Sunday, November 9, 2008

Alternatives to "Look it up in the Dictionary"

This was an excerpt from Words, Words, Words by Janet Allen, and it was one of the most resource-rich reading assignments we've had to date. Unlike some of the other chapters we've read, which were full of good ideas but had little in the way of illustration, this book actually shows us what these literacy tools are supposed to look like.

The chapter opens by pointing out something that I had never really considered about teaching vocabulary: for students who have a low literacy level, looking something up in the dictionary really isn't very helpful. This was rarely an issue for me as a child: since I had been reading for as long as I could remember, I had little trouble understanding most dictionary definitions. If they used a word I didn't understand, I'd look up that word. Ms Allen tells of a situation where this went awry for her students, and the anecdote is both funny and tragic:

I handed out lists of words and had students copy definitions and write the words in sentences. Still they didn't know the words. They asked me which definition to copy from the dictionary. I told them to copy the one that made sense, the one that fit the context. They looked at me as if I were an alien and asked, "Can we copy the shortest one?" None of the definitions made sense to them. Often they didn't even understand the words used in the definitions. (p. 33)

Another thing that she points out is that often the parts of a definition don't capture the whole. Defining "floozy" as "a slovenly or vulgar woman" doesn't really tell us the functional meaning of the word, i.e., a slut. Partly, this is the result of the dictionary using polite, circumspect language that doesn't fit the spirit of the word, but part of it is just that the definition can't capture the context in which the word is used.

In light of these limitations of dictionary definitions, the different graphic organizers and worksheets illustrated in this chapter are a life-saver. Some of them are a bit complicated for my kids at this stage, and some seem much better-suited to Humanities than Science, but there are some gems here that I think could be useful in my class:

Concept Attainment (Figure 3.2): This could be useful for some of the "big idea" words that we discuss in science, though I'd have to think about which words in particular are best suited to this sort of analysis.

Concept Ladder: This sounds like it might be good for pre-assessment on scientific concepts, but I'd like to see a copy of the worksheet first.

ABC x 2: This is another one I want to see a copy of. I'm not sure if it would be useful or not, but it sounds like it could be.

Knowledge Chart: I like this one a lot. It's similar to the KWL charts, except that the "W" column is missing and it's focused on a specific word rather than a broad concept.

Analysis Map: This is another one that seems like it would be a good thinking tool for "big idea" concepts -- not so much for teaching vocabulary initially as for helping them to organize their thoughts after they've had some instruction on a topic.

Context-Content-Experience: This one is really cool, but it also seems very cerebral and a little complicated to fill out. I'm impressed by the student who was able to draw examples from PE, Math and Science for the concept of "metamorphosis". I don't think my students are ready yet for this level of sophistication.

Words in Context: This could be really useful with science words, since it breaks up the target word into its separate parts. Most scientific words are made up of a fairly predictable set of components, and getting my students to recognize those components would be very helpful in their ongoing education. Of course, as Ms Allen points out, if you can fill out this worksheet on your own, you don't need it, so this is something we'd have to do as a class and/or in table groups.

Thinking Trees: This one immediately made me think of my students' end-of-the-year class project, which is to create a poster, handout and verbal presentation about an ecological issue. I love how the organizer moves the student from the broad to the narrow, from the general to the specific, and from problems to possible solutions. This could be really useful for organizing their thoughts and research in preparation for doing their posters.

The trick now is going to be figuring out which tools will give me the most "bang for the buck" with the small amount of time remaining in the semester. Ms Allen warns against weighing students down with too many worksheets, and the point is well-taken. How can I give my students the best support possible without giving them so much to do that they miss out on the point of the exercise?

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