Vocabulary for Elementary: How To

According to experts, kids should be acquiring 2,000 to 3,000 new words annually from 3rd grade onward. This figure would mean that children learn roughly sixeight new terms every day—pretty amazing if you think about it. While professionals have long debated the biological and environmental factors at play when it comes to language and vocabulary acquisition, one thing is for certain—a child’s vocabulary grows and develops with exposure.

Here are a few ways to expose students to new words and help them further develop their vocabulary.

Expressive Word Labels

Consider borrowing a tip from ESOL or world language classes by using labels to introduce a more expressive term in place of a mundane word. For instance, print out multiple photos of a range of peoples’ facial expressions. Prompt students to replace typical or low-level words like “sad” or “happy” with “gloomy” or “pleased.” Once students get the hang of synonyms, ask them to collect as many synonyms as they can while learning new words.

Synonym Challenge

Students should feel free to ask clarifying questions like, “What is another way to say….?” This helps young learners to begin to see not only the context of the word, but also its grammatical function. After some scaffolding and practice, challenge your students to see how many words they can think of to replace happy. Be clear about the expectation by emphasizing that the synonyms must fully match the meaning and usage—since happy is an adjective, their synonyms must be adjectives, as well. Students with the longest list of true synonyms could be rewarded with a new mechanical pencil, their choice of seat for the day, a happy phone call home, etc. Even bragging rights are certain to make any child happy, ecstatic, cheerful, glad, amused, exuberant, elated, delighted, thrilled, jovial, jubilant, and merry.   

Word Apps

Elementary teachers can also make use of technology in order to help increase students’ vocabulary. Free apps like Wordle and Wordsift help students to learn and analyze new terms and phrases by using a visual component. Students are able to paste a portion of text and watch as Wordle or Wordsift breaks down and arranges the text. Often times, the Wordle presents the information in more than just a visually appealing way. The software helps students see how terms are related, distinguished, aligned, etc. It is also designed to manipulate font size and color based on how frequently a term is used in the excerpt. For instance, if students paste text from an article about cloud formation, repetition of the word “cloud” will cause the Wordle to increase the font size of that particular term in the final visual.  

Caption Game

Ask students to provide captions for selected photos or magazine ads using new vocabulary words. Allow students to work in groups to collaborate and generate a brief explanation or caption for what is happening in the photo. For example, if the image depicts a complete standstill on a highway while a family of ducks crosses the interstate, ask students to write a caption using the word “peculiar.” Perhaps another image portrays a beautiful snow-covered cabin in the woods. Ask students to create a caption or conversation between two of the cabin-dwellers using the word “enchanting.”

How to Acquire New Vocabulary: At the Middle School Level

While vocabulary instruction has drastically changed in the past decade, some of the basic principles of language acquisition still pertain to building students’ vocabulary. For instance, a voracious appetite for reading has long been linked to a stronger vocabulary—and this belief still stands, as it is widely supported by research. Additionally, repeated exposure over time also helps to solidify words to memory. Both of these basic methods, reading and repetition, are still utilized in classrooms today.

However, best practices focus on more than mere memorization. Vocabulary acquisition can and should be taken to the next step to ensure that terms are not only committed to memory, but are essentially committed to a student’s academic and everyday language.

Teach connotation: Too often, direct vocabulary instruction relies on a student’s memorization or understanding of a word’s definition—which makes sense since students must know what a word means before adding it to their lexicon. However, if focusing solely on a word’s definition, students are missing a key aspect of the importance of vocabulary, which involves context and connotation. Vocabulary instruction is more than knowing the meaning of a word—it’s the ability to choose the most appropriate form of a word or term for a specific context or purpose. Take the words smell, scent, odor, fragrance, and aroma. The definition of each of these terms is rather similar; at a glance, students may declare these terms to be synonymous. However, teaching these words in their appropriate contexts and with an understood connotation allows students to see how each of these so-called synonyms would serve a strikingly different purpose.

Scent, fragrance, and aroma all have a generally positive connotation. Scent and fragrance are more frequently used when describing non-food items like flowers, perfume, natural surroundings, etc. Aroma differs slightly in that it often denotes a combination of smells, like a laundry room’s aroma of fresh cotton, rain, and rose petals, for example. Odor, conversely, typically has a negative connotation. You wouldn’t likely want to describe someone’s cooking by saying that it has a “unique odor.” Something with an odor is usually deemed smelly, stinky or unpleasant. So, even the simple practice of matching scenarios to their most appropriate terms helps middle schoolers to begin to see the value in vocabulary. Words are much more than their definitions; they allow speakers and writers to specify more precisely depending on the context or situation.

