Word Nerds Review + a Giveaway

9781571109798Ever encounter a professional text you wish had been published sooner because it could’ve enriched your instruction (and your former students)?   If you read this blog back in 2007-2008, you might remember my school had an emphasis on vocabulary that year. My colleagues and I spent countless hours identifying Tier Two words from our interactive read aloud books. I spent at least two hours every Sunday afternoon preparing my vocabulary lessons for the upcoming week, trying to create games that would teach and excite my students. (Click here or here to see what a week’s worth of vocabulary lesson planning looked like in my fourth grade classroom.)  It was a lot of work, but I watched my student’s oral and written vocabularies soar that year, which made all of the time I spent preparing vocabulary lessons worth it.

Had Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary by Brenda J. Overturf, Leslie H. Montgomery, and Margot Holmes Smith been published in 2007 (as opposed to 2013), I cannot even imagine how much easier weekly vocabulary lesson planning would’ve been since I would’ve had a lot more ideas for ways to effectively teach vocabulary!  Word Nerds is filled with fresh ideas for ways to teach vocabulary so the meanings of the words stick with kids.  It also provides lots of research, which will help anyone new to strategic vocabulary instruction understand why it is important to teach words through reading, conversation, and word play (as opposed to simply having kids look up the definitions of words in the dictionary).

Overturf, Montgomery, and Smith provide readers with the routine they use to teach vocabulary.  Their format is not prescribed nor scripted.  Rather, it’s an approach that is clear, attainable, and flexible for anyone who believes in the necessity of explicitly teaching vocabulary.  They provide a lot of guidance for meaningful assessments that go beyond “write the word in a sentence” pattern so many of us have fallen into over the years.  Furthermore, the authors tie vocabulary instruction to the Common Core throughout the book, which will help you justify spending extra time on vocabulary with your students since doing so will help them meet the standards.

Montgomery and Smith are teachers at one of the highest poverty schools in Kentucky.  (Overturf met Montgomery and Smith in 2006 when they were students in her class at the University of Louisville’s MAT Program.)  They have found innovative ways to make students curious about words so they want to build their vocabularies.  Yet, as teachers in a high poverty school, they understand that using juicy words doesn’t work in all situations.  They state:

Our kids become so excited about new words that they want to share their new knowledge with everyone.  We worry (and sadly, it has happened) that they may be ridiculed at home or in their neighborhood for “showing off” their expanding vocabulary.  This is why the classroom must be a safe place for students to practice their new learning.

We discuss where and when it is appropriate to use different types of talk and vocabulary.  We make distinctions between what we call “Backyard Barbecue Talk” — the kind of pragmatic and casual conversation that is perfectly acceptable at a family reunion or at home with your friends — and “Professional Talk” — the kind of words you use in a discussion in the elementary classroom, at college, or on the job. By teaching our students how to gauge when each type of talk is suitable, we give them the confidence to hold their own in professional settings and the poise to participate easily in Backyard Barbecue Talk with their family and friends. We strive for culturally responsive teaching that is sensitive and accepting of home dialect and culture, but with the understanding that students have to learn the dominant code in order to take advantage of opportunities in society (Delpit 1995; Hill 2000; Ladson-Billings 1995; Lovelace and Stewart 2009). (60-61)

As a former inner city school teacher, I felt like I was learning from wise colleagues down the hall from my classroom.  The passage above is just one of many examples in Word Nerds that made me realize the authors understand the challenges of teaching vocabulary in high poverty contexts, as well as the pay-offs.

  • Here’s an overview of how Montgomery and Smith teach vocabulary to their students after they choose words to teach (from page 32; reprinted with permission from the publisher):

Step 1: Introduce the terms using a pocket chart, word cards, a cloze sentence with a blank

where the word should go, and kid-friendly definitions on sentence strips. Ask students

to predict the words, try out the words, and begin vocabulary journals.

Step 2: Add synonyms (or examples) and antonyms (or non-examples). Finish vocabulary


Step 3: Practice using the words with whole-group and small-group activities. Practice applications

of synonyms and antonyms with whole-group and small-group activities.

This step can take several days of intentional experiences.

Step 4: Engage in a whole-group activity to celebrate vocabulary learning.

Step 5: Assess understanding using a teacher-created test that resembles a standardized test.

  • Here’s a sample vocabulary planner from Word Nerds (from page 33; reprinted with permission from the publisher).  This will give you an idea of some of the things the authors do to get ready to teach their students a word.  Besides defining words, the authors feel students need to know synonyms and antonyms.  In addition, the authors have students draw pictures of each word to assist with meaning-making.  (NOTE: A blank version of this planner comes in Appendix A of the book.)

Click on the image to enlarge.

  • This graphic organizer connects with the vocabulary planner above (from page 152; reprinted with permission from the publisher).  One of the authors’ colleagues, Ashlee Kemper, taught a lot of ELL students and adapted the authors’ strategic vocabulary instruction to meet her students’ needs (see pgs. 50-51 of Word Nerds).
    • The authors’ students typically fill out Frayer Model graphic organizers in their vocabulary notebooks.  Since I taught a sizable ELL population when I was in Rhode Island, I particularly liked the way the authors adapted the graphic organizer (below) for their ELL students.  The main difference between the ELL version and the one for students whose first language is English is the section for the students’ connection to the word.
Click on the image to enlarge.

Click on the image to enlarge.

  • This is a formative assessment chart for vocabulary instruction (from page 128; reprinted with permission from the publisher).  This chart illustrates a variety of formative assessment techniques the authors describe throughout the text.
Click on the image to enlarge.

Click on the image to enlarge.

  • Click here to view the study guide for Word Nerds.

If you’d like to give your students the gift of a richer vocabulary, then add Word Nerds to your summer professional reading stack.  It will put you on the path to creating an innovative and meaningful vocabulary curriculum for the upcoming school year.  And, it’s the kind of resource you’ll return to again and again as you seek to enhance your instruction in the years to come.

Giveaway Information:

    • Many thanks to Stenhouse Publishers sponsoring this giveaway.  One commenter will win a copy of Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary.
    • To enter for a chance to win a copy please leave a comment on this post related to vocabulary instruction.
    • All comments left on or before Thursday, June 27th, 2013 at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Time will be entered into a random drawing using a random number generator on Friday, June 28th.   I will announce the winners’ names at the bottom of this post by Sunday, June 30th.
    • Please be sure to leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment, so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win.  From there, my contact at Stenhouse will ship the book out to you.  (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you only leave it in the e-mail field.)

Comments are now closed. Thank you to everyone for such enthusiasm about this text!  Stephpbader’s commenter number came up with the random number generator so she’ll win a copy of Word Nerds.  Here’s what she wrote:

I enjoy teaching vocabulary to my students. I try to make it fun and use ways to make the words “stick” like vocab skits in which the students have to act out the meaning of the word without saying the word and the audience guesses or Splat! where I (or a team of students) draw simple sketches on the board depicting each word and two students go head to head to splat the picture that matches the word with a (clean) fly swatter.