Vocabulary Values: Helping Students Learn Key Words

An article by Richard James Rogers (Author of The Quick Guide to Classroom Management)

Illustrated by Pop Sutthiya Lertyongphati 

“Feedback functions formatively only if the information fed back to the learner is used by the learner in improving performance.” 
Dylan WiliamEmbedded Formative Assessment

A half-term has ended and so much has happened already! New students, new classes, new systems, new parents and maybe even a new school. 

walking around wt laptop

If you’re like me: following a British/American academic year, then you’ve probably given your older kids some mid-term exams. In my case, I’ve already had a parent’s consultation evening in which I could discuss the results.

This time of the academic year is a great opportunity to assess your students in some way. It allows you to identify problems early on, so that you can ‘nip them in the bud’, so to speak.

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“An AMAZING book! 5 stars!”

One key problem area for many students is their use of subject-specific language in examinations. Mark Schemes for external exams, such as iGCSEs, GCSEs, ‘A’ – Levels, the IB Diploma and many others, are often very rigorous with no room for compromise when it comes to key words.

In short, if students don’t use the correct subject-specific terminology, then they perform poorly in examinations. This is a problem that native English speakers often face, as well as students with English as an Additional Language (EAL). 

What follows next are my top three strategies for helping students learn key words. I hope you find them useful, and if you have any strategies that you really like then please do comment using the form at the bottom of the page. 

#1: Vocabulary Journals

I already have a number of students who I’ve identified as needing one of these. It’s such an effective way to boost confidence and performance, but it does require a bit of organisation and leadership from the teacher. Here are the steps:

Step 1: Tell the students to get a special notebook. It doesn’t need to be fancy. Just a cheap spiral bound one will do just fine. 

Step 2: The students should divide the first page into three columns:

  • Key word
  • Meaning
  • Pronunciation

For example: Moment, The force applied to a lever multiplied by the distance from the pivot, mo-men-t

For an EAL student you can include a fourth column:

  • Translation

In this column, the student can write the word in his/her native language.

Step 3: The students should write down the key words they learn every week into this journal, along with all of the other information.

Step 4: CRUCIAL! The key words and information must be CHECKED every week. Check the words, the meaning and the pronunciation (you can even get the students to say the words to you – this reinforces their memory of the terminology). 

Woman reading

For native translations you may have to simply trust the students with that one. You could possibly spot check these every so often with an MfL teacher, but that’s not always possible (e.g. if the native language of the student is Japanese, but the school doesn’t have a Japanese teacher).

To save you time, you could get small groups of students to check each others’ journals. This would also work well with groups of EAL students who all speak the same native language. 

JOUNALING IS SUCH A POWERFUL TEACHING TOOL, BUT IT IS SELDOM USED BY TEACHERS! Make use of it!

#2: Play Vocabulary Games

I’m a HUGE advocate of these. They are so much fun, and can be used by students of almost any age! Here are may favorites:

Splat

This quick game is so easy: all you need is a whiteboard, whiteboard markers and class of kids. It’s a great game for consolidating key vocabulary, and is perfect for E.A.L. learners.

Splat

Here’s a short video showing a quick clip of me playing ‘Splat’ with my students (I will include some more lengthy clips soon, but this is a good start):

Mystery Word

Another easy game. This time, students randomly pick out written words from a hat (or cup, beaker, container, etc.), and then they have to explain their word to the class (without saying the word). The students who are listening have to guess what the word is.

Mystery word

Who am I?

A very simple game. All you need are post-it notes and a class full of energized students! Great fun. Perfect for reinforcing key vocabulary and concepts.

Who am I

There are some more games that you can play with too (no pun intended). Details can be found at my blog post here. Also, if you’re looking for a great book filled with practical and easy-to-implement vocabulary games, then check out this great book (one of my favourites): Vocabulary Games for the Classroom by Lindsay Carleton and Robert J. Marzano. 

vocab games for the classroom

#3: Highlight key words in your marking

Mai's wprkThere’s a number of ways that this can be done:

  • Refer to key words by writing questions on the piece of work (e.g. what’s the name of this part?)
  • You could highlight less technical terminology and get the students to make it more technical (e.g. ‘movement energy’ becomes ‘kinetic energy’)
  • You could circle key words that are spelt incorrectly and get the kids to look them up online or in a dictionary, and change the spelling
  • You could do some peer assessment and get all the kids to write down words spelt or written incorrectly on little bits of paper. These words can then be your ‘feeder vocabulary’ for the games given above.
  • Your school may have it’s own strategy for key words, so check that first!

 

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Author:

High School Science and Mathematics Teacher, Author and Blogger. Graduated from Bangor University with a BSc (Hons) degree in Molecular Biology and a PGCE in Secondary Science Education. Richard also holds the coveted Certificate in Mathematics from the Open University (UK).

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