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In the Classroom We Are All Learners: Reflecting on a Year of Becoming Word Conscious

As May rolls around we all begin to reflect on a school year of tremendous growth, both of our students and of ourselves. As teachers, we learn something new every day, particularly from our amazing students. Last June I took some time to reflect on my teaching, focusing on ways I could help my students make the most growth as possible during our time together. I began to realize I spent little to no time on vocabulary instruction. It wasn’t because I didn’t know how to teach it or didn’t have the time. It was because it was an uncomfortable realm for me to enter. I didn’t feel secure with my own word knowledge and I definitely didn’t feel confident teaching it to others. So, in an attempt to become more knowledgeable myself, I decided that starting September 1st, I would learn alongside my fifth-grade students. Together we would work toward creating a word-conscious environment for all.

Photo1Needless to say, it was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It has been more beneficial than I could ever have dreamed. Plus, it was so much easier to implement than I had originally expected. It has been amazing to hear the kids using our word wall words in their everyday conversations and in their book club meetings. Most importantly, I was shocked at how many kids incorporated the words into their writing. It fills my heart when I’m sitting on the couch after a long day, reading a student’s writer’s notebook, and there lies the word of the week. Many times a word of the week from several weeks ago! Even better.

Vocabulary instruction is a tricky world. How does one decide which words to teach? With over one million words in the English language, who has the power to decide which words kids need to know and which can wait for later? At first, this seems like a daunting task. As a fifth grade teacher, I have the power to choose. No pressure, right? Thanks to the help of one of my truly cherished mentors, Beth Moore, I decided to choose one area of vocabulary and stick with it all year. Due to my passion for reading aloud, I chose to focus on character trait words. I predicted these would be the easiest to incorporate into my literacy curriculum and into everyday conversations.

As you know, there are thousands of character trait words. How does one narrow down even further to pick 20-40 to fit into one school year? During my summer planning, I came across a fantastic article from a 2007 edition of The Reading Teacher. This article was written by Patrick Manyak, titled, “Character Trait Vocabulary: A School Wide Approach.” Through much research, Manyak has determined which 20 words students should learn in each grade.  If it worked for Manyak and his colleagues, maybe it would work for me too. I decided to own it for the whole school year. One word a week from September to June. So, I started with Manyak’s fifth-grade word list. After 20 weeks my kids were loving how conscious they were of the words around them. Not only had they mastered Manyak’s whole list, but they learned many related synonyms as well. Of course, we all decided to continue this work onto the sixth-grade list. I found that my investment and passion for these words helped the kids to be more engaged than ever. If you are interested in the specific activities we completed each week, feel free to visit the Word Study section of my Google Site. These were all activities adopted from others in hopes to create a word conscious environment in our classroom. I have also created a printable resource, which includes the character trait words to teach for each grade level as referred to by Manyak.

While wrapping up this school year it’s important to ask yourself, “What is one thing that I could teach next year and learn right alongside my students?” We need to move away from the idea that teachers are always the “expert.” As educators, we need to show kids that learning doesn’t stop after school hours or after college. We can always be educating ourselves no matter what we are doing. I absolutely love to learn. I’ve found it very important to show my students that I am passionate about learning new words and building my vocabulary skills even as an adult.

In closing, it’s always important to remember that in the crazy, fast-paced world we live in, we must teach content we are passionate about. More times than not we are given standards we are expected to meet. Although these should always be our first priority, make sure to create time to spend teaching, and learning about new, exciting, and creative topics that both you and your students truly care about. There is always time for those topics we love. What is one area that you would like to grow in as an educator? How can you start to implement new practices into your classroom without it feeling overwhelming? It does take some serious planning, but remember, take one step at a time!

Work Cited: Manyak, P. (2007). Character trait vocabulary: A schoolwide approach. Reading Teacher, 60(6), 574-577.

Elizabeth Siracusa is a fourth and fifth-grade literacy teacher at a public school in Essex Junction, Vermont. Her passion is reading aloud fantastic books and teaching her students that reading has so much to offer. Follow her on Twitter @MissSiracusa. She also keeps her students and families up to date about their classroom learning at https://sites.google.com/a/ccsuvt.org/siracusagrade4.

