Why Is It So Hard to Pick Those Five Words??

There is so much content to teach but so little time. As we did the “George Washington, Spymaster” activity in class, I had difficulty picking only five words that I THOUGHT should be taught to a fourth-grade class. As Professor Hunt said, some teachers are lucky enough to be placed in a school where they are given the vocabulary that they need to teach. But others, not so much. We were given three paragraphs to pick those five words from. Just think about when we get a whole unit to sort through! Did you also struggle with the activity? How did you decide what words you thought were the most crucial for learning? 

The whole activity got me thinking about the different ways that we as teachers can get those essential vocabulary words remembered by our students. Growing up, I remember learning vocabulary every week by taking a worksheet home full of that week’s vocabulary and a dictionary. I would have to write down each word in my notebook and then find the definition in the dictionary. I would do that every week, which was not beneficial to me! How did you learn vocabulary in elementary school? Is it something you would bring to your classroom, or have you learned a new helpful way to teach vocabulary? 

I found this website done by two social studies teachers, and it has some great ways to teach social studies vocab to your students! Very interesting to read and poke around in. Mr and Mrs Social Studies – Social Studies Vocabulary Activities

7 thoughts on “Why Is It So Hard to Pick Those Five Words??

  1. I can tell you 100% honestly, I did struggle with this activity. The hardest part is being able to get into the mindset of an elementary student since that was a while ago for all of us. I think using the three tiers of words is a useful instrument as we learn to become educators because it helps us distinguish what students already know coming to class, what we need to mention and review by briefly defining words so students’ memories are refreshed and are prepared to be directed to the class content, and, finally, words that we need to explicitly introduce as vocabulary words. In class, we talked about how we did the same activity but about bats last semester. This time it was a little easier, so I am sure finding those three to five words will get easier.

    In deciding words which words I should choose as my three to five vocabulary words, I started by highlighting the words that were longer and what I considered that students younger than in their second or third grade year would recognize. This process is a little more of an instinctive process, so I am not looking yet for the my final words. I am simply choosing what I imagine to be the “more complex” words (more subject-specific as we learned). Once I have collected those (it is okay if you get more than five), I go by process of elimination and do a little mental comparison of why one should be defined more than the other. It has worked for me, though I’m sure other people have different opinions.

    You bring up a good point about how there is so much to teach and less-than-ideal time to teach it all, and this is something that I hope I will be able to manage without spending too much time worrying about it as I grow into the educator I aspire to be. When I was growing up, I also was given vocabulary lists, usually ten to fifteen terms per week and we had “define it and use it in a sentence” quizzes weekly. In middle school, the lists were increase to 20-30 words per week and the quizzes asked students to pick 10 of 15 or, on tests, 20 of 25 words to define, name the part of speech, and use in a sentence. Although I was good at learning this way, I know others struggled. One reason I believe this may be is because they weren’t brought up in the context of anything specifically and sometimes, many did not really have a connection. To teach vocabulary, I think I would choose a book or short reading that includes a good amount of vocabulary words and have students learn them by using them in not just sentences, but in a story of their own, drawing connections between the words instead of just understanding the meaning and using them in a single sentence without actual application.

  2. Madison, thanks for this thoughtful reflection and prompt. Vocabulary selection is hard. Even now I struggle with which words are the “right” words. It is easier when you have a real class and students you know. Oftentimes, the list of words you need to teach changes from year too year because of your class composition. I appreciate you sharing the link to the blog with ideas for instruction.

    Luis, you bring up a good point about the way vocabulary is often taught. We ask students to put words in a sentence before they really understand the meaning. It’s really a waste of time. There are so many strategies that are more impactful that will help students actually learn the words in a way that leads too meaning.

  3. What a great post on the difficulties of selecting vocabulary!

    Throughout middle and high school I remember worksheets, spelling tests, and pop quizzes. I also remember scores of textbooks with bold key terms and pithy little definitions alongside of them. I have to admit, none of these methods ever really worked for me. I am notoriously bad at pop quizzes, and I’m terrible at rote memorization. If I haven’t really wrapped my head around a word, seen it used, played with it, thought about it, the definition will be in my head one minute and right out of it the next. Maybe I’m just stubborn, but information only really sticks for me if I’ve really thought through the thing, and if I myself have determined it’s important.

    The only way I was ever really taught to actually identify, define and remember important words was to be taught a blend of efferent reading and literary analysis. These are skills I picked up in college from English professors who preached the gospel of close reading — a practice that entails annotation, lots of underlining, keeping character lists, and looking up every single word in a paragraph you don’t know. You should see my old copy of Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. (The character lists are epic; the underlining is straight up out-of-control.) By learning *how* to read, I picked up not just content (what a word means) but internalized a process — a way of thinking about words, a way of reading and responding to a text.

    Granted, this might be a tall order for some younger students; they need the guidance, they need to see it modeled, but I do think you could teach these kinds of skills as early as 3rd or 4th grade. We’re not always going to be standing over a student’s shoulder, telling them which word is important, and if they’re working with primary source documents, those handy bolded definitions certainly won’t be there.

    And sure, I think English professors can go overboard with the whole “every word mean something” thing (we’re not necessarily going to be teaching H.D. or Pound or Hemingway in the social studies classroom), but being taught how to close read lead me to identify my own vocabulary words, prompted me to define them myself, and encouraged me to use and apply them.

