June 24, 2016

The Cold (Humid?) Truth about Words

hot and humid

As the cold grips most of the United States, we begin today by asking you to imagine “unbearably humid” weather. (Does this ease the bite of the winter chill?)  If you were describing this to someone who had never before experienced it, what words would you use to help them understand what it’s like outside?

When we did this, we imagined a 90 degree day in August in New Orleans, Louisiana.  We pictured ourselves catching our breath after stepping outdoors from the temperature controlled indoors. The air feels thick, so thick that we imagine cutting it with a knife.  And it’s heavy.  And wet. Within moments, our skin is clammy, our clothes are drenched with sweat.

In December, a Florida newspaper ran an article about the weather and described this year’s early winter as “unbearably humid.” When Kim and her husband read this, they looked at each other– the weather they had recently experienced had been in the low eighties. While there had been some humidity, perhaps they might go so far as to call it unseasonable humidity, calling it unbearable was just…funny.

This newspaper article became great fodder for teaching students about the importance of words.  Kim brought this article with her to a sixth grade class where they looked closely at it, wondering if they’d find other words that indicated the author intended to write humorously about the weather. However, they didn’t.  Analyzing in this way helped them to realize how one misplaced word can distract a reader, bringing the importance of words into focus.  They talked about how authors use words to communicate their message and how one little word can change the meaning of everything.

Marilyn Jager Adams says, “Words are not just words.  They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought.  When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge.  What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford.” Words not only matter when we read, but they matter when we write and speak as well. If we aim to help children understand their world better, developing vocabulary is paramount to our work.  We offer the following tips as reminders of how to help expand children’s vocabularies on a day-to-day basis:

1. Read aloud!

Written text is the best source of new vocabulary for students. Hearing new words read aloud in meaningful contexts prompts inquiry about words.  When listening to engaging stories and ideas communicated through read aloud, children will often notice words that they’ve never before heard and ask, “What does that mean?”

2. Provide ample opportunity for students to talk.

Talk provides students opportunities to use the new words they are encountering.  Allowing students time to discuss their ideas about books or process their learning at other times in the day gives them a chance to try out content-specific vocabulary and try-on new words.  Using words in meaningful contexts helps students to remember and retain new vocabulary. 

3. Make sure students write–often and a lot!

Writing also allows students opportunities to use new words.  Experiencing the struggle of figuring out just the right word to complete a sentence or convey a message the way it is imagined, reinforces the importance of words and reminds children that the more words they know, the better they communicate.

For more of our thoughts on vocabulary instruction, watch this short, learning video.

The Great Irony of Teaching

Are you ready to play outside

Recently, we visited a kindergarten classroom to share one of Mo Willems’s Elephant and Piggie books titled Are You Ready to Play Outside? As we read aloud, we asked the students to pay careful attention to the character’s expressions and to think about how Gerald and Piggie were feeling based on the clues in the illustrations. Initially, students thought of words such as happy and sad but as we looked closer at the details provided in the illustrations, students began to offer more robust words like  disappointed, frustrated, excited, joyful, and angry to describe how the characters were feeling.

As we continued to explore the rich illustrations in Are You Ready to Play Outside, students began to notice that previously identified emotions seemed to re-surface at different points in the story and when this happened, we asked the question, “So which one of our new words best describes this emotion?”

Ever eager to answer the question asked by the teacher, nearly every hand in the class went up.  We called on Jamal and when we asked him which word he thought was best to describe the picture of  Piggie bouncing in a puddle with her eyes closed and her back to Gerald, he thought for a moment and said, “uh…I…uh…forgot what I was going to say.”

If you teach, you know this moment well. Sometimes the response varies from “I forgot” to “I don’t know” to an awkward moment of silence when the child just stares at you trying to tell you via ESP that he or she just doesn’t know the answer to what you’re asking.  It’s uncomfortable for everybody and that’s why a common response to this situation is to say something like, “Can someone help Jamal out?” or “Does anyone else know?”

