I sometimes forget that quite a few students require direct and repeated practice.  For example, the word "fast-paced" completely stumped many of my students until I asked "Well, do you know what the word "fast" means?  Okay, so what would it mean when you're talking about the 'pace' of the action in a story?"  Then, I stare at them until a little light bulb appears. 


     (I typically see a few sheepish smiles at the end of that exchange.)

     After a few class-wide "harvests," many of your students will be ready to undertake the process independently each time they begin reading a new book.  It's always good, though, to repeat the process periodically with the entire class.  Over time, it becomes routine for everyone.

     Important:  Once your students have begun their collection of "Words to Describe Books," it's important that they use their freshly gleaned words as soon as possible.  See how in "After the Harvest: Growing the Student Vocabulary."