If you teach language arts at the elementary or middle school level, chances are explicit vocabulary instruction is an integral part of your teaching. In my fifth grade classroom, in addition to teaching my students how to use context clues to help determine the meanings of new/unfamiliar words, I pre-teach certain vocabulary words that are embedded in each story of our district-adopted reading series (in my case, Houghton Mifflin). I introduce the words before we start each story, students learn and review the definitions of the words during the week, and they typically score well on the vocabulary quizzes I give them. Sounds good, right? But what happens to the students’ knowledge of Story #1’s words when we’ve moved on to Story #2? Or taking it a step further, how well are my students remembering the definitions of Story #1’s words when we’re on Story #10? The question is not Are my students learning the definitions of the words? but rather Are they retaining the definitions of the words?
Now, if I told my students to study their old vocabulary words on their own, they’d be about as excited as if I told them to go clean their rooms. It's probably not going to happen. So instead, we play a game I call Define It, and in this post, I want to share with you how it’s played.
With about two months remaining in the school year, I take 100 vocabulary words that were introduced during the year and create a word wall. Each word on the wall is numbered, 1 through 100. Each day, a few students from each team (in my classroom, teams are made up of table groups) roll two 10-sided dice to determine which words they will try to define. The number rolled on the first die represents the tens digit of the vocabulary word's number, and the number rolled on the second die represents the ones digit. For example, rolling a 3 and then a 4 would mean the student would have to define word number 34.
If a student is correctly able to define the word, his/her team earns one point. If the student can also use the word in a sentence, he/she earns a second point for the team. If students get stuck and are having difficulty defining a word, they can choose to have me use the word in a sentence. If they can then correctly define the word, they earn one point. This way, students are given an opportunity to practice defining words using context clues. So basically, students have a chance to earn two points with no help from me, or one point with some assistance. In the event that a student is unable to define the word after it is used in a sentence, I randomly select a student using my classroom's random sticks. If the student selected can correctly define the word, his/her team earns a point. This way, everyone in the class stays alert, because students never know when they may have an opportunity to earn an extra point for their team.
To make the game even more exciting, I like to make certain words “bonus” words, meaning they are worth double the points. For example, I may designate all even-numbered words as bonus words for the day, so if students roll an even number, they have a chance to earn four points instead of the typical two. This is also a great way to keep teams that are behind in points engaged, as all it takes is defining a few bonus words to get their team back in the game. Points are tallied, and the team with the most points at the end of each month wins a small prize.
If you’re like me and have struggled with helping your students retain vocabulary they learned early on in the school year, give Define It a try with your class. My students love it, and I think yours will too.
Brent has worked in the field of education as a teacher and administrator for over 20 years. He is currently Principal of Alta Murrieta Elementary School in Murrieta, California. Read more about Brent here.
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