  4. Assigning words to tiers and deciding on 5 essential words was a challenging activity, and like you said, we’d only read a small excerpt. I find the number of vocabulary words that we are required to teach daunting, especially when compared to how many words students will realistically retain. I did struggle with the activity. To decide what words were most crucial for learning, I first assigned them to tiers. After we assigned our words to tiers, I placed my words in other mental categories—those that I could define in the moment to help students understand text (without expecting them to necessarily retain definitions) and those that we anticipated children would encounter again and that were crucial to the unit. The latter made up those we ultimately chose for instruction.

    I learned vocabulary in a similar way to Madison. Each week, we were assigned a unit of words with already written definitions in a workbook. After working a little with the words, we would be expected to memorize them and take a quiz at the end of the week. I did not find this particularly helpful as I memorized definitions for quizzes and subsequently forgot them (in one ear, out the other). Instead, I learned vocabulary from being a voracious reader. I think the website you linked provides some helpful tips for teaching students vocabulary. The activities seem engaging and align with those listed in our textbooks. Some vocabulary strategies I will likely utilize include Marzano’s six steps as well as an interactive word wall, historical fiction journal, reading practice, and the Frayer Model.

  5. Thank you for drawing attention to this issue, Madison. I think it is one we all struggled with during the assignment and even more so, it’s a daunting thought as we face unit after unit of crucial content for our students. I love the link you shared. The table listed under ” Are vocabulary demands too high in Social studies?” really surprised me. I knew history and social studies in general would be chocked full of vocabulary but I didn’t realize the density. The content areas of math, language arts and even science range between the 100-200 words while social studies was a whopping 1000-1200 words across K-12. That is INSANE! That is a lot of pressure on teachers as well as a lot of weight on the students.
    My philosophy is that the vocabulary crucial to understanding is the vocabulary necessary for building on throughout the course of the student’s academic career. One could argue that all vocabulary could fall under this umbrella but I beg to differ. In our assignment “George Washington- Spymaster”, there were words like frontier, realistic, governor, map and land. These are all crucial building blocks for further learning. However, the words like fuzzy, whiff, hold, and boundary were some of the important vocabulary stops. These words could inhibit learning on the bigger words and deeper meanings if not explained in the moment.
    As teachers, we have to find the balance between explicit learning and implicit learning. A lot of vocabulary is digested through implicit learning. If we use those words in our classroom, read on grade and even above grade level content to our students, we can have more time to focus on the important vocabulary crucial to that particular lesson.

  6. While the vocabulary assignment Dr. Hunt gives us seems straightforward, I tend to struggle. Although I work with third graders, I often find it hard to bring myself down to their reading, writing, and vocabulary level. The “George Washington Spymaster” reading left me putting high reading level 4th grade terms into tier one; the “everyone should know this” category (thankfully, Morgan always gets me back on the right track).

    As a student, I was given lists of words or, more notably, Latin prefixes, which I would have to memorize the meaning and spelling of. I had a tough time learning these; we would have to write, define, and use the prefixes or words in a sentence for homework. However, this never stuck for me; when it came time for the tests, I would typically get incredibly anxious and perform poorly. Eventually, my mom and I came up with a plan; we would look at the prefix/word and come up with the most inappropriate, dumb, or goofy mnemonic or tool for memorization; this worked! Unfortunately, I feel this approach may be frowned upon in the classroom, but I would argue that it is unfair because tools like that and memorizing songs have helped me remember all my states and capitals at 23.

    I enjoy the website of tools you’ve attached; I think they help provide a range of ideas that can accommodate many different types of learners. My favorite idea from Mr. and Mrs. Social Studies is the historical fiction journal; I think this will allow students to learn how to use their vocabulary in the correct context. I would also use the Frayer Model first to introduce the students to the vocabulary since it includes examples, definitions, images, etc. As a final class activity before test/quiz day, vocabulary bingo would be a fun way to make sure students understand the information and an easy way for the teacher to check on the students before the assessment. I would ensure my students had access to Quizlet or paper flashcards for at-home preparation
    I hope that more educators adopt some of these practices or at least try them, as we know all students learn differently. Some of these ideas could truly resonate with students who may not learn vocabulary in the traditional way.

  7. Selecting three to five vocabulary for planning and instruction has also been one area that I’ve struggled with. Especially, having to chose vocabulary words for students to learn who are on differing reading levels.

    One piece of information that Dr. Stohr mentioned in class was the importance of reading each specific vocabulary words at least three times and having the students repeat each word to ensure they are practicing the correct pronunciation. Last semester, when I was creating lesson plans for science, I used the “Generation Genius” website as a resource for determining which vocabulary terms I’d chose to teach which was very helpful. Regarding social studies, the activity that I really enjoyed was the “word sort.” I felt it was a great way to highlight important words that would be introduced in the Martin’s Big Words book. Further, making up the different categories and writing the words made this activity a more hands-on experience. Additionally, I was able to make a more meaningful connection with the words since my partner and I thought of the categories together. As Dr. Stohr read the book, I felt more motivated to listen to the reading to figure out when the vocabulary words would come up.

    Overall, this article was explicit and informative. Providing students with resources and opportunities to learn vocabulary during social studies will allow for more meaningful learning experiences. The strategies provided in the article will also be great tool to reference to when planning for differentiation.

    This article will be great for planning and instruction, thank you Madison!

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