But sometimes, the reason for responses such as these has less to do with awkwardness and more to do with time.  As we wait for Jamal to try to remember what he knew (or thought he knew) just a few moments ago, there’s an insidious voice inside our heads tallying everything that needs to be done in this school day screaming, “Hurry that kid up!  You have no time to waste!”  This voice is hard to ignore, so in the interest of time, we ask Tamika, who always has correct answers, to share her response to the question.

When we step away from this situation and think about this response, we have to ask ourselves a really hard question.  Is that voice really saying, “Hurry up…you have no time to waste…on kids THINKING?”

If you’re like us, you probably cringe at such a thought, but if you’re like us, you’re probably concerned that there might be some truth to this.

Managing instructional time is probably one of the hardest aspects of teaching and when the to-do list mounts, it is easy to exchange valuable wait time for a more immediate, correct response.  When we feel this pressure, however, we need to remind ourselves to step back and think about the important role that cognitive dissonance plays in learning.  Even though it feels counter-intuitive the our pacing guides and lesson plans, time to think is an important investment in the learning process. As David Sousa says, “The brain that does the work, is the brain that does the learning” and if we want kids to learn, we’ve got to give them time to think!


Breathing Life Into Content Area Word Walls


In previous posts this week, we have discussed the importance of collaborating with other disciplines to inspire creativity and innovation. In today’s post, we will share the result of one such collaborative effort.

In Kim’s meeting with a small group of math specialists, the conversation turned toward word walls. While the idea of collecting content specific vocabulary on a designated wall within the classroom is not new, these teachers wondered if simply writing words on a sentence strip and taping it to the wall was really helping their students. Kim’s first question to these teachers was, “How are you using your word wall?” Most of the teachers in the group sheepishly admitted that they really weren’t as another chimed in and said that she had organized her words into numbered rows and from time to time when students struggled with a math vocabulary word, she would refer them to a line on the word wall and ask students to pick which of the three words in that line was relevant to the work they were doing.

As soon as this teacher shared her idea of organizing words into a chart, the math teachers began to imagine how they might reorganize their charts and began to think about how they could give students coordinates and ask them to locate the math word at row one, column 3. As they talked, Kim’s literacy gears fired and together, Kim and the math specialists came up with the following ways to have students interact with a math word wall organized into lines and columns:

1. Give students a problem like 200 + 500.  Ask them to give you the coordinates of the word that describes the number that represents the answer to the problem.

2. As students come into the classroom, give them coordinates such as row 2, column 4 and ask them to locate the word.  Once they find the word, have students interact with the word in some way; for example, they could define the word or come up with a problem that applies this word in a relevant way.

3. Turn out the lights and shine a flashlight on a word on the wall. First ask students to give the coordinates of the word and then give them a problem and ask how the word represents something they see in the problem.

We suspect that these ideas are just the beginning of possibilities for the math word wall and invite you to collaborate with us and help these math teachers as well as the others reading this blog.  What other potential do you see in a math word wall organized like this?  What other suggestions do you have for content area word walls?

Note: The word wall cards in the image in this post are from http://www.psteacherresources.com/index.php?main_page=index&cPath=1_29.

Friday Favorite: Revisiting Academic Vocabulary

This week, two of our posts specifically addressed building student vocabulary, reminding us once again of the important correlation between words and one’s ability to read and understand increasingly complex text. As our favorite today, we return you to two posts that we think might help shed a bit more light on this topic.  In Why We Need to Grow Student Vocabulary  we begin by looking closely at the Marilyn Jager Adams quote that introduces the Common Core’s explanation of the importance of academic vocabulary:

Words are not just words.  They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought. When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge.  What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford. (Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Appendix A, p. 32)

In this post, we explore why vocabulary is such a critical piece of literacy development. However, realizing that something is important is only half the battle; the next step is figuring out how to teach vocabulary, which we address in this three and half minute video  titled Teaching Academic Vocabulary.

As you consider our ideas for deep processing, we leave you with one final question as you head into the weekend, what are you doing to help children know more words?


