Optimizing Student Vocabulary Acquisition – Create an Interactive Word Wall

When you’re sitting in front of your student and thumbing through strategies to help improve their vocabulary acquisition, most tutors will immediately launch into teaching memorization skills:  root words (prefixes and suffices), spelling, and plain, “you just need to know this.”

However, what students are not retaining is a deeper understanding of that word.

I currently tutor an 8th grader named Mary Kate, no, not one of the Olson twins, but a bright student currently studying to pass her ISEE exams.  After reviewing her practice test results, I found a common thread – she’s was above grade level but she wasn’t able to decode or decipher difficult vocabulary terms and that’s when I decided to use the Word Wall method while adding my added touches.

A Word Wall is an interactive tool organized around key vocabulary terms students will need to master.  There are many types of word walls:  high frequency words, word families, chunking similar words together, etc., but the end goal is that students to get engage and interact with their vocabulary words—so the experience of “memorizing the word” becomes personalized for them.

I added another element with Mary Kate.  Instead of using pictures next to a word, I chose the word “chagrin,” and made her do the following:

  1. Look up the definition and write it down next to the word.  (Definition)
  2. Draw a picture of what chagrin means (she drew a picture of a soccer match and the ball bouncing off the goal post)—I had her then explain what she drew to me.  (Cognitive Awareness)
  3. Then, draw a picture of something that connotes the opposite of chagrin.  (She drew the same soccer match, except the goal went inside.)—I had her explain to me what she drew (Teaching Antonyms)
  4. Next, I had her write out any misconceptions or difficulties with the word.  This is when I got to teach her how chagrin could be used in a sentence or in a reading passage.  (Guided Practice/Addressing Misconceptions)
  5. Finally, I asked her to write her own sentence using chagrin and reflected back with her, “what makes this sentence correct?”  (Independent Practice)

While the process is pretty scaffolded, it’s important to go over the steps until the student understands how to do it on their own.  After another round, she was able to do the entire process on her own, this time, she picked the word debunk.

I then asked for feedback, “How did you like creating your own Word Wall?”  Her response, “That was the most fun I ever had learning vocabulary words, I really like how you asked me to draw it out and explain it to you.”  We, high-fived then took it a step further as I asked to play charade with the words.  I could see Mary Kate quickly processing information while she thought of how she could physically act out a vocabulary word without speaking.  This was my opportunity to teach her test-taking strategies.   I gave her 45 seconds to act out each word and she responded afterward with, “putting me on the stop to quickly think like that was so cool.”

What Mary Kate didn’t realize was that I was implementing “quick thinking strategies,” just as she would have to access during her ISEE exam—where she needs to make an educated choice and move on.  Except I made it fun and interactive for her.  

Not only did Mary Kate learn difficult and challenging vocabulary words during our tutoring session, but she was able to internalize it and personalize it for herself.

She was able to master the vocabulary words and use them in context, but more importantly, she experienced the many shades of those words.  And that  “ah-ha” moment is priceless toward learning and retaining vocabulary.

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Have you or your kids struggled with this? If so, we'd love to hear about it and strategies you took to overcome it in the comments below!

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