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October 12, 2017

Exploring Vocabulary Through Illustration

By Julie Ballew
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    What does a conjunction look like? What about a verb or a preposition? Can you draw a picture of a delta or an inundation? This year, I’m rethinking my word wall and pushing my students to do just that.

    Most of what I know about classroom word walls comes from working and studying in primary classrooms. They can be a powerful tool for reading, writing, and spelling, but I’ve struggled to find the best use of my word wall now that I’m teaching fifth grade. Sight words are still important, but less urgent for students who read widely and successfully. And, although I saw some power in using it for words that highlight spelling patterns, students just haven’t used my word wall as often as I would like.

    Running right alongside my word wall struggle has been my quest to improve my vocabulary instruction. I have tried various methods, including content-area word banks and color-coded word cards, but there has been little stickiness. I’m currently tackling both of these issues together, and it began by happy accident.

    Right now, my classes are knee-deep in an exploration of Ancient Egypt for our social studies curriculum. We have created a mural of the ancient society around the Nile River and investigated the geography, towns, and occupations that held Ancient Egypt together. As we have read and researched, our list of vocabulary has grown and grown.

    I was staring at my blank word wall a few weeks ago and decided that one of its functions would be a vocabulary bank for social studies words. This was different than what I’d always done, as I preserved the word wall for sight words and used separate spaces for content area words. I still think that’s a good practice, but a lack of wall space and some cognitive dissonance about word walls in fifth grade made me brave. I was ready to try something new.

    The next day, I called my students to the carpet and asked them to bring the word banks they’d been creating in their notebooks. We compared lists, and we settled on about 20 words that we agreed must be understood in order to move forward in our study. I wrote them on blank index cards, discussed the meaning of each one, and told the kids I would add them to the word wall so that they could remember them.

    Two of the words kept confusing the class, even as we were discussing them. Kemet, which is the fertile land near the Nile River banks, and deshret, which is the dry desert land farther from the banks. Both of these words were failing to stick, and the students repeatedly asked me to remind them which was which. To help with this, I thought we should add a little illustration to the cards so that we’d know which was dry land and which was fertile. A light bulb came on, and like so many light-bulb moments, it immediately changed my plans for the period.

    I decided that illustrations could help us understand all of the words, not just the most confusing ones. Everything I know about memorization and learning tells me that visual cues are important. As a bonus, asking the kids to do the illustrations proved to be a great formative assessment of their understanding so far. I went through the stack of cards, took suggestions for how we might illustrate each one, then asked who thought they could do it. Before long, they’d all been distributed, and the kids were hard at work.

    Because we were dealing with social studies vocabulary, many of the words were concrete and fairly easy to illustrate. It was so interesting to me to see how they illustrated the more abstract words, like plentiful and cultivate. As I watched them work, I knew this wasn’t going to be the last time we did this.

    Fast forward about a week, and we were reviewing parts of speech in a grammar lesson. The students could easily list the parts of speech, and they knew what most of them were, but pronoun and proper noun were often confused, as were adverb and adjective. This wasn’t an introductory lesson, and they clearly had schema, but they were definitely rusty. Could they illustrate words like conjunction, though? How do you draw a pronoun? I was nervous, but I knew it was worth a shot. They worked in teams since there were fewer words to illustrate, and they did a fabulous job. We were all excited to add them to the word wall.

    I’m so pleased with how they’ve been able to capture word meanings visually, and I know we’ll get better and better at this as the year goes on. I have only one regret so far: I forgot to use Word Workshop! When I decided to share this idea with you, I smacked myself in the forehead for not starting with an easier (and cuter!) word card. I blame the fact that this started accidentally, but after printing up a few for the kids to do, we will definitely be upgrading as the year goes on. It’s just too easy to print cards in any size, and they look so great even before the kids work their magic! Check out Word Workshop here for all of your word wall needs!

    Do you teach upper elementary or middle school? Do you have a word wall? I’d love to hear how you’re making it work in your classroom!

