Vocabulary List Ruminations

I just finished putting together and posting almost all of my US History unit vocabulary lists here in the early summer. For some years now, I have started my annual planning by putting together these lists. The lists allow me to focus each unit’s planning, to make sure I put the right concepts in the right units, and to set up a bunch of routine assignments before the year starts.

I’ve been teaching for 22 or so years by now, so I already have a clear sense of what units I want to teach in which order. I also have a fairly massive set of workable primary and secondary source readings I can line up. The unit vocab lists are the third layer of structural planning. They serve as concept maps. What concepts do I want to teach in each unit?

Occasionally in the past I would find myself teaching a concept in a later unit that I should have hit earlier. Alternately, I taught something twice because it was crucial in a later unit, but I had taught it earlier as well. The better students got that frustrated “why are we doing this again?” look that scratches on the classroom vibe like a needle across old vinyl grooves. So having the lists set up ahead of time is the detail level of concept presentation organization.

The final reason for setting up the words before the school year even starts is so that I can set up my vocab practice tests in the summer when I’m not under the gun. I use Schoology, our current web-based academic web-tools suite, to set up practice vocabulary tests. I put all the definitions into a quiz and let the students match to the words. They can practice this vocab test as many times as they want before the test. I try to get the students to take the practice tests at the beginning of the unit with a small “organizational skills” categorized assignment that is optional. Basically, I hope they’ll be at least familiar with the words before I use them. Having them able to study again and again just makes my life and theirs easier. For students who don’t bother to study, it makes that really obvious for parents and administrators.

Since we do really heavy mainstreaming of students with individual education plans (very low-level Special Education students in common language), I have also had to consider how to map out which concepts I am teaching to which students in the class. Since I am teaching effectively two classes in the same period, I have to have a fairly rigorous conceptual load for the “regular” students and a lighter load for students with IEPs. So in my lists, I set it up such that about a third of the words are not required for the students with IEPs. I note this in blue. Because I have the words separated out, I can much more easily set up two different sets of Schoology vocab quizzes.

If you look at any of the vocabulary lists, you’ll see that the definitions are not always entirely standard. Partially, I have put the definitions into words that I can then put into a quiz verbatim without telegraphing the answer. But more importantly, I want the students to understand the word exactly as I will be using it in the unit’s context. I used to have them make their own vocab lists by defining the word using the dictionary. This was both labor-intensive and also occasionally counterproductive because some words had so many definitions that the students would know one version of the word, but not the definition as made sense for the unit at hand.

Putting these words on the web gives the parents some idea what each unit is about. As a teacher, one always runs the risk of that combative ideological parent, but I find that radical openness is a lot safer than any other approach. Parents can also quiz their own students on the vocab if they like. I find that parents and guardians like to have some way they can plug-in and help support their students.

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Posted in teaching practice

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