Saturday, August 9, 2014

Getting Students to Teach Themselves Vocabulary

My first instinct was to title this post "Teaching Students Vocabulary" but then I thought better of it, because one of my main goals in teaching was to help students become independent learners.  I wanted them to learn strategies that would help them in studying, and be empowered to continue studying Spanish effectively even if they stopped taking my class.  Now, I'm not saying I achieved this goal, but it's what I wanted to achieve.  The most important tool that I relied on to reach this objective was vocabulary choice assignments, or as they were known in my classroom, "Opciones de vocabulario."

Let me be clear.  This blog entry is not on how I taught vocabulary in the classroom, and the vocabulary choice assignments were not the only type of vocabulary homework that I gave my students.  This is a strategy that I used for encouraging students to practice with vocabulary in a wide variety of ways as they studied at home.  I will use it again when I return to teaching, because I think that it is effective and fun.  So, here's more about the vocabulary choice assignments!

The choices went through several iterations in their design, inspired originally by this choice board.  I found that grid to be good at first but wanted more creative options later in the semester and for the upper level Spanish classes.

I came up with THE LIST after plenty of trial and error and student input:

Opciones de vocabulario (Vocabulary choices):
  1. Write the Spanish vocabulary words correctly five times each.
  2. Make a folded list to practice the vocabulary concepts. 
  3. Write sentences in Spanish that use the vocabulary word.
  4. Create a word picture and link it to the definition of the vocabulary words to help you remember them. 
  5. Teach a friend or relative the Spanish words and their meanings.  Have them write a note describing what you taught them and sign it. 
  6. Write the Spanish words artistically with their English definitions.
  7. Write the definition (not translation) or explain the usage of each vocabulary word.
  8. Design a series of bumper stickers or a list of inspirational or witty sayings that use the vocabulary words.
  9. Make a list using any resource available at home to find other words in Spanish that have the same prefix, suffix, or root word as the vocabulary words.
  10. Write the vocabulary words along with at least two or three other related words for each. (Example:  your word is “bebida” (drink), you could write “beber,” “agua” and “los refrescos” for your related words.)
  11. Design a graphic organizer to represent the vocabulary concepts.
  12. Draw and color pictures that represent the meaning of the vocabulary words, or cut pictures from newspapers, old magazines or computer printouts.
  13. Design a puzzle using the vocabulary words, such as a crossword or word search. OR, make a photocopy of a puzzle that another student in your class made (for the current chapter vocabulary) and solve their puzzle.
  14. Draw or attach a picture of an item or situation and describe the picture using the vocabulary words.
  15. Write a short story using the vocabulary words.
  16. Write a poem using the vocabulary words.
  17. Write a letter to a friend using the vocabulary words. 
  18. Write a dialogue between two people using the vocabulary words.
  19. Invent an event or item for sale, related to the vocabulary theme.  Create a draft of the pamphlet or poster advertising it.
  20. Look up information about a Spanish-speaking country and write about it in Spanish, using the vocabulary words.  (Example:  If your topic is food, describe the common foods in that country.  If your topic is celebrations, write about holidays that they celebrate.)
  21. Bring in an article from a Spanish-speaking newspaper and write a summary in Spanish of the article using vocabulary words and new words you learn.
  22. Create a comic strip and caption it with dialogue that uses the vocabulary words.
  23. Watch a Spanish TV show and write a short report of words that you identified in the show. Write a summary of what you saw, using  vocabulary words and new words you learn.
  24. Read a book or story and write a summary of it in Spanish, using vocabulary words and new words you learn.
  25. INVENT YOUR OWN!

These are the instructions that I gave students:


  1. You may choose any option or combination of options.
  2. For each vocabulary choice assignment, use at least 20 words from the unit.
  3. Within one unit, you may not do more than one vocabulary choice assignment.
  4. When we start a new unit, you may choose options that you've already done.


We settled into a routine. I instructed the students that they were to use the vocabulary choice options to practice with at least 20 vocabulary words per class.  Some students complained that this was too much work, but I emphasized that learning a language required regular study at home.  Since we were on a block schedule and only met every other school day, this seemed like a good amount to me.  Once students had practice doing each of the vocabulary choice options, I had them do some mix-and-matching.  For example, if I assigned a "5x4" they were to choose four different vocabulary choice options to practice with five words each.  For example:


Please forgive my lack of creativity for the poem, and for the advertisement. (Come on, a delicious soft drink that does not contain sugar... I wonder what chemicals it has in it to make it sweet, probably poison...)  The point is, the students don't have to be super creative all the time when completing these assignments, but the door is open.  I love that this can be used for students who are at different levels with the material.  Some may need to just work on memorizing the vocab.  Some may know it well but need to practice using it in context.  And since students got to choose what they wanted  do with the vocabulary, quite a few got very creative with it!  It was fun to look through the students' work.

