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Mika's Case Outline

January 19, 2000                                                                Curriculum Case Outline

Teaching Vocabulary: Application and Usage vs. Rote Knowledge

I.                   Introduction—Background

A.   Lincoln High School

1.      Where:  In the heart of Silicon Valley, Lincoln houses a whole spectrum of diversity, from the affluent engineer to the working migrant to the recent immigrant.  Lincoln High School is located in Middletown, the only high school in the city of Middletown. 

2.      What:  The block schedule (four class for 90 minutes per class) supports a lower teacher-student ratio and more in-depth approach to teaching.  LHS is a school in the Lincoln Union High School District and home to over 1,739 students. 

a.        Of the 1,739 students, 32% are Hispanic, 28% are white, 17% are Asian, 16% are Filipino or Pacific Islander, 5% are African American, and 2% are Native American. Looking at the population as a whole, 32.6% are LEP (Limited English Proficient), 96.7% stay in school, and 67.5% attend the California public colleges.

b.      The school itself is a microcosm of the world—a rich blend of different faces, language, personalities, and cultures. The majority of the student population at LHS is made of minority students, and the rainbow of colors that Lincoln boasts of lends it a most distinctive flavor of life. 

B.     My Class—Great kids!

1.      Heterogeneous group of 24 students—sophomores; racial mix of Filipino, Chinese, white, black, and Latino students; few high achievers, mostly middle, some low achievers; some are bright students with little motivation for work

2.      Their relationship with me—most respond to me well and respect me, see me as the younger, funner teacher who will talk with them about their lives and their problems (as compared to CT); but still can get very chatty which can grate any teacher the wrong way

C.     The Issue—vocabulary

1.  Vocabulary—an important, but often neglected part of English curriculum; in our class, we failed to give vocabulary regularly, and the number of words changed with every week. 

a.       Tests we initially gave were testing understanding of the word; they wouldn't be tested on every word, but a test question would be: "I walk into a squalor room.  What do I see?" 

b.      I felt this was inadequate because most kids shared answers with classmates and got away with not studying all the words,so when I got a chance to design vocabulary, I changed the number or words and the way the kids got tested.

c.       Instead of 10 words, I gave 20.  Instead of random testing, I tested all the words plus their parts of speech.

3.      My goal was two-fold: to have the kids learn more words to build a greater vocabulary base, and to prepare them for standardized test-taking, which is a combination of test-taking skills, common sense, and memorization

II.  The Trajectory of Things

A.     Initial Plan

1.      I had them look up the words, parts of speech, and definition, and make a sentence for homework. 

a.       I gave 20 words because I felt that 10 was too few.  The kids didn't seem to be studying hard and using the words after the test, so I adapted my goals to help them learn how to take tests as well as learn the words

b.      I also noted that the way that they had been tested failed to require them to know how to use the word in context, something very vital, I believe, when learning vocab. 

c.       I also saw many kids not practicing the words until the test was 10 minutes away, so the sentences would force them to use it,  if only once

2.      But when I checked the homework and glanced at each sentence; it was true that they had all made sentences, but the sentences didn't make sense.  I got sentences like, "Because most of the food was gone, the people left dissipate" which showed me that they understood the definition, but not how to use it. So after two weeks of this, I decided they didn't need to make sentences of the words because it didn't seem to be helping; in fact it only seemed to confuse them more.

3.      I tested in this way:  the vocab word made up the blank in each sentence and in the blank, students had to write in the most appropriate word and part of speech. Each was worth ½ a point, so that if they got one or the other right, they could get credit.  The whole test was worth 20 points.

4.      Most of the kids didn't study so they got bad grades (I asked them).

5.      They told me, "We're never going to use these words anyways!  Why do we need to know them?  These quizzes don't do anything for me."

B.     Problems I identified:

1.      kids weren't studying

2.      kids didn't know how to guess given context clues

3.      kids didn't know parts of speech and the context they are used in

4.      kids didn't know how to figure out a word's part of speech given the way the word looks

III.              Emergency Bandaging

A.     Because of time crunches, I spent about 40 minutes targeting these problems.  I would have gone more in-depth but there was little time.  I played a guessing game with them—where they had to guess the word in my head and could only ask yes or no questions.  Great engagement and many kids were asking questions to guess! I was amazed at how even the quiet kids guessed; only one boy didn't participate.