Teach using synonym/antonym games: Another method to help prompt middle schoolers to step outside of their everyday language boxes involves a modified skit from the game show “Whose Line is it Anyway?” Have students sit in a circle. Explain that students will go from person to person saying essentially the same phrase, “I feel happy.” The catch, however, is that students must replace the word happy with a new synonym each time. If a student cannot think of a new synonym for the initial emotion, he or she is eliminate from the circle. After a while, switch from synonyms to antonyms. For instance, students would respond to “I feel happy” with “I feel…sad, forlorn, melancholy, depressed, low, glum, gloomy, blue, unhappy, negative, sullen, etc. The key here is for students to begin to see the vastness of their options for expressing and expanding upon a simple emotion such as “happy.”

Encourage the use of expressive words in student writing: Once vocabulary instruction is solidly underway, begin to track overused, misused, or “elementary-level” terms in student writing. Prompt students to be more specific when saying that they “went” somewhere. Perhaps they moseyed to the store; strolled to the store; travelled to the store; wandered to the store; meandered to the store; rushed to the store. Again, the point is for students to see the plethora of options at their disposal when writing or speaking. The more they practice, the more equipped they’ll be to say precisely what they mean.

 

Making Math into Games: Activities in the Classroom and at Home

Take it from me, a self-proclaimed math loather: when math concepts just do not click, the fallout can be extremely frustrating for kids. No matter the age, a student in the classroom or a child at home can quickly become discouraged when the math just doesn’t add up. For these children, who struggle with the ins and outs of successive math courses, real-world concepts and engaging activities can make all the difference.

Trick-or-Treat Math

This is the perfect seasonal opportunity for kids to apply real-world concepts of money, numeric relationships and directions to engaging activities that secretly build multiplication, division, analytic and ratio skills. Before trick-or-treating, have kids rate their favorite Halloween candies from 1-10, 10 being their absolute favorite. Then, help kids set up a candy bargaining/trading activity, in which they base their trades off of a certain candy’s rating. For example, if Reese’s Pieces are ranked as a 10, but Twizzlers are a lowly 2, help your children identify how many Twizzlers it would take to equal the ranking of Reese’s Pieces. Help them throughout the trade by prompting them with mathematical questions like, “If cherry lollipops are favored twice as much as orange lollipops, how many orange would I have to forego for 3 of your cherry pops?” Or, “If you have 60 pieces of candy from trick-or-treating, and I allow you to eat 1/10 of your candy over the weekend, how many pieces can you eat on Saturday if you want to eat 4 pieces on Sunday?” (**DISCLAIMER for educators—if you plan to allow for Halloween activities in the classroom, be sure to double check with parents about any allergy/dietary restrictions.)

Scavenger Hunt

A scavenger hunt activity is always good for embedding discrete mathematical practices. Provide students with different word problems and accompany each problem with a “clue envelope.” Each time their group correctly works through a word problem, provide them with a clue to lead them closer to the treasure. This activity allows for plenty of options for differentiation, including high/low grouping, varying levels of word problems, options for graphics or manipulatives, etc. Depending on student needs and abilities, math problems could involve multi-step word problems, multiplication flashcard races, geometric matching, placing items in size order, rounding to nearest tenth/hundredth and matching equivalent fractions. Perhaps the treasure could be a homework-free pass, prize tokens or extra recess time.

Shaving Cream “Swat”

It may be messy, but shaving cream swat games using mathematical equations can bring a ton of energy to a typically dry math review. Depending on age and ability, groups can swat basic multiplication problems, the next shape in a pattern, addition/subtraction problems, etc. The possibilities are endless so long as the planning and frontloading are in place. Educators will create math challenges on index cards for groups to solve. While solving, the teacher will provide answer options written in shaving cream on paper plates—kind of like a multiple choice selection. Groups will race to “swat” or “splat” whichever answer they agree on using a fly swatter. The caveat, of course, is the clean-up. However, this group activity never fails to drum up enthusiasm when completing a math practice or review.

With a little planning and preparation, these games can reinforce math concepts and build skills in new ways that will get even the most hesitant learners to join in the fun!

How to Acquire New Vocabulary: At the High School Level

A robust vocabulary is a key asset when it comes to college and career readiness. I like to equate vocabulary acquisition to a toolbox—the more expansive your toolbox, the more capable you’ll be when fixing, creating, building and assisting. Much like having the right tools for any task at hand, we need to be able to communicate using different manners of speech and appropriate word choice for any number of scenarios. Yes, a hammer and nail can prove to be helpful; however, there are certain to be instances where the job requires more than the standard basics.

Alright, enough with the analogy—how can high school students continue to build a strong repertoire when it comes to vocabulary? Let’s take a look!

