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