Word Nerds, Part Two

If you’re reading this and have not read my first Word Nerds post please do go back and read it because I’m going to refer to things here that are explained there.

So, with week 1 of our explicit vocabulary instruction under our belts, my grade 5 class were hopefully ready for me to introduce five new words: satellite, inundate, hypothesis, distraught, and impact. Two of which are from our Science topic list, not just from the resilience list. I left last week’s word cards on the board and hung up some anchor charts for those (more about that later) as reminders then began as I’d begun the previous week, with a cloze activity.

Lesson 1, week 2.

We discussed possible answers and what type of words we were looking for. Sometimes it wasn’t clear in the sentence what word type was required. For example, one of the sentences I’d written in week 1 was:

The firefighters moved ……………….. to get to the trapped people.

In my mind the answer was clearly debris, but most of the student’s suggestions were adverbs, such as quickly and carefully.

The students did exceptionally well with guessing the words this time, listing three target words in their guesses and they were all rather chuffed when I revealed the list words. This meant the session went very quickly and finished on a very positive note.

Lesson 2

We managed to get all five words into their vocabulary books in half the time it took last week, although some students forgot to write their sentences. Doing this on Tuesday meant plenty of time on Wednesday to go over misconceptions, correct spelling, and add missed sentences. When students looked for dictionary definitions to support their guesses at word meaning it made it really clear that often dictionaries are obfuscatory. I don’t really like child-level dictionaries for upper primary because they never have difficult words in them, but adult dictionaries are impossible to interpret – sometimes even for adults. However we shared ideas, read what we could and came up with sensible definitions. Using google also provided plain-word definitions that were much easier to understand. Thank goodness for the convenience of iPads!

jacks book

I particularly like the drawing for ‘impact’.


Lesson 3

Game time!

We played Pac Man, which is a very simple game that can be used in  any subject area. Students spread out around the room so they can’t touch anyone and they stand still. I ask questions, if they get them right they get to take a step, if they can reach another student they tap them and the student sits down. I asked questions like:

what is an antonym for ………..?

what is a synonym for ………….?

Which word would fit in this sentence: ‘I was …………………… when my house was destroyed.’

Students love this game, and having the words on the board was good for reference. I used words from both the first and second week and plan to add on as we go through the term. The more students hear, say and write new words, the more comfortable they are with using them independently. In the Word Nerds book the authors recommend getting students physcially moving through a range of activities as this helps students retain the words. We’ll see!

The game was fitted into a spare 15 minutes before recess – these vocabulary sessions might sound long in my descriptions but they’re quite quick in reality.

Lesson 4: quick revision

I typed up a cloze passage and asked the students to work in pairs to list the words in order of use.

cloze activity on tv

There was lots of really good discussion. Although I made this activity up on the spur of the moment, I think it worked really well because it was short and the students really talked about their choices with their partner and had to go back over the sentences several times because a few of the words were quite similar. We marked as a group, shared ideas then chucked the scraps of paper in the bin. So easy! I was particularly excited to see students getting out their vocabulary books for reference and drew attention to this by rewarding students who took the initiative with Class Dojo points.

So that’s most of what we’ve done so far, the only thing to add is the anchor charts.

These are an idea from the book but I changed it slightly. They recommend putting lots of words on a poster to keep the vocab within view. I thought I’d make one small poster for each word and show the synonyms and antonyms but I’m starting to think I’ll end up without enough room on the walls. We’ll see I guess.

On a personal note, this focus on vocabulary has made me more aware when I’m reading. On the weekend I started reading The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams. It’s a fantasy novel and I wouldn’t have said it had particularly challenging language in it, but when I paid attention I found seven words I didn’t know in the space of perhaps 10 pages. Coincidentally, one word, Cibola, was also part of the title of my current audio book (Cibola Burn by James SA Corey) and I’d assumed it was a made-up word. Turns out it’s the name of one of the seven legendary cities of gold in South America, which include El Dorado. Seriously – wow! By looking up just one word I’ve discovered meaning in two places at once, that there were seven cities and I’d assumed there was only one, that it’s really worth finding out the meaning of new words and also I’m a doofus. Clearly I’d been skimming over these sorts of words most of my reading life – or hoping the meaning would become obvious at a later date – which admittedly it sometimes does. There was another word (noun phrase?) Tir na nOg, I’d seen quite a few times but never looked up. Turns out it’s a fabled faerie land of  eternal life. And Broceliande? A gorgeous-sounding forest of French legend, possibly where Merlin was buried. Such richness! Such depth! As a word nerd myself, I really welcome the reminder that words are beautiful and clever and that choosing not to expand one’s vocabulary is like choosing to paint with only half a palette.