There were many things I loved about the vocab choice assignments.  Many students told me that because of the vocab choice assignments they were able to remember more vocabulary than they thought they could.  However, there were as I see it two main problems with how I implemented the assignments.  The first problem is that it became a routine.  Many students (despite being instructed otherwise) kept doing the same vocabulary choice option over and over again, the one that was the easiest for them, and got bored.  The second is that I don't think I spent enough time providing examples of vocabulary choice options that were well done, so some students got confused.  Because they didn't know how to do some of the different options, they didn't try. 

Here are some options that needed clarification:
  • Option #5, the teach-someone-else option, needed a little bit of extra oomph in it to cut down on the cheating.  Several times I saw students scribbling notes at the beginning of class and turning it in.  For example, Jill passed in a paper that said "Jill taught me the chapter vocabulary - signed - Marco" and expected that both she and Marco would get credit for it.  Given this, I made two rules for this option:  the first is that you had to teach someone the vocab that was not in your same level of Spanish class.  The second was that the note had to include what was taught and how it was taught.  Students still took advantage of this option, but given how valuable it was for those who took it seriously I didn't want to take this option away.
  • One of the options was a technique that needed to be taught, #2.  I wrote about this technique in an earlier blog entry, so you can find it here:  Folded Lists
  • Some of the assignments were more difficult because they didn't inherently practice with chapter vocab, such as #21 (newspaper article summary), #23 (TV show summary), and #24 (book summary).  This was a time when I encouraged students to see if they could make connections between our current unit and popular culture.  I didn't give students enough examples of how this could be done, and this is something I would do differently when I return to teaching.


The reason why I implemented vocabulary choice assignments is because in my own classroom, I determined that one of the areas students needed to improve in the most in order to gain a higher level of spoken fluency was vocabulary recall and production.  It also was an easy thing to have the students get involved in.  In fact, more than half of the items on the list were suggested by students.  They could easily create their own list of activities at the beginning of the year and add to it as they go.  

This assignment definitely helped, but it didn't help every student.  During my most recent year of teaching I started another procedure to help hold students accountable for regular study of vocabulary.  Every day, we'd have a short vocabulary quiz.  They'd have ten words that they'd have to translate (into English in the early days of a vocabulary lesson, and into Spanish soon after that).  If students earned a 9 or a 10 on this quiz, they were exempt from the vocabulary choice assignment for the next day, although they could still do it for credit if they needed the points towards their homework grade.  Although I didn't like taking the time out of practicing communicative skills, it was worth it in my Spanish 1 and 2 classes to do these short quizzes because students took studying their vocabulary seriously!

There are still a couple of issues I want to spend time thinking about when I return to teaching:

  • Grading and feedback - most of the time that I would grade this by completion, but occasionally I would use a rubric.  It was such a regular assignment that grading it by a rubric got to be difficult.  I also didn't give nearly enough written comments on the assignments.  That wasn't fair, since the students spent a lot of work on them.  I would want to consider how I could improve giving efficiently and consistent feedback on these.
  • Getting parents involved - I'd want to make sure parents know about this assignment so they could help students who were confused, because many parents asked me about it.  Write about it in a letter home at the beginning of the year?  Write about it on the class blog?  Something like that, I'll have to think about it.


To conclude, here are some thoughts on how I would continue to implement these assignments upon returning to teaching.
  1. Give many clear examples of vocabulary choice options when introducing this assignment; keep a binder with examples of each one easily accessible to students.
  2. Regularly encourage students to be creative with their vocabulary choice assignments and give written and spoken praise more often for assignments that are well done.
  3. Consider combining them with short vocabulary quizzes that could exempt them from the assignment if they performed well; make this regular routine go as efficiently as possible so as to not take time away from more important activities.
What vocabulary study routines do you have in your classroom?  Is this a strategy that you think might work for your classroom?  Let me know if you try it!

Thank you very much for reading my blog.  I really appreciate you stopping by!