The Eyes Have It: Vocabulary Instruction Through Images

While building vocabulary is one of the six shifts of the Common Core State Standards, it is also the key to helping children read increasingly complex text.  The more words a child knows and understands, the more complex the text they can read and understand, the more they are likely to learn.  In fact, vocabulary knowledge is the strongest predictor of reading success across content areas. It’s a lovely symbiotic relationship.

Read aloud is one of the important efforts we make toward building student vocabulary. When the text presents challenging words, we stop and ask students to think about what they know about the word, asking  “Are there any clues in the text that help you understand the word meaning? Can the person sitting next to you offer you any insight into the word? We encourage children to turn and talk, which they do obediently, but when we listen closely, what they’re saying is, “Do you know what it means? Me neither.” They shrug and dream up a definition based on imaginations or loose connections. Not very productive.

As we work with students to build vocabulary, we try to be intentional about the places where we stop and think about language. Rather than using the collective knowledge of students in the class to come up with a pieced together definition, we have shifted our usual directive of “Turn and talk to the person next to you about the word “frontier,” to “Turn and talk to the person next to you about the word  frontier. If you don’t know what it means, this is a picture of a frontier. Use the clues in this photograph to help you.”

Or, as an alternative, before or after reading the book, we might say, “Let’s try to figure out the word motionless. If you don’t know what it means, consider the way it is used in these examples to help you formulate the definition:

  • He lay motionless on the ground after being hit in the head by a rock.
  • It was the middle of July and the air was motionless.

Finally, showing students a picture of the opposite of motionless, can help deepen their understandings of the word.

Asking students to work through vocabulary in these ways forces them to practice reading closely and work to use additional text resources to build background knowledge.  It invites them to deeply process the word based on text as opposed to grabbing at straws. The kids are doing the work, but their efforts aren’t random. Rather, images and sample sentences (other texts) serve as scaffolds (rather than us!).

(If you are interested in building vocabulary using images, you might want to check out  Literacyhead.  It requires a subscription to the whole site but soon, we will launch WordEyes, which will focus specifically on vocabulary instruction and be more affordable.)

Academic Vocabulary 101 (and 102 and 103)


Recently, Kim has been able to boast that her sons, ages 10 and 12, can use the words erudite, amity, dauntless, candor and abnegation in conversation with relative ease. To most, this seems particularly impressive because many adults don’t even know what all of these words mean. Most people who notice her boys’ vocabulary attribute it to Kim’s expertise in literacy. It is not surprising that Kim has sons with large vocabularies.

While there is truth to the notion that children who grow up in literate environments–homes where they are spoken to and read to, encouraged to read, and have easy access to books–will know and understand more words in spoken and written language, that Kim’s children know these words is not only a byproduct of living in a literacy-rich home.  It is also the result of 1) multiple exposures to 2) rich texts.

Those of you familiar with Veronica Roth’s Divergent will easily recognize that the five words in italics in the first paragraph represent the five factions in Roth’s novel about Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world. Understanding the plot and characters of this book depends on the reader’s understanding of what it means to be erudite or dauntless or possess qualities like amity, abnegation, or candor. These words appear repeatedly throughout this book and, because Kim’s family recently read Divergent aloud together, Kim’s boys learned them. As Kim and her children (and her husband!) read it, they stopped on many occasions to check in with their understanding of these words, making sure they were keeping up with who was who, what was happening, and why.

Building academic vocabulary is an important tenet of the Common Core. If we are going to expect children to access increasingly complex text, then they must know words … lots of words. Perhaps, you are wringing your hands wondering how you are going to teach the word suspicious to first graders in the first week of school. Educational publishers are heeding the call for vocabulary rigor with new series of vocabulary workbooks, but the bottom line is this: Workbooks don’t work. Why? Because in order to add new words to a child’s vocabulary, they need to experience language in a multitude of ways and encounter words on multiple occasions. The best way to do this is to immerse children in classrooms where language is celebrated through read aloud, independent reading, writing, and conversation. So if you are looking to improve students’ academic vocabularies, repeat after us: Read. Read. Read. Talk. Talk. Talk. Write. Write. Write.