Vocabulary instruction and acquisition has drastically changed in even just the last 10 years. My own flashbacks of flashcards (see what I did there?) and rote memorization, while sensible at the time, have proven to be of little assistance to students. Instead of pounding definitions of vocabulary words and teaching terms in a vacuum, disconnected from any real usage, students need more of a real-world approach to adopt new words into their own vocabulary. Exposure is key when it comes to boosting vocabulary at the high school level. In order for students to begin to acquire and use new vocabulary naturally, they must be exposed to a term in both frequent and various contexts.

Consider the term multifaceted—a standard dictionary definition of this word is “having many facets or aspects.” Okay, but what does that really mean? If we want high schoolers to begin to make sense of the word in various contexts, we must model the usage of such terms at home and in the classroom. This accounts for cross-curricular instruction, as well. For instance, students in a geometry class might use multifaceted in the literal context to describe an object with many sides. Similarly, in science, students may examine a crystal or other prism to see how sunlight converges on a multifaceted object. Quite conversely, however, an English or history class might use multifaceted to describe a character or famous person from history with many diverse skills or strengths.   

Another way to look at a term such as multifaceted is to use Latin or Greek roots and affixes (prefixes and suffixes). You don’t have to go into an in depth linguistic study—instead, use a cliff notes-esque approach. When introducing such a word, pair it with other familiar words with the same prefix, like multipurpose, multiplication, multidimensional, etc. Prompt a conversation about what all of these words have in common. Then examine faceted—ask students if this word is familiar or if it reminds them of any other word. For some high schoolers, facet is already part of their vocabulary; for others, you may want to scale the conversation down to “facets sounds like faces, so a multifaceted object has many faces or sides.” These word analogies take memorization to another level. Not only do learners equate the new word to a simpler, already acquired term, but they also derive meaning from the relationship between the terms to help solidify the meaning into memory.

Equity

Equity, as far as the Oxford English Dictionary is concerned, is defined as “the quality of being fair or impartial.” Simple enough, right? Yet, at home with children and teens, the concept will probably require further conversation to teach kids not only what equity means, but what it looks like.

One way to begin teaching children about what it means to be equitable is by teaching them what is not equitable. Contrary to what many children believe, equity and equality are not synonymous. By this, we mean that equity does not signify that everyone receives the same thing, whether that be treatment, assistance, gifts, awards, allowance, etc. Instead, equity means that everyone receives the same level of what they need. Again, this concept could be difficult for children to grasp, especially when fairness becomes a point of contention.

When parents need to put the focus on equity, not equality, they can begin by explaining the reason behind certain parental decisions. For example, Alex is 6 years old and Abe is 16 years old. Both boys perform chores around the house for an allowance. However, because the stark age difference significantly distinguishes each child’s ability to perform certain chores, tasks and allowances will not be equal—but they will be equitable. Let’s look at the details: Alex, the 6-year-old, feeds the fish, sorts his laundry, and helps put groceries away. For these age-appropriate tasks, Alex receives $5 a week as his allowance. This amount is enough for Alex to buy a book at the school book fair, which he desperately wants.

Now Abe, the 16-year-old, completes chores for the family, as well. Since Abe is older, he is trusted with the responsibility of walking the dog every evening, mowing the lawn, and helping clean up after dinner. For these tasks Abe receives $30 per week, which he puts towards gas money. While this example is hypothetical, a scenario like this makes sense for explaining equity. Abe and Alex are both contributing to household chores. However, the level of work, and therefore the level of pay, differs to suit each boy’s needs.

Another way to explain equity to children is to use an example that they have likely encountered in every parking lot—the handicapped parking spot. Much like the school accommodations for students with special needs, handicap parking is an accommodation to ensure equity for drivers with disabilities. Obviously, handicap parking spaces are not equal to all of the other spots—they are much closer, more convenient, and sometimes larger. However, equality among parking spaces would mean that the parking lot is inequitable for drivers with special needs. Remember, children need to realize that equity involves everyone getting what they need. An able-bodied person does not need to park closest to the entryway of a building, but a handicapped person does. The designated spaces ensure that they receive what they need, which in this case is an unobstructed parking space that is close in proximity to where they are going.

Key takeaways for children and teens is that fairness, equality, and equity are not synonymous terms. Equity revolves around each person’s individual needs and circumstances. Remind your children that we may not be aware of a person’s individual needs. Therefore, if it appears that someone else is getting “special treatment,” consider the obstacles, limitations, or other factors that may be at play. What appears to be unequal is often equity at work.

Homework Help for Families with Several School-Aged Children: Pt. II

As we have discussed, homework time can be innately chaotic for families, especially when several children need parental guidance at once. Since we really can only be in one place at one time, it helps to have a grab bag of possible solutions for the nights when everyone needs homework help.

In addition to the tips in the previous blog, there are more tricks of the trade to help monitor and manage homework for multiple children under one roof.