B.     Then I engaged them in metacognitive process of unfolding how they guessed the word in my head—I highlighted guessing strategies—namely, the process of elimination and using context clues

C.     They had asked questions like "Is it a noun?" and I used that to point out that this is exactly what they had to do on the vocab quizzes.  The connection was rather weak here, but it looked like they understood since they all nodded and were paying rapt attention.

D.     I then gave a mini-lecture on Parts of Speech, while they took notes. 

E.      I wish we had time to go through their vocab quizzes after this, but there was no time left and I was signaled to end my lesson quickly. 

IV.             The New Plan

A.     I felt a need that there wasn't enough review and usage of the words in the classroom though the words came from the texts we read.  So I wanted to review the words with them. And it wasn't that they didn't know how to look up the words in the dictionary and weren't doing that, it was that they didn't know how to use the words. 

B.     So the next time, I shortened the list to about 15 words, gave them the definitions and parts of speech.  While I orally gave it to them, I also gave them examples of how the words could be used.  This I did in the beginning of the week and the kids were tested at the end of the week.  Many times, however, the quizzes were shafted and kept getting pushed back—lack of a norm for vocabulary—which I hated, but since it was the one expendable thing, we kept putting vocab off.

C.     Before the quiz as well, I wanted to review the words with the kids.  So on a spur of a moment, I came up with a game to play with them—Around the World. The rules of the game: a student challenged the person next to them, I gave the word, and whoever came up with the definition the fastest was the winner, the winner would challenge the next person until defeated.  If the winner and the challenger couldn't get the answer, then the winner gets another chance with another challenger.  Automatic removal from the game was if their notebooks were out and they were cheating. The kids loved this game!  They kept wanting to play and assured me this helped them learn the words.

D.     We played Around the World several times more with the next few sets of vocabulary, and the kids were amazingly "into" vocabulary for as long as the game continued. 

E.      I gave the same quizzes and set a time limit—13 minutes for 15 fill-in-the-blanks.  I wanted to simulate standardized test-taking surroundings in hopes of helping them begin readying for the SATs and SAT II's. They complained about the time crunch and whined about how little time there was.  Here, another problem was raised—they failed to manage their time well. They could not apportion out the time they had in order to finish the test on time. 

F.      The scores did go up by several points per student, but they still weren't studying or guessing or using the tools they had learned.  So while the scores were raised, they did not achieve what I wanted them to achieve.

V. Reflection

           A.  I thought about this more—why did they like Around the World and think it helped? It was true in that it did help because the scores for the next quiz did go up.  They like it because it's fun—it's not seen as "academic," and they think it helps because they heard the words and made associations and under pressure, learned the words.  But this did not target parts of speech and application of word in context.  And people who didn't study did a little better, but not a whole lot. 

           B.  Most of these students have not been privileged with silver spoons in their mouths. In fact, most of them work after school in order to make a little money.  They have been latch-key kids since they can remember and their families offer little, if any for some, support.  This is a consideration I've taken since I wonder how many of their other teachers have required them to take more responsibility and own up to the fact that they've been spoiled rotten by the current education system. Most of my students don't aspire to go to a four-year university, and this is reinforced by teachers they encounter. Is their reluctance to study, perform, and aspire higher in part a result of what they've been told they cannot do?

C.     Another question that is raised, more importantly, is whether my assessment  mode matches what I want my students to learn. Is this the most appropriate form of assessment for a body of knowledge that I want my students to retain, apply, and use?  Any assessment is full of loopholes and isn't perfect, but is this quiz format so much less than perfect that it does not even demonstrate what they know? 

D.     At one point, one of my girls complained that it was so hard and she couldn't do this test, but she could tell me all the words, their definitions, and their parts of speech.  Did I then not prepare them to study in a way that would scaffold for their success?  Perhaps it's the way I asked them to study. 

E.      Maybe if we spend more time with it in class, they would be better able to use the words.  Is the class really set up as a culture of learning and inquiry so that students want to try new things out?

VI.            Conclusion—feelings about the case, etc.


Copyright 2000, Karen Hammerness, Stanford University. All the material contained on this site has been produced by Karen Hammerness, Lee Shulman, Linda Darling-Hammond, Kay Moffett, and Misty Sato. These materials can be downloaded, printed and used with proper acknowledgement, including the name and affiliation of the authors and the web-site addess.

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