The Ten Minute Vocabulary Lesson
“I don’t have time to teach vocabulary.” As a young language arts teacher, vocabulary was on the list of things to “cover,” so “cover” it I did. With reading, grammar, writing, and spelling, there never seemed to be time for anything else. Besides that, my vocabulary book contained just enough lessons to do one per week. Even though the words in that vocabulary book were interesting, many of those words were not going to be useful in the future. Most of those words were not included in the reading and writing my students were doing in my class or in others.
The day is always full. There is so much content, kids to work with individually, assignments to grade, group work to facilitate, and vocabulary to teach. Vocabulary seems too often be at the end of a long list, so sometimes you get to it and other times…well, does it really matter?
I didn’t realize the importance of vocabulary. And its importance cannot be overstated. Students with small vocabularies are more likely to struggle with reading, have difficulty understanding content, and are seriously at risk for academic failure. Assigning vocabulary rather than teaching vocabulary was a waste of my students’ time and simply unacceptable for me.
Vocabulary strategies that worked were as scarce as time. No one really taught me how to teach vocabulary. When I learned about the brain and began to understand memory, I researched how the brain is wired for reading and the importance of vocabulary was evident. Getting vocabulary words into long-term memory was certainly key to helping students understand and remember content. The Common Core State Standards have set the bar high for vocabulary. I have set my sights on what words are important for students to learn and what brain compatible strategies work best.
How do teachers find the time to teach vocabulary, especially teachers in departmentalized situations in which they may only have periods lasting forty minutes? An important piece of research caught my eye and filled me with hope. Students can benefit from brief encounters with words. “One should not underestimate the value of any meaningful encounter with a word, even if the encounter with a word is relatively small.” (Nagy and Herman, 1987) Taking this information and adding it to other research, I realized that short lessons would improve vocabulary over time.
How many minutes does it take? In a forty minute class, ten minutes is 25% of the class time. Is it too much? It will depend on the day, but we must find time to teach academic vocabulary. Those are the Tier 2 words that are used across content areas. I call them “everybody’s words” as every teacher is responsible for teaching them. Many of these academic words are essential for test success, and many are critical for meaningful speaking, listening, and writing.
Most of my time is spent doing professional development with teachers. As I embarked on my vocabulary journey I found myself challenging those teachers to create lessons in ten minutes or less. First, I modeled several lessons and let the naysayers time me. Then we had to evaluate both the necessity of the lesson and its level of success. Would a five minute introduction to a word be valuable? Could two minutes of transition time really help with word learning, and better yet, allow for word ownership? In every instance, sometimes with some tweaking, the answer was yes.
What Can You Do With Ten Minutes or Less?
In Ten Minutes: have students create a jingle for a word that includes its definition (a jingle for the word clarify might be: clarify and shed some light, explain with details and say it right or clarify to avoid confusion, explain clearly for the right conclusion
In Ten Minutes: 1) pass out blank paper to each student, 2) ask them to fold the paper into quarters (a vertical fold and then a horizontal fold), 3) unfold the paper and write the vocabulary word in the center, 4) in the upper left quadrant have students write their own definition of the word, 5) in the upper right quadrant have them draw a picture that describes the word, 6)in the lower left quadrant have students come up with synonyms for the word, and 7) finally in the lower right have students either write antonyms or a sentence. During the next time slot for vocabulary, have students share their vocabulary organizer with others, comparing and discussing definitions, pictures, etc.
In less than Ten Minutes: take attendance and as you call a name and provide a word from your word wall; the response should be a synonym for the word.
In less than Ten Minutes: have students write a sentence of ten or twelve words demonstrating their understanding of one of the vocabulary words
In less than Ten Minutes: put students in small groups and have them act out one of the week’s vocabulary words
In less than Ten Minutes: introduce a new word, use it in a sentence, and have students create their own definition of the word in small groups; they may use internet sources to guide them
In less than Ten Minutes: have students draw a picture or symbol representing a word
In Ten Minutes: have students share sentences using words from your word wall
In less than Ten Minutes: if you have created a jingle or song for a word, have students sing or recite on their way to line up, access materials, or transition from one activity to another
In less than Ten Minutes: have students explain how they would teach a vocabulary word to a younger student
The possibilities are endless. Use academic vocabulary in your classroom on a regular basis and you will begin to hear your students using those same words. If we can explicitly teach about 300 words per year to our students it can make a big difference in their vocabularies. Some students will learn about 3000 or 4000 words per year due to the literacy that surrounds them, while others have limited access and will only learn 1000. Imagine how much you will be helping those students who have limited outside access to greater vocabulary.