Teachers at Work

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Word Nerds: Amalgamate! Online Resources for Teaching Vocabulary

I confess, I'm a word nerd. When I was a kid, I didn't keep a diary (grasping even at eight that the exploits of an introverted bookworm with a peaceful home life were perhaps not the stuff that formed a fascinating read), but I did keep a list of words that I liked: Burble. Murmur. Placate. Superfluous. Chaos. It's the specificity that got -- and gets -- me. My mom isn't just "kind" -- she's compassionate, altruistic and decent.

Thus, it's probably not a surprise to find out that teaching vocabulary ("vocab" as it is inevitably termed, in a rare instance of English Teacher bonhomie) is one of my favorite parts of the job. For one thing, when a student uses a vocab word incorrectly, it's sometimes just depressing ("It was so din in the club!") but occasionally so brilliantly wrong as to provide an excellent workplace-related anecdote for dinner party small talk ("I obviate once a month.").

For another thing, to a certain extent, building a vocabulary is something supported by American culture. There are Word-A-Day calendars, websites (like VT) that will email or show you a new word every day, and you can even add a widget to your iGoogle to do the same. In last month's column, I mentioned how encouraging children and teens to read more can seem like a battle fought against all other aspect of our media-saturated world. But a better vocabulary? Few will argue against that, and those that do use 1st grade level words, making them easy to ignore.

Hamlet was wrong: It's context that's all.

The bugaboo with vocabulary, though, is context. We learn new words through osmosis, really, by hearing them, then using them once we consciously or subconsciously understand them. Ideally, we would learn all words through conversation and reading, for this gives the best of all the aspects we need to understand to truly add a word to our vocabulary: context, yes, but also usage, pronunciation, meaning, emphasis and what I'll call level of appropriateness (e.g. I picked up "ginormous" from my students but the fact that I've never heard anyone over 22 use it indicates to me that it might not be the best word to use at a job interview).

Thus, the only concept I have to insist on in teaching vocabulary is that the best thing you can do is to get your students to read more and in a greater depth. For ideas about how to do that, please see last month's column.

And so, Archnemesis SAT, we meet again. And this time you've brought your sidekick, Textbook.

The truth of the system of how we educate kids today, however, means that the majority of vocabulary teaching comes down to two realms. The first is teaching a standardized list of words, often out of textbook, broken down by, in some cases, by seemingly arbitrary chapters. Textbooks also assign vocab by grade, adding to the arbitrary nature of it. At my school, "din" befuddles freshmen; juniors wrestle with "obviate." [Note: Many English programs supplement these textbooks with vocabulary words taken from literature. While I hate to see beautiful works of writing trolled for four-syllable words, I can't argue with the context there.] The second realm is test preparation. No one who hasn't paid off a College Board employee knows precisely which words will show up on the SAT (or the PSAT or the ACT...) but throughout the years of these tests' existence, a likely, and long, list of words has been collated and disseminated. Short of just handing out a list of words and wishing your students well, what can be done to help them learn in each of these realms?

Until www.getthesewordsdrilledintoyourbrain.com exists, try these:

Let's address these in order. First, teaching a list. Learning a word and definition is not enough. Only usage captures nuance, mood and the tacit aspects of the word -- in short, how it's used. My students must use each word in a sentence, correctly, both in their notebooks and on the vocabulary test. And, no, "I do not know what maladjusted means" does not count.

Merriam-Webster's Vocabulary Builder by Mary W. Cornog is a fantastic printed source for understanding context. The words are divided into chapters by construction (e.g. all of the "bell-" words are together: bellicose, belligerent, etc.) so it may not be a practical match to your vocab textbooks. But I keep a copy on my desk because of the clear way it explains nuance and context. It's also terrific for adults looking to improve their vocabulary, or, along with the second part of this article, for test takers.

I like to suggest different strategies for studying vocab to my students so I can leave them to study how they learn best. One wonderful resource for vocabulary strategies is found at litsite.alaska.edu/workbooks/readingvocabulary.html. These four strategies are from Kathie Steele, a teacher in Alaska. I really like her second idea, "Vocabulary Frames." Check it out, especially if you've got a pile of visual learners doodling through your classes.

And "In-a-Gada-da-Vida" is the extra credit question.

