Thursday, March 9, 2017

Vocabulary Rant

WARNING! If you are my daughter, please stop reading this now!  Otherwise, please continue.

It was so simple when my kid was in elementary school.  She used to get wordlists and draw pictures. She loves to draw.  It would really help her remember. I loved her pictures. Now she's 13 and she routinely gets vocabulary in her science class.  I understand that there is a ton of academic vocabulary in a content class, part of my day job is working with biology teachers.  All year my kid has been doing faithfully doing the sentences and writing definitions as part of the routine homework for each unit in this high school science class.  It's homework. I am glad that her teacher chooses not to use class time to do this.  It should be an easy A. It's predominantly copying.  She needs the terminology so she can navigate the text. I get it.  But it shouldn't take three hours to write ten sentences.  It shouldn't.  That led to our Tuesday night heated-discussion.

At 5:45 pm, I told her to go ahead and do the sentences. I went and worked out.  I checked in again at 6:45 and then weren't done. We had dinner and again she proceeded to "work" on her sentences. By 9 pm with this routine of check-in and out, she still hadn't completed her sentences.  She griped, "Mom, when in the world am I going to use the word embryonic in a sentence and when am I going to use isotopes in a sentence." Yes, I know you are thinking about that.  Both of these terms really lent themselves to images in my head. I shared some sentence possibilities. Her dad came out with jokes, "I'd rather have isotopes than mice-o-topes."  I thought that might be a clever approach.  Being 13 she didn't entertain either idea and just dug in and wrote sentences embedding the definitions as context clues in the sentences. I didn't really tell her what I really thought.

I know professionally that this is the least effective way to learn vocabulary. I certainly don't share this with my newly minted teen since I have plenty of other battles to fight and don't need to give her any ammunition.  In my first year of teacher twenty-four years ago, I too employed this list, define, sentence practice.  I unfortunately wasted class time doing this, once a week, every Thursday like clockwork. With a classroom full of ELL students, they certainly needed more words in their head.  Later in my practice I realized that I was asking kids to define a word they didn't know with a bunch of words they didn't know. Fortunately, we spent a lot of class time reading independently.  That was my antidote to the list.

If you are reading this and you are my age, you probably did the same thing.  We had word lists growing up. I remember having low grades in sixth grade because I refused to do the very thing my kid has to do now with her word list.  I also remember having to do this vocabulary workbook in middle school where we had to fill in the word to the definition, do synonyms/antonyms and sentences aka a fill-in-the-blank workbook.. I know you are shaking your head, yes, I had to do this too.  What really shaped my word knowledge was my reading life.  Just as I know it shapes my kid's and every other kid's word knowledge.

So I bite my tongue.  It's tough being a teacher's kid and I judiciously choose what battles to fight. My kid loves her science teacher. My kid works harder for teachers she loves and embraces those subjects more passionately. Her teacher has animals, a rat and a snake. My kid has always wanted to have a teacher with class pets.  Her teacher challenged her students to solve real problems with their science fair project.  My kid did just that.  All practices I value.  In the long run, I know it won't harm my child to copy definitions and write sentences, especially for homework.  When she finally sat down, it actually took ten minutes for the ten words.  Ultimately she is learning vocabulary in one of the most important ways, reading-widely, deeply, and daily.



  1. I think my youngest daughter would echo your belief that it is tough being a TK. I am always correcting her spelling, grammar, etc.

  2. Wouldn't it be wonderful if all learning could be made of those incredible, hilltop learning experiences? Unfortunately, every subject has the dreaded jargon--keep it up! She'll make it! :)


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