A Teen Soap Opera to Learn SAT Vocabulary

By Nancy Barile on January 10, 2011
  • Grades: 9–12

 Because I teach in a low-income, urban high school, where many students do not speak English as their first language, my students often have difficulty building their vocabulary. Yet increasing their vocabulary is extremely important: vocabulary is critical to students' reading success, and a wide-ranging vocabulary helps students communicate more effectively when writing, speaking, and listening. In addition, students' confidence improves both academically and socially when their vocabulary increases. Further, students will soon face state testing, SAT testing, and Advanced Placement courses, all of which will require them to employ an ever-increasing vocabulary.

Read on to find out how my class learned new vocabulary words and so much more when they wrote and produced their own high school soap opera.



As my teaching career continues, I am always trying to create opportunities for students to understand and learn in new ways. Specifically, I want students to take control over their own learning so that they become empowered and are then able to achieve at the highest level. 

Over the years, I've tried numerous ways to help my students improve their vocabulary, from completing exercises to playing games. 25 Nonfiction Passages With Vocabulary-Building Crosswords has been effective, and Building Your Vocabulary: And Making It Great! is an excellent tool for students to use on their own to increase their vocabulary. Elizabeth Ramos's "Books for Teaching Vocabulary Building Strategies" provides book suggestions, mini-lessons, and activities to help students build vocabulary.

But I wanted to go a little further and deeper. Now that technology has become readily available and less expensive, and students have become well-versed in using it, I thought that producing a media text might be the answer. I knew that students do not learn language in the abstract and that I needed to create a concrete application in an authentic context to help my students master difficult vocabulary words and concepts.


My idea for this lesson was to have students write and film a screenplay in which they incorporated fourteen vocabulary words each week into the dialogue. The assignment would require me to integrate lessons on reading, writing, listening to, speaking, viewing, and producing media texts into my instruction, and it would challenge the students to do the same in creating their own learning tool. The lesson would deepen students'  knowledge of other disciplines, including using technology, and it would strengthen their critical thinking skills as well as their ability to work cooperatively.


The students decided that they wanted their screenplay to focus on life at an urban high school — a teenage soap opera, so to speak. Students would write the screenplay, act in it, design costumes and the set, and then film and produce the screenplay. Students were extremely enthusiastic about this learning adventure, and they dove into the process, quickly selecting what role they wanted to take on in the production. As their teacher, I worked mainly as a facilitator, providing them with the words and definitions to use for their screenplay and guiding them with general directions. It was important for me to allow the students as much autonomy as possible to enhance their learning.

The students' enthusiasm for this project delighted me. As the process developed, I realized that students were learning much more than vocabulary. Although the central assessment piece of this assignment was the finished screenplay and a pen and paper test, the students had an opportunity to develop their abilities to write effectively and independently for a different purpose and audience than they were used to. Because the students' dramatic dialogue would be acted out and viewed by a large and varied audience, it was important for students to be able to communicate effectively. Students bring their own unique regional upbringing, ethnicity, age, socioeconomic class, and personality to the way they use language, so while I was careful to respect students' own variations in dialect, I also helped them recognize the appropriate oral and written language for this project. This would add to their range of communicative competencies.

Because speech varies in different social and cultural contexts, the students needed to create authentic voices in order for their screenplay to ring true to high school students.  But they also needed to enrich their linguistic competencies and take new risks using language. Much of the meaning that the audience would garner from the production would be derived from tone, denotation and connotation, and effective diction, which would help students appreciate the power of language to influence perception. Speaking and listening would be of paramount importance because students would need to analyze both verbal and nonverbal cues and feedback in order to follow the story being created.

The finished product would require students to critically read, evaluate, and produce a message through the use of media. They would have to build on the language and technology skills acquired in other contexts and use those skills in new ways.

Although they were originally designing their work product just for our class, my students got even more excited when they realized that their video could actually help high school students in our entire school and across the nation. In fact, the students worked hard to create a media text that would appeal to a large and varied audience. Time and equipment restraints would be the most difficult obstacles to overcome, but my students wanted to produce a media message that was professional and useful not only to them, but to any student struggling with vocabulary.

I cannot begin to tell you the fun my students had with this project, and they learned their vocabulary words effortlessly. Besides their amazing finished product, I now hear my students using the vocabulary words in their everyday conversations! They use the words easily and naturally; there's no stigma involved in using "big" words. The students' video has gone "viral" at our school, and students in other classes want to see the next installment and use the video to help learn new vocabulary.

Since this assignment was so successful, my students plan to continue writing and filming High School Uncut. I am hoping that they develop their characters more thoroughly and that their dialogue and situations get more sophisticated as they continue the process. Most importantly, I am looking forward to increased scores when my students take the PSAT tests next year. I truly believe this lesson will have powerful effects that will endure long after high school.

For more ideas for using technology in the classroom, see Teaching With Wikis, Blogs, Podcasts & More and Teaching Teens & Reaping Results in a Wi-Fi, Hip-Hop, Where-Has-All-the-Sanity-Gone World

Happy New Year!

~ Nancy




Nancy, I love your project it is very "effervescent"! What a great idea! Did you have a difficult time getting the students to write a dialog? Did they use storyboards for the scenes or did they just write?

WOW! Acclamation to you and the students!

And thank you for commenting, Marissa! It was a lot of fun!

Wow what a great idea! Thanks Nancy!

Hi Samantha - The video camera is a Flip Cam (cost about $129), and it the EASIEST camera in the world to use. I got mine from Scholastic, but I bet you could easily get funded for one on Donorschoose. The students do all the editing (I wouldn't begin to know how!), but they all seemed to be pretty adept at using it. I would definitely recommend this exercise - the kids REALLY learn the words, and, most importantly, it's clear they integrate the words into their own vocabulary!

Nancy I thought this was a fabulous idea....how did you get the video equipment? I love seeing creative ways of incorporating more vocabulary without the standard testing scheme...great work!

very proud of the kids. Wait til you see the next installment - the plot thickens!! They'll be on the RHS website, so I'll forward you the link.

Love Love Love this idea. One of your best! Keep up the great work, Nancy.

This was great - I loved it! Congratulations - you must be so proud of the kids.

Thank you for posting it on your edblog, Atl! And Eileen, it did a little longer than I wanted when we did the first installment, which is what you saw. But now that everyone knows his/her role, it goes amazingly quickly. As soon as the screenwriters finish writing a scene, they give it to the actors to rehearse. Since the scenes are short, the actors learn their parts quickly. When they are ready, the filmmakers film. We did the last episode in one 80 minute block period! When the kids realized I was limiting their time to get it done, they rose to the occasion! ~ Nancy

Great post! I'd love to try this out, but I'm concerned about how much time it will take. Did you work on this daily? For how long?

Cool idea. I've posted it on my edblog for my readers. http://forcuriousteachers.blogspot.com/2011/01/vocabulary-soap-opera.html

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