23 thoughts on “In the Classroom We Are All Learners: Reflecting on a Year of Becoming Word Conscious Leave a comment

  1. Infusing meaningful vocabulary instruction was one of my greatest goals as a fourth-grade teacher. I wish I had thought of doing character trait words, like you suggested, as part of my teaching since I think it could’ve helped my students, especially the English Language Learners, with their writing. Alas, I went with a variety of Tier II words. It worked to improve my students’ vocabularies, but I think my instruction could’ve been even higher quality had I introduced the trait words like you did this year.

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  2. Great article, I can only hope that my children will have teachers like you that are passionate about wanting their students to learn and grow more. It is vital that the teachers care about the content of the work being taught, so that the children are enthusiastic to learn it!

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  3. Liz your passion for learning shows through this approach to learning alongside your students, which makes it all the more motivating for them. Great article!

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  4. Liz, this is fantastic! I love how you used vocabulary words that were related to character traits so it was relevant for students and manageable for you. Your class website looks great, I’m looking forward to exploring it more. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and research!

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  5. Fantastic article! What a great way to connect with the kids. Teachers that talk down to children are ineffective. I wish I had you when I was in school!

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  6. It is so important to learn with your students and to teach them that learning never stops. Thank you for reminding us all (teachers, parents and all adults) that adults are not always the expert and to continue learning along side our children and

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  7. I enjoyed reading your post and your website. It is really informational, resourceful, and useful. Although I thought I would like to start ongoing teaching of vocabulary next year, it was hard to decide what vocabulary?? It is a fantastic idea that you decided to teach vocabulary on a specific theme, character traits! I would like to “steal” some of your ideas for my classroom. This can be used for any levels including English Learners with some tweaks. Thank you for sharing your wonderful ideas!

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  8. This is great! It’s so important for our profession that as teachers we continue to grow alongside the learners in our classroom. I love your reminder to be thoughtful and reflective as another school year wraps up. Vocabulary, especially, is so often put on the back-burner it seems, I think for many of the reasons you mentioned. Thank you for sharing your resources, ideas, and courage to take on something new that was outside of your typical repertoire and comfort zone- how fun for your students! Your resources will be easy and fun to use!

    Also, I love your use of the word wall for upper-elementary students; a reference for them to use to incorporate the weekly (and previous) words into their independent reading and writing- what a great scaffold!

    Your students are lucky!!!

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  9. This is great! It’s so important for our profession that we grow as learners alongside our students. Vocabulary, too, is so often put on the back-burner it seems, I think it’s important to make time for it, and you did such a great job making it fun for your students!

    Also, I love that in the upper-elementary your word wall is vocabulary words for kids to reference when they are reading or writing independently. What a great idea!!!!! Thanks for sharing your work and resources!

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  10. Great, informative article. It would be interesting to ask parents if they’ve heard the weekly words at home from their children. Great reminder that learning does not stop after we leave the classroom!

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  11. It’s refreshing to hear that some teachers reflect on their curriculum each year. I have heard of so many teachers having the same course work year after year and never striving to improve for their students. Trying to teach something that you don’t feel comfortable in is scary and intimidating, but I like your approach of learning with your students! Human beings are never the experts in absolutely everything–there is always room to grow! Great job at taking yourself out of your comfort zone at the benefit of your students!

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  12. I love the idea of inviting teachers to learn right along with their students. It’s so important for teachers to be part of the classroom community, working right alongside their students. Wonderful activities that really worked to deepen understanding and extend to learning more words. Thanks for sharing your resources!

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  13. I love your post. Vocabulary instruction is something I want to focus on next year with my third and fourth grade readers. I love that words you introduced showed up in student writing. Thanks for the links!

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  14. Elizabeth, this is a brilliant idea! I’ve been trying to figure out how to weave in more vocabulary instruction. Focusing on character traits is such a fantastic idea. Thanks for all the resources you shared!

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    • Great article, Liz, with concrete examples and wonderful resources. Would make me definitely incorporate this into my teaching if I weren’t retired. However, that being said, I will definitely chose some words to work on each week with my grandchildren. Learning keeps on going after leaving the classroom!! Thank you for a terrific and informative post.

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  15. My favorite part of this passage is the sense of unknowing and being aware of what makes you uncomfortable and how the children perceive that through their work with you. I think it’s important that you faced the word study knowing it was not your best subject; showing the children a true side to teachers and reducing the expert stigma is an excellent way to connect with them and grow together. I look forward to what you incorporate next year!

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