If vocabulary was a classic rock station, flashcards would be the Rolling Stones: you can always count on them to show up sooner or later. Online flashcards are kind of kicky fun, or as close to kicky fun as vocab gets, and by setting them up yourself, you can assure that you will not get the "I couldn't find any notecards" excuse. (Yes. This is a real excuse.) There's a nifty program at www.flashcardexchange.com that allows you to make online and printable flashcards. You can make as many as you want, add images if you like, and even place hints on the cards. Once you make them, you can share them with your class by having them go to the site. It does require registration, and it is for sites like this that I have a dedicated email address for my teaching career.

EdHelper.com is another large site with a variety of homework helps. I daresay that any student can find something beneficial to him or her at this site, but I want to especially point out that in the "Vocabulary and Spelling" section (scroll down) you can use their vocab lists or your own to generate review worksheets.

I also like puzzles. Not to do them myself -- I consider most crosswords to be needlessly coy and disingenuous, like a courtesan in 18th century Versailles -- but to use them with my girls. I've tried a number of online puzzle makers, and I like CrosswordPuzzleGames.com the best. It's easy to type in a list of words and clues (I mix up definitions and sentences with blanks where the vocab word goes). You can add up to 20 words -- that's generally what a chapter comprises for the girls, so it's perfect for me. Another great puzzle maker page is at the previously mentioned EdHelper.com/puzzles. They have word searches and word find puzzles there, too (along with a plethora of puzzles for other subjects). I think word searches are more helpful for spelling lists than vocab. Also, I was on the receiving end of a student's scornful comment, "Word searches are for five year olds!" not too long ago, so I stick to crossword puzzles. After all, Bill Gates does those, and he's no five year old.

If you have been assigned, as sometimes a changeover in administration, curriculum or law requires, to assemble a vocabulary list for your class, by the way, a quick search on www.google.com of "Vocabulary List 12th Grade" or whichever grade you're working on, yields dozens of posted lists from around the country. So helpful.

And a Better Vocabulary Can Also Make You a Better Person.

Let's switch over to test prep. Students can read that list of might-be-asked words over and over, but if they're not using the words, they're not really learning them in a way that will be helpful. After all, it doesn't do them any good to look at a vocab question on the SAT and think, "Yep, I have seen that word before." I do not know if you have noticed this, but the majority of teenagers don't like to hang out at home, writing sentences using difficult words. Shock, I know.

Send them to www.vocabtest.com or www.vocabulary.com. The first will provide tests and quizzes on SAT level words (and on the table to the left, there are other lists by grade and class). The second site has dozens of thematic lists for vocabulary practice, my favorite being the "Pirate puzzle, also Columbus related" list. There's something pleasing about someone hinting at the piracy of ol' Chris. More helpfully to upper school students, there are twelve SAT-level vocab tests.

Prepme.com has a great interactive SAT site at www.sat-preparation.co.il/. Students can take quizzes online with immediate grading. They choose a letter of the alphabet and all vocab words begin with that letter, a nice way to organize it. There are 3,507 words on the quizzes -- and when I took a quiz, I got the third question wrong. Ah, well.

There are podcasts about everything these days, but many people do not realize that you do not need to have an iPod to listen to them. Download iTunes (www.apple.com/itunes) onto a computer and listen away! No tiny white device needed! Searching "SAT vocab" or "Princeton Review" or "wordsmart" there will yield a bunch of podcasts that boost vocabularies.

Before I close out this month's column, a word to teachers who have vocab lists of scientific words, German words, religious words and so on. Space doesn't allow me to list each possible vocab resource, but you should know that there are plenty of sites for you as well. Search "science dictionary" at Google, or "German lessons" at iTunes. And religion teachers: just check out the coolest site I found when surfing lately: altreligion.about.com/library/glossary/blsymbols.htm.

Hope that this list of sources is helpful to you. We're not trying to create a new generation of word snobs, of course, but you know as well as I do that many of our students need our gentle assistance in moving from beyond their current vocabulary of "like" and "cool," plus 350 slang words, to a fully functioning, polished, elastic vocabulary. If one of these sources helps you, my word nerd heart will fly! No, it will soar! No, zoom! No...

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An award-winning playwright and former contributor to the Visual Thesaurus Teachers at Work department, Shannon Reed is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches. Read more about her work at shannonreed.org. Click here to read more articles by Shannon Reed.

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