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I Spy: A Word Scavenger Hunt

In this selection from Inside Words: Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary, Janet Allen presents a great instructional activity to make words come alive for students, encouraging them to see how vocabulary relates to real-world context.

What Is the I Spy Activity?

I Spy is an activity designed to provide students with an opportunity to apply and discover applications of target vocabulary words in real-life contexts. In most cases, students see lists of vocabulary words in the context of their textbooks or other teaching resources. This activity is based on the belief that middle and high school students should have "deeper explorations with language" (Beck, McKeown, and Kucan 2002) and that children remember more information when they relate words to known information (Stahl 1999; Craik and Tulving 1975). Relating the new to the known in the study of vocabulary can be finding examples and nonexamples, applying the word to known contexts, and making personal connections to the word. I Spy fosters all these activities as students go on scavenger hunts to find examples of the words they have studied in contexts other than their texts.

How Does I Spy Work?

I Spy works the same way any scavenger hunt works. In scavenger hunts, participants usually receive a list of items and must find those items somewhere. I Spy is a word scavenger hunt; students are given a list of words and must find examples of the word somewhere. In the example provided here, the social studies teacher and her students are studying the Revolutionary War. In the middle of the unit, students go on a scavenger hunt to find examples of the unit vocabulary words: revolution, traitor, infiltrate, declaration, and independence.

  1. Create a list of words that are specific to the text or unit of study.
  2. Give students the list of words and explain that they are looking for examples of the word and not the actual word. It is a bonus if they find the actual word but you really want them to discover the word in action.
  3. Students work in groups and document where they discovered the word.
  4. If possible, they bring an artifact to show the word in a new context. For example, if they find a newspaper article about a revolution, students cut the article out and bring that as an artifact. If they find a photograph of a revolution, they bring the photograph (or a copy) as an artifact.
  5. Individually, students write what connection the target word in a new context has to what they are studying in the unit on the American Revolution.
  6. If you have a word wall, artifacts can be displayed under each of the target words as a visual reminder of the word, its meanings, and its applications.

When and Why Would I Use This Activity?

The first reason you might want to use this activity is that students find it enjoyable. In addition, it is an ideal way to see if students have developed an in-depth understanding of the word and its attributes. Students often memorize definitions for words from a content textbook but actually do not see these words as living words. They see the word only in relation to the chapter or unit of study. This activity brings the words to life for students, one that would be characterized as a "beyond the classroom" activity by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002).

Our example is from a social studies classroom, but the activity could be used in any content area. In math, students might be looking for examples of words such as intersection, graph, line, solution, application, and variables in their study of linear equations and functions. In health, students might go on a scavenger hunt for words such as pyramid, malnutrition, deficiency, nutrients, balanced, and vitamins in their study of eating habits. Regardless of which words are chosen for each content area, the goals remain consistent: students transfer their knowledge of content-specific words to a larger context and then make connections between the context they discovered and the unit of study in which they have been involved.

Research/Origins/Further Reading

Beck, I. L., M. G. McKeown, and L. Kucan. 2002. Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York: Guilford Press.
Craik, F. I. M., and E. Tulving. 1975. "Depth of Processing and the Retention of Words in Episodic Memory." Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 104: 268?94.
Stahl, S. A. 1999. Vocabulary Development: From Research to Practice. Newton Upper Falls, MA: Brookline Books.

From Inside Words: Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary by Janet Allen. Copyright © 2007. Reproduced with permission of Stenhouse Publishers. 

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