Photo of young girl reading a bookThe Common Core has made the learning of frequently used academic vocabulary words a top priority in their focus on creating standards in the public schools.   It follows then that finding just the right instructional strategies to teach these words is an important task for K-12 teachers.  Here is an 8-step strategic plan based on Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences that you can use to ensure that students learn and integrate the meanings of Tier 2 academic vocabulary words (those that are not highly specialized, but frequently used) in the classroom.

STEP 1 – MEMORIZE:  This is the strategy most often used in the schools – simply have the student look up the definitions of the words in an online dictionary, write them down, and memorize them.

STEP 2 – ANALYZE:  With this strategy we look at the inner structure of a word, its internal logic (if any!), its origins, and anything else interesting about the structure of the word that may make its meaning stick in the student’s memory.  For example, the word boycott, was the name of a land agent in Ireland who was actually socially ostracized by the Irish Land League for his nefarious practices.  Ostracize, on the other hand, comes from the Greek ostracon, which refers to the potsherds used in ancient Greece for writing the names of persons to be exiled from the land.

STEP 3 – VISUALIZE:  Many students are visual thinkers and need to picture the meanings of the words they are using.  In the example above, the student might visualize ancient Greeks writing names on broken pieces of pottery, and then visualize them banishing one of their own from the kingdom.  Another way to do this is to have students draw the meanings of their vocabulary words.  Even words that don’t seem to have visual representations (like ”customary”), if they remind the student of the word, can be sketched in a manner that will serve as a mental cue for the student’s visual mind.

STEP 4 -HARMONIZE:  Vocabulary words have rhythms when said out loud. Teachers need to capitalize on the sounds of words and their meanings by having the student rhythmically recite, chant, or even sing their vocabulary words and meanings.  So, for example, with the word belligerent, they might chant (include rest beats between the word and its meaning):  ”be-LLIG-er-ent (one, two) HOS tile and a-GRESS-ive”   There is a whole field of study called suggestopedia, that involves having students close their eyes and listen to Baroque music in 4/4 time while the teacher repeats the vocabulary words and definitions (as above), in rhythm to the music.  The National Research Council did a study on this method some years ago and recommended it as an excellent way to teach languages.

STEP 5 -DRAMATIZE:  Students will forget their notebooks, but they take their bodies with them wherever they go!   For this strategy, have you students act out the meanings of their vocabulary words.  This can be a lot of fun for the students in class, and is especially helpful for students labeled ADHD or hyperactive, who learn best when they’re moving. Students can even do this strategy at their desks by creating hand gestures representing the meaning of each word.  The word ”ostracize” for example, might be physically represented with a ”thumbs down” gesture.

STEP 6 -SOCIALIZE:   Too often, students will learn academic vocabulary words, but not actually use them in their daily lives.  To remedy this, take the vocabulary list for the week and tell students to use each word during the school day with their friends, other teachers, and even (at home) with their family.  Then, have them come back to class and share their experiences in using the words.  They can even keep a personal journal where they record when and where they used a word, how it felt, and what the reaction was from the person on the receiving end.

STEP 7 -PERSONALIZE:  Students are always wondering, and this is with reference to everything we that teach them, ”what does this have to do this MY life?”  If it’s not relevant to their personal life, then it’s going to remain in an isolated part of their mind, if it’s remembered at all.  To remedy this, teachers need to make sure that vocabulary words and meanings are in some way connected to the student’s feelings, memories, and personal associations.  For example, with ”ostracize” the teacher might ask:  ”Think of a time in your life when you were sent out of the classroom for bad behavior, or expelled from a peer group, or told to leave a room.” They won’t forget the meaning of ostracize after making that type of association!

STEP 8 -NATURALIZE:  Our brains evolved for millions of years in nature. Consequently, our brain is much more predisposed to remember information that is part of the natural world than information that is part of culture (which is only 5000 years old).   So, whenever possible, link the vocabulary word and its meaning to something that is natural.  For example, a the meaning of the word ”perish” might be associated with leaving a banana on the kitchen counter for two weeks, or the withering of leaves in autumn.

If you need proof that these strategies work, do an action research project in your classroom.   Test your students on their week’s vocabulary words after having prepared them using the usual strategies.  Then, the next week, use these 8 steps and see if the test results improve.  Then go back to the usual strategies the next week, followed by the 8-steps approach the week after that.  If you find that students are consistently getting better test results with the 8-step method, and in addition, that your students come up to you and say ”This is fun!” when you do the 8 steps, and ”Can we go back to the other way?” when you use the usual strategies,  then you have your evidence for continuing to use this method to build your student’s academic vocabulary from now on!

Thomas Armstrong, Ph.D. is author of eight ASCD books including The Multiple Intelligences of Reading and Writing: Making the Words Come Alive, and Multiple Intelligences in the Classroom.

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I’m the author of 20 books including my latest, a novel called Childless, which you can order from Amazon.

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