Vocabulary

The topic of teaching vocabulary has been coming up a lot in my circles lately. The conversation goes like this:

Teacher: “These kids need to get motivated. If they don’t want to try I can’t do it for them.”

Me: “Well, what are you asking them to do that they aren’t doing?”

Teacher: “Like vocabulary. We have to do vocabulary, they can’t learn the concept if they don’t know the terms. But they aren’t learning the words. I just don’t know what else to do.”

There are some assumptions in this dialog, and I suggest they are  false assumptions. The first assumption is that we have to “do vocabulary.” I don’t think I know a single teacher or student who enjoys the activity of writing a word, looking up the definition, putting it in a sentence and whatever else ritual is tacked on to this exercise. Nor can I find many people who can honestly claim that is a particularly effective  exercise. Yes, students do it, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of evidence that any real learning is taking place. But so many continue to inflict this exercise on their students, because, well, we have to. Why do we have to? Because thats the way our teachers did it way back in the day? I sure didn’t get a lot out of it in those days, did you? Maybe we do it because the textbook or pacing guide says we should. Or because that is the way it is done in the department/grade level/school district. I suppose that may be the issue in some cases, but if it is, it should be questioned.

The second assumption is that they can’t learn the concept if they don’t know the terms. Really? I understood the basics of fire behavior long before I understood that fire is rapid oxidation generating light, heat, and smoke. I learned a long time ago that fire is hot, and it burns. I didn’t have to write a synonym, or use it in a sentence a single time. I learned by experience that if you take away the heat by putting water on the fire it will go out. I learned that if you take away the oxygen it will go out. I learned these things long before I heard of the fire tetrahedron.

I guess what I want to say to these folks who are recognizing that what they are doing  isn’t working is that maybe they should try something different. You can’t wait for “the kids to get motivated.” Maybe one day all of the  students in your room will magically be highly motivated, but probably not. Maybe there will be this mysterious shift and your school will be full of  academic high achievers, but probably not. Most likely, if there is going to be a change, the change will come from the teacher, not the students.

So if you are one of those teachers struggling with things not working, change something. Learn how to do it differently. Don’t know how? There are lots of places to learn. Twitter is full of awesome teachers who are full of ideas, and there are lots of web sites out there to teach you how to use Twitter. Google  “Twitter for Teachers.”

Social Media is not your thing you say? Buy a book. There are many, many great books out there to help you look at things differently. My recent favorite is Teach Like A Pirate by Dave Burgess. But thats just me. Amazon is full of great titles. Get some and read them. And then implement some of the things you read.

There are lots of conferences and workshops out there as well. Yea some of them are expensive and require a huge time commitment, but many are just a weekend morning, or are a single afternoon and don’t cost much.

My bottom line is if things are not working well, try doing it differently. Take a risk and admit it could be better. That is the first step to doing it better. If what you are doing isn’t working well, don’t keep doing it. Do something different.

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