    What does a conjunction look like? What about a verb or a preposition? Can you draw a picture of a delta or an inundation? This year, I’m rethinking my word wall and pushing my students to do just that.

    Most of what I know about classroom word walls comes from working and studying in primary classrooms. They can be a powerful tool for reading, writing, and spelling, but I’ve struggled to find the best use of my word wall now that I’m teaching fifth grade. Sight words are still important, but less urgent for students who read widely and successfully. And, although I saw some power in using it for words that highlight spelling patterns, students just haven’t used my word wall as often as I would like.

    Running right alongside my word wall struggle has been my quest to improve my vocabulary instruction. I have tried various methods, including content-area word banks and color-coded word cards, but there has been little stickiness. I’m currently tackling both of these issues together, and it began by happy accident.

    Right now, my classes are knee-deep in an exploration of Ancient Egypt for our social studies curriculum. We have created a mural of the ancient society around the Nile River and investigated the geography, towns, and occupations that held Ancient Egypt together. As we have read and researched, our list of vocabulary has grown and grown.

    I was staring at my blank word wall a few weeks ago and decided that one of its functions would be a vocabulary bank for social studies words. This was different than what I’d always done, as I preserved the word wall for sight words and used separate spaces for content area words. I still think that’s a good practice, but a lack of wall space and some cognitive dissonance about word walls in fifth grade made me brave. I was ready to try something new.

    The next day, I called my students to the carpet and asked them to bring the word banks they’d been creating in their notebooks. We compared lists, and we settled on about 20 words that we agreed must be understood in order to move forward in our study. I wrote them on blank index cards, discussed the meaning of each one, and told the kids I would add them to the word wall so that they could remember them.

    Two of the words kept confusing the class, even as we were discussing them. Kemet, which is the fertile land near the Nile River banks, and deshret, which is the dry desert land farther from the banks. Both of these words were failing to stick, and the students repeatedly asked me to remind them which was which. To help with this, I thought we should add a little illustration to the cards so that we’d know which was dry land and which was fertile. A light bulb came on, and like so many light-bulb moments, it immediately changed my plans for the period.

    I decided that illustrations could help us understand all of the words, not just the most confusing ones. Everything I know about memorization and learning tells me that visual cues are important. As a bonus, asking the kids to do the illustrations proved to be a great formative assessment of their understanding so far. I went through the stack of cards, took suggestions for how we might illustrate each one, then asked who thought they could do it. Before long, they’d all been distributed, and the kids were hard at work.

    Because we were dealing with social studies vocabulary, many of the words were concrete and fairly easy to illustrate. It was so interesting to me to see how they illustrated the more abstract words, like plentiful and cultivate. As I watched them work, I knew this wasn’t going to be the last time we did this.

    Fast forward about a week, and we were reviewing parts of speech in a grammar lesson. The students could easily list the parts of speech, and they knew what most of them were, but pronoun and proper noun were often confused, as were adverb and adjective. This wasn’t an introductory lesson, and they clearly had schema, but they were definitely rusty. Could they illustrate words like conjunction, though? How do you draw a pronoun? I was nervous, but I knew it was worth a shot. They worked in teams since there were fewer words to illustrate, and they did a fabulous job. We were all excited to add them to the word wall.

    I’m so pleased with how they’ve been able to capture word meanings visually, and I know we’ll get better and better at this as the year goes on. I have only one regret so far: I forgot to use Word Workshop! When I decided to share this idea with you, I smacked myself in the forehead for not starting with an easier (and cuter!) word card. I blame the fact that this started accidentally, but after printing up a few for the kids to do, we will definitely be upgrading as the year goes on. It’s just too easy to print cards in any size, and they look so great even before the kids work their magic! Check out Word Workshop here for all of your word wall needs!

    Do you teach upper elementary or middle school? Do you have a word wall? I’d love to hear how you’re making it work in your classroom!

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