Nice trick for teaching vocabulary & critical thinking

I’m excited about a neat trick for teaching vocabulary I stumbled upon last week that is breathing some new life into this month of test prepping.  We’ve been gearing up for the NY state middle school ELA exam, and I realized my students’ vocabulary gaps were hurting them on the multiple choice part.  Sometimes, for example, they comprehended the text–and know how to use context clues to guess meanings of words they don’t know–but didn’t know the meaning of a key word in one of the multiple choice answers. Those answers have no context, so they ended up choosing the wrong one.  I felt the need to do some explicit vocabulary work to try to improve their chances.

I went through the actual and sample tests from the last five years and selected 50 words that I encountered that my students might not know.  I passed out a list of the words with student-friendly definitions, and asked them to make flash cards for homework.  Each night they are supposed to study ten words.  At the end of the week there will be a test on the 50 words.

Here’s where the fun part comes in.  Knowing not every student will actually study the ten words each night, I created a tool to help them study during the first 5 minutes of class, during which I give them social time.  (See this article, Ask the Kids!, for more on this practice.)

Each night I’ve been spending about ten minutes finding photographs on the internet to match five of the ten words the students were supposed to study the night before and dragging them onto a Word document.  Then I make problems like this:

Commence or determined?  (with picture below)




There are five questions like this on the worksheet and students must reason through their selection. This problem above, for example, provoked some interesting debate.  Some thought the players of chess would be determined to win, while others felt certain that the answer was commence because the positions of the pieces indicated that the game was about to begin.  In the end, students decided “commence” won, because the picture has more evidence about the game itself than the players, which are not shown.

Students seem to be learning the words pretty quickly and happily this way, and also using critical thinking skills!

I know something is working right because students are working on these voluntarily.  Social time is really their time to talk, daydream, etc.  But I hand these out saying, “Optional–quiz yourself and see how well you studied last night!”  Kids actually work on them, consult their flashcards, and talk through their answers, and still manage to socialize.  When social time is over and the meeting/lesson commences (love how words new words make their way into all kinds of situations…) everyone wants to go over the answers.  That’s where we really hash out the answers.

Of course, chances are, none of these words will appear on the test at the end of this month, but I’m enjoying watching the learning happen anyway, and my students seem to be too.

[cartoon image credit:      chess board photo credit:]