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Vocab activities for your classroom

RTI and Taking Vocabulary Personally

If you are in the ed world, chances are you have heard the acronym RTI being batted around but you may not be able to explain its rationale or be able to envision how this model of "intervention" could play out in your classroom.

In their practical guide RTI in the Classroom: Guidelines and Recipes for Success, authors Brown-Chidsey, Bronaugh, and McGraw describe RTI (Response to Intervention) as "a roadmap for student success in the general education classroom." RTI offers an alternative to the "wait-to-fail" model of providing support to only those students who have been formally identified as qualifying for special education resources and support. It seeks to identify at-risk or struggling students early on and to provide teachers with evidence-based interventions to support those students.

If this explication seems a bit abstract, RTI in the Classroom provides a fat appendix of "Intervention Recipes" categorized by topic (Reading, Writing, Math, and Behavior) to help teachers implement the RTI model as they teach different skills and content.

One such recipe is entitled "Have you Ever?" and is aimed at getting students to learn new vocabulary words by tying them to personal experiences. Instead of assuming that all students can independently relate new words to their own lives, this intervention scaffolds that process for them. While it may seem fairly obvious that students are more likely to remember new words if they can connect them to their own experiences, teachers rarely take the time and energy to systematically structure word learning in this way. Based on research by Isabel Beck and her fellow researchers, Brown-Chidsey, Bronaugh, and McGraw suggest selecting a few target words at a time and creating writing or speaking prompts that require students to use the new words in a more personal context.

Here are some sample words and prompts provided in RTI in the Classroom:

Target words: console, defend, elaborate, and encourage

Sample prompts:

  • "Describe a time when you would (console) your brother or sister,"
  • "Explain when you would (defend) your friend at school,"
  • "Talk about a time when you would (elaborate) in class," and
  • "Describe a time when you would (encourage) your classmate."

For teachers following this RTI model for vocabulary support, using Visual Thesaurus word lists to track their students' vocabulary learning is a bonus. Teachers can use the "description" space in each word list they create for activities similar to the "Have you ever?" intervention. For example, check out this word list for "Notetaking Verbs" and how the task in the "description" space asks students to match each word to a personal scenario to which they can relate.

Or, check out the activity associated with this word list of "Complimentary Adjectives" that asks students to identify a friend, family member, favorite celebrity or fictional character who could best be described by each of the adjectives in the list.

As you introduce these types of vocabulary activities, ensure that you are also engaging the different modes of vocabulary knowledge: receptive vocabulary (words encountered in listening and reading) and expressive vocabulary (words encountered in speaking and writing). Vary students' experiences with new words so they are required to encounter the same words receptively and expressively. If you are introducing new words, have students listen to your explanations of the words before using them in their own speech. If students are writing personal responses to vocabulary prompts, have them read aloud their writing. Systematically and consistently asking students to take that extra step in vocabulary learning, to connect new words to their personal experiences and through different modes of communication, are key ingredients for mastering words on a deeper level.


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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.

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