How to enhance vocabulary

These past months, I have tried to integrate some of the ideas in an article I read (and blogged about) titled “How Can Teachers Increase Classroom Use of Academic Vocabulary?” In December, I tried a new strategy with my students: I had them start a “word journal”. In the article, it was suggested to have a word wall in the classroom and classify the words into three categories: tier 1 words, tier 2 words and tier 3 words. It was suggested that it could help students move from casual oral language to academic language. I decided to use a similar strategy where my students researched words and wrote them down in a journal.

First, I presented my students with a list of simple adjectives (e.g. good, bad, big, small). I asked them if they knew what these adjectives meant and we defined them together. Then I wrote “Tier 1”, “Tier 2” and “Tier 3” on the board. I explained that tier 1 words are words that we use very often – sometimes even too often. I then told my students that tier 2 words are words the we understand but often forget to use. I explained that tier 3 words are words that are challenging and that we hardly ever use. I then wrote down all the adjectives in the tier 1 column and asked my students to use a dictionary on their computer to find tier 2 and tier 3 words that had a similar meaning. My students were able to find a variety of words and we discussed how richer and more interesting tier 2 and tier 3 words were.

My second activity was to give my students a list of more challenging words (tier 3) and ask them to identify tier 1 words that meant the same thing. This activity was a bit more difficult for them but they still managed to complete the task.

My students liked doing this activity because it allowed them to explore new vocabulary. They were also able to comment on words and decide in which context it is better to use simpler words (e.g. when explaining something new to a young child) and in which context it is more appropriate to use challenging words (e.g. when writing an essay).

In the next few weeks, I would like to continue have my students work on vocabulary. I wish to use their own productions and have them identify tier 1 words that they could change for tier 2 and tier 3 words. Hopefully, this will allow my students to enhance their vocabulary and improve their writing skills.

Let’s talk!

When I was in school, I didn’t like to talk. Actually, this is not completely accurate. I loved talking with my friends and my teachers at break times or outside the classroom but I hated to talk in class. It made me anxious. I was scared that I would say something stupid or irrelevant. I was afraid that my classmates would laugh at me. The thing I hated the most was when I was called on in the middle of a lesson. When it happened, my face usually turned bright red and I just froze! At least when the teacher asked if there was a volunteer, I had a choice: I could decide whether or not I wanted to give an answer. When I was called on however, I didn’t have a choice. I resented my teachers whenever they called on me in class. It made me feel disrespected. Fortunately, I developed strategies to avoid being called on in class. I could have written this article about how to avoid being called on in class since I was so good at it !

Was I not learning because I was quiet? Absolutely not! I learned a lot. I am a visual learner and therefore I learn a lot from looking at the board, watching a video and reading an article. However, I have to admit that I did better in the classes where I had a chance to engage verbally. The key I think is to offer a variety of discussion opportunities so that everyone in the classroom has a chance to interact in a way in which they are comfortable. Group projects, for instance, were a great way for me to get my ideas out and participate in constructive discussions without feeling the stress of being called on. Additionally, when I was told explicitly what the expectations were in terms of my oral participation and when I had time to prepare beforehand, again I did pretty well. For instance, when a teacher asked us to get ready for a debate, I always came to class prepared and was therefore much more comfortable talking in front of the class.

When I attended an IB Workshop in Manila last September, one of the participants gave us a very interesting tool to develop discussion habits in our classrooms. She called it “discussion mapping”. The teacher tells the class to discuss a certain topic for 5 minutes. The teacher explains that he or she will remain silent during the discussion and will map their interactions. Student 1 starts talking so the teacher writes his or her name down. When student 2 starts talking, the teacher draws a line from Student 1 to Student 2. The teacher continues mapping the interactions for the whole duration of the discussion. Afterwards, the students have an opportunity to have a look at the discussion map. Were there students who talked a bit too much? Were there students who did not participate at all? With this method, it is easy for everyone to see what their contribution was and what they need to improve on. The teacher can then set a specific “discussion goal” for each student and monitor their progress by reusing the same method. I think I would have really liked this idea as a student!

I think a very important aspect of this issue is for teachers to understand that some students simply do not feel comfortable talking in the middle of a lecture. It doesn’t mean that they are not listening or that they aren’t engaged: it simply means that they need other ways to showcase what they know and engage in discussions with their peers and teachers. Having clear routines and expectations relating to oral participation, and offering a variety of discussion opportunities are key to helping shy students talk more in class.


