Sunday, April 13, 2014

Word Curious

We finished our vocabulary-teaching project about five months ago and I've been thinking about how my practice has changed since then.  Because we wanted to compare effects between classes that received extra vocabulary attention and those that didn't, we followed much more rigid lesson plans than I'm used to.  All of the teachers involved taught from the same history/civics texts, but the teachers of the experimental groups all focused on specifically agreed-upon words that were to be approached in the same way.  We decided ahead of time if a word was to be examined via its morphology, context, explicit definition, etc. and we agreed to use the same activities for reinforcing, recycling, etc.

So, now that I'm free   f r e e   F R E E from those constraints, do I bring any of what I learned into my lessons?  Yes, my whole way of teaching is hugely vocabulary-centric now.  Or, I should say lexis-centric!  For one thing, I place a lot of emphasis on word curiosity now.

As my higher level class gathers at the beginning of our lesson, we talk in a very informal and relaxed way about "found language".  Learners share new words or phrases that they have encountered outside of class and everyone discusses them and asks questions about how they're used. This picture is from last Thursday's lesson and, as you can see, the list is long. It includes phrases and it has a nice mix of spoken and written language. The last item is actually one that I used in class.  A learner stopped me to ask about it!

It has taken some time to cultivate this kind of language curiosity.  At first, I explained why noticing language outside the classroom was important and asked learners to look for new language as homework.  Only one or two learners took me up on it.  Personally, I wanted "noticing" to be fun and not a chore so I stopped with the homework.  Instead, I started bringing in examples myself and sharing them enthusiastically at the beginning of a lesson. Slowly, others have joined in.  This now can take as much as a half hour of our three-hour lesson, but I think it's worth it.  It not only gets learners noticing language outside of the classroom, but they're paying more attention during our lesson as well.  (Remember the learner who stopped me to ask about my word choice?)

Some of the examples I bring to class are things that I've said myself, often idioms or slang. Once I brought in the phrase "it'll do".  Later, I remembered this rhyme from World War II (my grandmother used to say it):

Use it up, wear it out.
Make it do or do without.

Since we had also recently discussed the difference between "use it" and "use it up", this was a great language example!

Other examples come from the newspaper.  They might involve new uses of language we've been working with, but in a different context.  For example, learners noticed the phrase "of [nationality] descent" some time ago.  In a video about childhood obesity, I pointed out "of minority descent".

As far as my own learning is concerned, there's still a lot of room for growth in this area.  For one thing, what do I do with all of this found language going forward?  That's a nice segue to ... corpora, which I'll write about in my next post.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Vocabulary Again

Whew,  I think things are beginning to settle down around here and I can get back to blogging!  I don't think I can ever catch up on all of the thoughts, ideas, and reflections that have been swirling around without an outlet over the last few weeks.  Oh, well, that's the way it goes ...

I have been promising for, like, forever to report on the conclusions of the vocabulary project I was involved with not too long ago.  About a year ago, two fellow teachers and I collaborated with a researcher at the University of Minnesota, Duluth to try an intervention in our classes.  Many studies have shown positive effects from special attention to vocabulary teaching to K-12 ELLs.  While it's logical to assume that the same would hold true for adults, we thought it would be nice to confirm that notion.  So, we developed a 12-week vocabulary-focused curriculum, did a pilot run, and then followed with another pass while two other teachers used the same civics and history materials in their classes but taught vocabulary however they would have taught it.  We don't have the final version of our report yet, but I can say that statistically significant benefits were demonstrated. (Surprise!)  As soon as I get a copy of the final report, I will post.

We submitted proposals to present our report at both TESOL and AERA and were accepted at both!  Funny story: due to a snafu that we don't quite understand yet, not one of us got word that we were accepted to present at TESOL. We learned about it on the day before we were scheduled to talk when a friend called to comment on seeing our names in the catalog!!  Of course, we were not prepared to leap onto a plane and fly across the continent overnight so we had to cancel.  That was very disappointing because I would love to have gone to TESOL, especially on someone else's dime!  But we did get ample notice of our acceptance at AERA, which was held right here at Philly's Convention Center.  I hesitate to even call our event a presentation ... we shared our preliminary results at a round table session last Friday afternoon.

At our roundtable!
Since the university covered my registration, I attended as many other sessions as I could. AERA is a bunch of education researchers, so a lot of what went on was well over my head.  But I especially enjoyed two sessions.  One was research related to teachers as leaders.  The other was research on how noncognitive factors might affect student success.  Both very promising!

After being reminded of the details of our project, I've come to realize how much I've changed my own teaching since then.  More on that to come ...