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A Fun and Effective way to Build Student Vocabulary

I have to share another fabulous technique I’ve learned in the brilliant BrainSMART program. This technique revolves around vocabulary building.

Why Vocabulary Matters

Vocabulary is a skill that frequently does not get the attention it deserves. However, its importance cannot be overstated. As students learn, their brains are always looking for ways
to tie new information to pre-existing knowledge. In this way, the
brain is able to chunk information into existing neural networks, thus
making retention and retrieval more likely. With this in mind, consider
two students reading a new text. The first student did not come from
an enriched background, and has a limited vocabulary. Even though his
decoding ability is at an adequate level, he is not familiar with
several of the words in his text. His comprehension is therefore
limited. The next student was exposed to an enriched vocabulary from an
early age. As this student reads his new text, he is able to
understand all the words. When he comes across an unknown word, he is
able to figure it out through context clues. Decoding skills being
equal, vocabulary made the difference. The playing field needs to be

Level the Playing Field

A teacher can level the playing field through explicit vocabulary instruction. This does NOT mean copying definitions from the dictionary! Instead, one option is to try what I
call Word Tallies. I gave my second graders three new words last
Monday: peculiar, quaint, and stupendous. After introducing the words
and discussing meanings, I gave students the option of dramatizing the
words (which is another strategy in itself). One pair dramatized a
phone conversation about something they found peculiar. The next acted
out a quaint tea party. The last pair had a discussion about how
stupendous their teacher is! Finally, I put the words on the wall.
Every time someone in the classroom (even me) used one of the words, the
word earned a tally mark. Students could even earn tally marks by
using the words at home (even other family members could add to the
points). I emailed parents to give them a heads up. By the end of the
second day ‘peculiar’ was used 40 times, ‘quaint’ was used 35, and
‘stupendous’ was used 45 times! It was stupendous! We kept our count
with tally marks, and then moved the data to a chart to analyze our


It was clear by the end of the second day that students had a firm grasp of the meaning of all three words. Would they have gotten the same understanding by copying definitions from the
dictionary? I don’t think so. The icing on the cake came in an email
from an ESL parent. She said her son came home and taught HER the words
and definitions! Wow. The sprinkles on top of the icing… students
were able to read the words. This is now a weekly activity for my

I’m learning many other vocabulary building strategies as well. This idea came from one of my BrainSMART class books, Classrooms That Work: They Can All Read and Write, by Cunningham & Allington.

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