SWI: Giving students tools to better understand language

As I wrote in a previous post, I was introduced to Structured Word Inquiry (SWI) last year. At the start of this academic year, I quickly introduced SWI activities with my grade 6 students and was hoping to include similar activities with my other groups eventually. I was trying to think of a logical way to incorporate SWI when an opportunity presented itself…

On that day, I was only working with one student. He was researching information about a disease for science class. He was really struggling to understand complex words and I was trying to make him get a better understanding of what he was reading. He came across the terms “rehydration therapy”. Using the context of the activity, he understood that “therapy” meant “solution” or “treatment” but he didn’t understand the word “rehydration”. I asked my student to find other words that were similar or connected to the word “rehydration”. He found “hydrated” as in “Stay hydrated”. I questioned my student about the meaning of the phrase “Stay hydrated”. My student figured out that it meant “To drink water”. I explained the fact that the base of the word “rehydration” is “hydro”, which means “water”. Knowing that, we explored the words “dehydrated” and “dehydration”. We then returned to the word “rehydration”. My student was still struggling to understand the meaning of it. He knew it had something to do with water but he couldn’t quite define this particular word. I then circled the prefix “re” and wrote the words “do”, “redo”, “read” and “reread” on the board. I asked my student what happened when we added the prefix “re” to the words “do” and “read”. He said that it meant that we had to do it again. Then he looked at the word “rehydration” once more and exclaimed: “it means we put water in our body again”!

It was amazing to see to connections he was making during this activity. We transferred the work we did on the whiteboard onto a poster and I put it on my bulletin board. The following lesson, my student was able to revisit his thought process of the previous class and he could explain to the rest of the group what “rehydration” meant.

Because I felt so successful with this particular student, I decided to set up an activity for the whole group on the following day. We had a look at two word matrices (sign and pack) and the students discovered what “prefixes”, “bases” and “suffixes” were. They built words using the words matrices and found out that all the words in a matrix are related through their common base.

Then I presented them with two words that they are currently working with in science class : ”contamination” and “transmission”. I asked my students to find as many words as they could that were connected to these two words. Then, my students tried to guess the meaning of both words by using all the words they had found. After they had done this, they went online to research the origins of the words and their definitions.

Next week, I would like them to revisit all the words they found and try to identify the base/root of both words they studied today. Then, I’d like them to try to build a word matrix for “contamination” and “transmission”. In order to be fully prepared for my next lesson, I have worked on matrices after class today. Here is what I am thinking we’ll find next week (see below). If anyone has background knowledge on morphology and structured word inquiry, feel free to give me feedback!


1                        23 45 6  screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-2-41-54-pm  screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-12-46-55-pm

Structured Word Inquiry

I was introduced to structured word inquiry last year while doing a course on dyslexia. The instructors recommended this approach to help students develop an understanding of word patterns and improve their spelling abilities. I found it really helped my students better understand language and as a result, they improved their reading and writing skills.

Here are links to resources that might be helpful to those who are interested in structured word inquiry.


Learning is social

Sometime last year, I was looking for ideas to better support my students’ learning. Unfortunately, there weren’t many professional development opportunities in the Ningbo area so I decided to look for online options. I wasn’t sure I would find what I was looking for because I had never taken an online course. I was afraid the learning experience might not be as fulfilling and meaningful because when I’m in a classroom full of learners, discussions and interactions are often what I remember the most afterwards. These little exchanges truly help me acquire new concepts and ideas. I didn’t think this would be possible with an online course. However, as soon as I started my online course I was hooked! There were about 20 students from different countries and with various backgrounds, as well as a team of very qualified instructors. We were asked to watch videos, read articles, comment on a textbook we were reading, etc. We also had to share about our learning experiences through blog posts. Participants exchanged ideas, shared resources, encouraged one another… In the end, I learned so much from that course. I believe that social interactions do have a big impact on learning and although sharing a room with other learners can be interesting, social media has the possibility of making learning even more interactive and enriching.

I am learning to include opportunities for my students to connect and learn through social interactions and connections beyond the classroom environment. A few years ago, I participated in a reading project called “Ecouter lire le monde” ( The goal was for teachers from all over the world to read a book with their class and start a global discussion about the book. Students were able to share their predictions with kids from many different countries and give their opinions. It was a very motivating and rewarding experience for all of us! I am looking forward to hearing other ideas and learning how to better help my students develop their language abilities in my classroom.