About our Favorites

The amount of information surfacing about the Common Core is incredible! If you are feeling a bit overwhelmed and wondering what to read first, we think the links on our “favorites” tab can help.

If you find the perspective on the Common Core presented in our blogs align with your thinking, then we offer you these resources that resonated with us. These pieces, in our opinions, are special in some way. One might offer an invaluable daily digest of CCSS resources, while another may be particularly poetic. The “favorites” tab is our filing cabinet of favorite resources, documents, articles, and blogs about the Common Core, and we may like them all for completely different reasons. We will always try to provide a brief description along with a bit of insight about each resource that we add.

We see Burkins and Yaris as an interactive forum for sharing and growing important ideas about literacy.  If you know of a resource that we should think about including, please let us know!

Teaching Academic Vocabulary

Why We Need to Grow Student Vocabulary

The beginning of the Common Core’s discussion about Academic Vocabulary opens with a quote by Marilyn Jager Adams (2009) that reads,

Words are not just words.  They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought. When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge.  What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford. (Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects, Appendix A, p. 32)

On a first read of this quote, most of us will nod our heads in agreement. As you listen closely to student conversations as well, you are likely to feel the full significance of these ideas and the shift toward “acquiring a  rich and varied vocabulary.”

On a recent visit to a fourth-grade classroom, Kim saw students engaged in a lively discussion about the chapter in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2011) where Violet turns into an oversized blueberry. They were looking closely at the opening paragraphs of text that read,

“This gum,” Mr. Wonka went on, is my latest, my greatest, my most fascinating invention!  It’s a chewing-gum meal!  It’s….it’s…it’s…that tiny little strip of gum lying there is a whole three-course dinner all by itself!”  “What sort of nonsense is this? said one of the fathers.  “My dear sir!” cried Mr. Wonka, “ when I start selling this gum in the shops it will change everything! It will be the end of all kitchens and cooking!  There will be no more marketing to do!  No more buying of meat and groceries … .” (p. 90)

And as they considered this passage, their teacher told them to think about words that describe how Willy Wonka was feeling. The students talked with one another and the teacher recorded their ideas on the board as they brainstormed aloud.  Their list included excited, happy, satisfied and confident.

In considering these words and how they reflect what Willy Wonka is feeling, Kim thought about the child whose word choice for describing Wonka was happy. How does her understanding differ from the student who explained, “Yes, Wonka is happy, but more in an excited sort of a way.  I think that is a better choice.”   And how might that be compared to the child who said, “Satisfied feels too final.  He’s still making his gum.  I think the best word up there to describe how Willy Wonka is feeling is confident.”

While this list of words has some level of interconnectedness, it is the subtlety of the difference in word meanings that helps students “build, refine, and modify” their understanding, making a strong case for the Common Core’s emphasis on vocabulary. This example illustrates why most of us nod our heads in agreement when we read Adams’s words but it does not tell us how—how will we help students learn “a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level?” (Anchor Standard 6 for Language, p.25) And how do we get children to see the relationships between words and “nuances in word meanings?”(Anchor Standard 5 for Language, p. 25)

Though the standards are straightforward, the path to arriving there is still muddled by the  reality that instructional time for reading, writing, listening, and speaking must address an array of skills, processes and content that are  in fierce competition with each other. Acknowledging the merit of the destination is just the beginning; we must now figure out how to get there.



Adams, M. J. (2009). The challenge of advanced texts: The interdependence of reading and learning. In E. H. Hiebert (Ed.), Reading more, reading better: Are American students reading enough of the right stuff? (pp. 163–189). New York, NY: Guilford.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects. Appendix A: Research supporting key elements of the standards; Glossary of terms. Retrieved from: http://www.corestandards.org/assets/Appendix_A.pdf

Dahl, R., & Blake, Q. (2011). Charlie and the chocolate factory (Reprint Edition). London: Puffin Books.