Monday, October 10, 2011

Week 6: Disciplinary Literacy

In order to teach vocabulary effectively it is necessary to remember a few important details. First, use words that are conceptually related. By grouping vocabulary words together by concept (like master cylinder, caliper, and rotor...all have to do with brakes) we can develop a concept specific vocabulary in which the words are all related. This helps build language around things. Second, teach words in context before giving the academic vocabulary. By placing the word in context we are able to see the word as it relates to other words, activities, or ideas. For instance, if I were to say, "The caliper compresses onto the spinning rotor." the reader would already be able to understand that 'caliper' and 'rotor' are related and that the caliper has a movable element to it which can be made to compress, while the rotor is also movable, probably in a circular fashion. With plain definitions, the relationships and the activities between words remains in the frontier of knowledge.

The third idea in teaching vocabulary is to use words which have 'high utility.' 'High utility' refers to the amount with which a person could use the word in their general communications. For instance, 'caliper' would be very useful to someone who worked on car brakes but to a ballerina, practically worthless. When teaching a word with high utility the teacher is awarded the opportunity to use repetition to reinforce the word. The student becomes more comfortable with a word the more they hear it until it becomes a part of their vernacular as well.

The fourth idea is to limit the number of words being taught. My Spanish textbook is an excellent example of this. At the end of every chapter is around 50-80 words. I end up learning the cognates and the high utility words and glossing over the rest. This is not due to an incapacity on my part, but rather the sheer volume of the vocabulary becomes overwhelming and I tend to focus only on those words which have immediate value. The same is true with English vocabulary. By only teaching 3-5 words, or 5-10 words at a time, the likelihood of a student remembering the word is greatly increased. When the teaching of these words are coupled with repetition and introduced in the manner outlined in the preceding paragraphs, success is almost guaranteed.

The final key point is to differentiate between receptive and expressive words. If, as a teacher, one wishes for their students to use their vocabulary terms it is important that they learn expressive terms. This are terms with which students may better express themselves. The process by which a word goes from being unknown to known can be explained through three terms. The word moves from the 'frontier,' to being a receptive word, which means it is understood when other people use it, and finally to expressive- the student uses the word in their everyday life.

A helpful list of vocabulary teaching strategies follows:
Knowledge Rating Chart
Word Ad
Gallery Walk
Word within a word
word web
graphic organizer
ABC works

TOPIC 2: ENGAGEMENT-An Introduction
Engagement is a 'before reading activity' that is used to peak the interest of the readers. It is important because it initiates real learning and comprehension. In order to engage students it is necessary for the activity and the text be related in such a way that relevance is shown to the reader. Engagement activities usually involve the students 'doing' something. By doing, we mean actively engaged, like drawing, using a manipulative or making something. These activities can greatly increase a student's interest and comprehension of textual resources.

An example of an engagement activity is to have students draw the process of something, as best they can. Afterwards, they can present the information to their classmates. Next, the class will collaborate on the most thorough process by using collaboration. Finally, any key elements that were left out can be clarified by the instructor. With the students fully engaged, the lesson can then be moved to a reading assignment. The key to the engagement is that it activates schema, builds upon it, and then introduces new information in the form of text. An invaluable resource to be sure. The technique could be used with any discipline and any lesson.
Vocabulary is vital to understanding historical texts. Having said that, it is necessary to identify the largest challenges facing readers of historical texts: 1. They are extremely academic in language. 2. They can be very, very boring. In order to alleviate these two concerns, engagement, to heighten interest, and the use of vocabulary techniques-to increase understanding- are absolutely vital for teaching history. In the following reflection, I will demonstrate a possible technique for engaging students while teaching vocabulary related to a historical topic. 
It is generally agreed that Eli Whitney changed the world when he invented the cotton gin. To introduce this concept to a class serves as the basis for understanding the economics of the South during the 19th century, events leading to, and effects of, the Civil War, the textile industry and the role it played in the Industrial Revolution and countless other key concepts of American History. The problem is that most students have no frame of reference for cotton except that their Fruit-of-the-looms are made from 100% of it. The vocabulary that is necessary to understand the cotton gin is: 
The engagement activity will allow the teacher to utilize these words repeatedly, in context, before defining them. Basically, cotton bolls will be handed out to the students and they will be put to the task of removing the seed from the fiber. After about five minutes, the students will be asked about their experience, "Was it hard or easy?" "What were the challenges?" "What kind of tools would have helped?" After a brief discussion, the teacher introduces a cotton gin replica (available at Before using the machine, the teacher defines the vocabulary terms. Now that the students have intimate knowledge of the boll and fiber, learning the function of gin will come more naturally. Finally, the teacher demonstrates the removal of the seed from the fiber using the gin. Now the students are ready to read about Eli Whitney and the cotton gin. 

I think this activity would be extremely effective. First, the activity that provides engagement has no wrong answers. The activity would lower affective filters and activate multiple parts of the brain as the students used critical thinking and motor skills to remove the cotton seeds from the cotton boll. Second, any frustration that was experienced during the exercise would only increase the interest in the gin. The students would be able to see the real-world application of the gin and understand how it would save time and labor. Finally, through touching, hearing, talking, and reading the terms, the students would most likely have moved the terms from frontier, where they began, to expressive, as they did during their examination of the engagement activity.

All in all, these two strategies offer great structure and rationale for introducing complex ideas and unusual vocabulary into the classroom environment. Through engagement and structured vocabulary instruction it is possible to combat the number one complaint of students studying history: "Why does it have to be sooooooo boooooring?" Well it doesn't have to be. And now, it never will be again.  

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