Saturday, January 31, 2015

Why I Do Vocabulary Assignments and Quizzes

During classroom discussions, my room used to sound a lot like this:

Me:  What do we know about these angles (points at a set of vertical angles)

Students: -----

Me:  What do these two angles share?

Student A:  A point

Me:  Great!  Where is that point located?

Student B:   Where they cross

Me:  What is that point called?

Students:  ------

The "discussion" would go on from there with me asking ever more information loaded questions trying to get the students to the point that the angles were vertical and therefore congruent.  It seriously made me doubt my teaching abilities.  Until the day that a light bulb went off in my head that is.  I realized that their lack of ability to answer my question had less to do with an understanding of the concepts and more to do with the fact that they lacked the language to express themselves mathematically.  I sat down that evening and made a list of all of the vocabulary that was new(er) to that unit.  Terms that they might have heard in passing or ones that I might have used, but not ones that they had ever really practiced.  I came up with almost 40.  I was astonished so I went back through the unit I was teaching and double-checked.  Nope, no mistake, it really was almost 40.  The next day I went into class and gave them five of them to define as bellwork.  The majority were able to give me two.  At that point I felt like I was in an old space movie - you know:  "Houston, we have a problem"...

As any good teacher does, however, I took the problem as a challenge to be tackled, addressed and fixed to benefit my students.  Out of this problem was born a simple solution - vocabulary assignments to launch each unit and periodic vocabulary quizzes through each unit.  

Vocabulary Bundle
Vocabulary Bundle
Each vocabulary assignment contained two parts.  The first part asks students define the term, draw a sketch (if possible) and to give any prior knowledge that they might have.  I stress to students to read the definition given in the glossary, the textbook or online and then to write it in their own words.  We talk about the fact that when they write it in their own words they will better understand it and retain it for future use.  For the prior knowledge portion we talk about maybe hearing it in a prior class, hearing it at home, seeing it in a book or other words a way may be used to help them start to make the connections.  I will admit, at first this is the column that they struggle with the most but as the year goes on, it gets filled in more and more.  The second part of the vocabulary assignment is a set of puzzles.  I include a crossword so that they read the definition and start to make connections to the term and a word search so that they learn to spell the vocabulary terms.  The students not only learn from doing these, but they also seem to enjoy them!  I have even had a few students ask if I could make them a specialized set!  (I have bundled an entire year of these assignments for Geometry here!)

The vocabulary quizzes that we do through the unit vary.  Sometimes they are matching with the definitions in one column and the terms in a second.  I also give them quizzes where there are paragraphs to fill-in with words from a word bank.  The hardest version, and the one that I tend to save until towards the end of the year, are the ones where I just give them the definition and they supply the word without being given a vocabulary list or word bank.  I find that as the year goes on, their scores on the quizzes get better and better.  

In order to help  my students practice the vocabulary throughout a unit, I will utilize a variety of review and practice techniques.  I have made a few matching activities where the students cut apart pieces and match the term, definition, diagram and label.  I sometimes will do this in stations and just give the students an answer sheet.  Other times, I will literally have them cut and paste everything together.  I also have a created a few vocabulary based BINGO games that we use.  Additionally, we use Kahoot and Socrative to practice as well.  

Wall Posters
Finally, I have also created a set of posters for every unit that we study.  Each poster features a single vocabulary term, a diagram, the definition and any other crucial information or facts to support the definition.  I print the posters on card stock and laminate them so that I have them.  I post the vocabulary for the entire semester along one wall of my room.  It stays up until the new semester starts.  I find that students will take pictures of parts of the wall, especially if they are studying for a test or quiz.  And yes, I even leave them up during an assessment (although I will cover a specific unit during a vocabulary quiz).  By the time we get to an assessment the students know the vocabulary well enough and realistically, I am testing their application of the concepts by that point, not their memorization.

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