Let me know your thoughts in the comments and here’s the next post on this topic.


‘Word Nerds’ and Explicit Vocabulary Instruction

I came across the ‘Word Nerds’ book on Pinterest. Immediately caught by the unashamedly dorky title and the joyous cover photo, I did a little research, liked what I read, and ordered the book.

Word Nerds

I’d always had a niggling thought that what I was doing with words wasn’t helping to building vocabulary. I do spelling, I encourage kids to look up words in the dictionary and online, but my vocabulary instruction was lacking. My main activity revolved around one session: letter writing to our ‘Student of the Week’. The students enjoy the task and are really comfortable with the letter genre, which then means they can use some mental energy to include some more interesting vocabulary in their writing. I’ll pull 10 words out of the dictionary, talk about their meanings and then the students choose which to use in their letter, getting a Class Dojo point for each one.

But even though there was clear enjoyment in the use of new and fancy words, they rarely showed up again in student writing, and certainly never in their dialogue. Disappointing.

So Word Nerds arrived in the mail. It was easy to read and clearly laid out a plan for a deep and cohesive way to build vocabulary. Research, experts and results were quoted so I spent my holidays taking notes and then, first week back in term three, I started implementing the scheme. So far I’ve finished the first two weeks of the program but I’ll cover just the first week in this post. I haven’t had a chance to get to all the activities, but I thought I’d explain what I’ve done so far and how it’s going.

Before I do, let me lay out some information from the book.

1. Students from underprivileged backgrounds can enter school with half the vocabulary of students with middle class backgrounds.

2. Vocabulary knowledge is a reliable indicator of future academic success.

3. Children need to learn between 4 and 8,000 words a year to build a vocabulary necessary for tertiary and white-collar pursuits.

4. Most teachers (surveyed by the authors) report that they do little, if any, vocabulary building, or that they felt that what they did was ineffective (that made me feel a bit better).

Now, clearly teaching even 2,000 words (let alone 4,000) a year seems like a hill too large to climb, even with my middle/upper-socioeconomic group. Fortunately, Isabel Beck, in her book ‘Bringing Words To Life‘ (which I am in the middle of reading now), divides words into 3 tiers and explains the best group to focus on.

Tier 1: words that are ‘everyday’ – children come to school knowing many of these. Words such as look, party, sometimes, blonde.

Tier 2: words that are less frequently used but add colour, detail and nuances to communication across the board – words such as resonate, impartial, despondent.

Tier 3: topic specific words, such as carbine, isotope, stamen, camber.

Here’s Isabel Beck talking about the first two tiers.

The aim is to focus on tier 2 words and to use tier 1 words and the experiences students already have to create strong and numerous connections to new words. To build their vocabulary schemata so they have a stack of words to draw on in any situation, so they can understand authors’ intent and increase their reading fluency so that decoding creates fewer speed bumps on the road to enjoying reading, creating powerful writing and learning from texts.

So, where to start?

This term our Grade 5 concept is ‘Resilience’. We’re exploring this through drawing on our prior studies of migrant experiences (term two) and life on the Australia gold fields (term one). We’re also studying bush fires and floods to cover our geography component and talking about personal resilience – how to develop it, what it looks like, why it matters.

Before the holidays we (there are three Grade 5 teachers at my school) sent home a list of topic words for students to discuss with their families. When we came back from holidays I gave pairs of students a fresh copy of the vocab sheet and told them that Carlos (the class teddy bear – often used as a thinking tool for identifying problem areas) and I had been discussing the word list over the holidays and he thought there were between 10 and 15 words on the list that were very difficult. I asked the students to highlight those words in orange. Then, in yellow, the students had to guess and highlight Carlos’ 15 – 20 moderately tricky words. Words that maybe Carlos knew but couldn’t explain. The rest of the words were highlighted green. We then discussed our choices as a group and came to a consensus on which were the most challenging words. Voila! There was the list we’d be using to start our Word Nerds lessons.

One pair's sheet.

One pair’s sheet.

Lesson One

I chose 5 words from the list:

unprecedented, debris, deluge, embankment, and havoc.

I wrote the words on cards and put them to the side, then wrote some cloze sentences on the board.

The students discussed the sentences and which words they knew that might fit. Then we talked about what those words had in common.

Then I revealed the words and we talked about the meanings – did we get any clues? Then we tried to fit each word into a space.

If I'd known I was going to use this for the blog I'd have written a lot neater. Like I *normally* do. I assure you.

If I’d known I was going to use this for the blog I’d have written a lot neater. Like I *normally* do. Ahem.

The last step was to get a few students to do dictionary research and we wrote the definition on the board. Unprecedented raised interesting discussion about prefixes and suffixes. We removed ‘un’ and ‘ed’, but one child said ‘pre’ was also a prefix so we looked up ‘precedent’ and also ‘cedent’.

I took a photo of our thinking then put the word cards at the top of the board, ready for the next session.

Lesson 2

In this lesson I introduced the vocabulary books. I’d taken the time to pre-draw the frames for the children with speed/fine motor issues so that they didn’t spend all lesson ruling, plus they then had a neat version to refer back to in future. I don’t have a photo of the empty frames but on the board it looked like this:

Next time I'll use a ruler, I promise.

Next time I’ll use a ruler, I promise.

I have six EAL (English as Another Language) students, so I thought the definition would be best in their own language.

In Word Nerds they give their students photocopied sheets. I’ve always disliked the idea of sticking things over blank, perfectly useable pages. Plus I think it takes no time to teach students to rule neatly and is good fine-motor practice. They also used a projector to create far neater frames on their board, which I’ll get around to. One day.

For the second lesson we focused on just two words, unprecedented and debris. We talked about the meaning from the dictionary and students could either copy what I wrote or put it into their own words. Then we listed synonyms and examples, and then antonyms and non examples. The students were really creative and I was impressed with their thinking. This part is where the explicit nature of the instruction really come into its own, because obviously some students have broader vocabularies than others. So when someone says rubble as a synonym for debris we get to discuss the nuances in language and so, with at least 3 synonyms and 3 antonyms copied down, we now have 7 words instead of 1 and 14 instead of 2, and when we’re done we have 35 instead of 7. Of course not all are new words but to some (and especially my EAL students) quite a few are.

In the margin column, after they have filled in the boxes, each student writes their own 7+ sentence using the focus word. This lets me check their understanding. I encourage them to say their sentence to the person next to them and see if it sounds right before writing it down. Making the students use seven or more words mean they hopefully create more detailed and expressive sentences. Not just I saw some debris, but I saw some debris after the flood.

I looked through their books that afternoon and gave stamps to students who had used the words correctly and whose sentences were seven or more words and left a little sticky note in the books of other students. Being vocabulary books, it’s pretty important to correct all spelling errors since the whole idea is that these books are used for reference throughout the year. Knowing that there might be a stamp next to their work also encouraged students to really look at the feedback and read it. I also think that writing comments on sticky notes is easier to read, plus then students can pull them out after they have made the correction, leaving their book clean and tidy. We completed the remaining words in the next lesson.

This is what it looks like in a student’s book. This photo was taken in week 2 so the words aren’t from the first list.

Probably the worst example I could've chosen to photograph but just look at the surface details, not the actual content of this one.

Probably the worst example I could’ve chosen to photograph but just look at the surface details, not the actual content of this one.


I didn’t get to any of the games in the first week as it was only a 4 day week and we’d taken a long time to write everything down. But the good news was that on Monday in week 2 students told me they’d already started noticing the vocabulary words in their personal reading. A good start!

If anyone reading has any questions, comments or advice please leave below. Thanks for reading! The second part of this reflection is here.