Use all available downtime to your advantage. Just as we suggested utilizing alternative times for homework completion, such as a morning routine for your early risers, other downtime can and should also be utilized. For instance, elementary schoolers can squeeze in a little more study time on the commute to school. Whether in the car or on the bus, encourage them to bring multiplication/division flashcards or spelling words along for the drive. Not only does this practice provide a pocket of extra time for review, but the process also helps to boost confidence before going in for a quiz or assessment.

Use class time wisely. In addition to the car ride to and from school, encourage your children to make good use of class time. Often times, teachers will provide anywhere from 5-15 minutes at the close of the lesson for students to begin that night’s assignment. This benefits the teacher, in that she is able to gauge who may have struggled with the day’s objective, or who may have missed important directions or notes during the lesson. This is also a benefit for students, as it allows them to get a jumpstart on or even complete their homework in class. Be sure to stress that your child should be sure to focus on instruction first—homework should be completed only if and when the teacher has allowed the class to do so.

Take advantage of after school help. Another option is to encourage your child to attend after school help sessions on a weeknight. Of course, with athletics and other extracurricular obligations, this could be difficult to manage. However, there are several benefits to the after school homework organizations run by the schools. First, many children are more patient or willing when one of their teachers is providing the homework help, as opposed to a parent. Sometimes, as much as we would not like to admit it, homework becomes a losing battle of tears at the kitchen table. The teacher acts as the mediator of the work, leaving parents free of the stressful battle.

Additionally, since children will be getting help from his/her teacher at the after school work sessions, they will essentially receive additional one-on-one instruction with the teacher who knows exactly how the assignment should be completed. Finally, after school homework programs often provide transportation home via an activity bus. Therefore, the work session can serve as an extended school day, but with no inconvenience to anyone’s schedule.  

Set a few ground rules for your children when they are completing homework assignments. No matter the time of day, ensure that children and teens take a break if and when frustrations flare. Homework is stressful as is, but when the tears or tempers start, it becomes a near impossibility. Instead of insisting on working through the frustration, suggest some cool off time. Anything from 5-10 minutes can help bring down a child’s stress level and allow everyone to get back into a productive mode. Additionally, be sure to enforce time parameters for help. For instance, tell your teen that there will be no late-night, last-minute shopping sprees if he decides that he needs materials for a science project the night before it is due. Similarly, make sure they know to ask for editing or proofreading help well before the paper is to be due. This alleviates any stress from having to cram in a last-minutes work session.

Mindset Matters: Growth Mindset for the Middle Schooler

Growth mindset, a common buzzword in the education world right now, is a research-based belief system that has the ability to drastically change adolescents’ perceptions of themselves as learners. I would argue that growth mindset is even more important for children to explore during the middle school years. Why? Well, the entire concept of growth mindset involves challenging our notions of ourselves—something that middle schoolers are already grappling with daily on a social-emotional level. Intellectually-speaking, growth mindset centers around a belief system that intellect, ability, achievement, and motivation are not only interconnected, but fluid—that is, we can grow our brains and abilities by using deliberate and beneficial strategies and thought processes.

For middle schoolers, this concept can be extremely life-changing. Consider typical responses from middle schoolers when confronted with a challenge, setback, or failure:

“I’m just no good at this. I never will be.”

“I’d rather just do something easy so that I know I’ll do it right.”

“If something is too difficult, I’d rather give up than exert effort and still fail.”

“My best will never be as good as some other person’s best.”

“If I have to work really hard at something, it must mean that I’m bad at it.”

“I don’t have a math brain. I’m good at English, but math isn’t my thing no matter how hard I try.”

These unfortunately common thoughts and comments are very prevalent in the middle school classroom. Students who have not been exposed to growth mindset truly believe that intelligence is primarily fixed—we are either born smart or not. The danger behind a fixed mindset is that it is essentially like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Adolescents’ negative beliefs about themselves as learners inevitably show up in their actions, almost as a self-sabotaging belief system. To combat this, middle schoolers must begin to see the learning process as exactly that—a process.

Encourage middle schoolers to take risks. As opposed to sticking with their known talents or remaining always in their comfort zones, push students to go for the challenge. Whether the challenge is academic, social, or athletic, middle school is the time for children to explore new and unfamiliar tasks or concepts. The key to stepping outside of our comfort zone is that it teaches us about how to improve our weaknesses while capitalizing on our strengths. Trying something new or difficult is not about immediate perfection—adolescents need to embrace the failure and missteps because that is where the learning happens. We grow, not when something comes easy to us, but when we succeed through the difficult aspects of a new skill.

Teach middle schoolers how to use failure as an opportunity to learn something about themselves. This practice involves open dialogue and honest feedback. One essential aspect of growth mindset is that criticism or feedback should not be taken as an insult. When reviewing a teacher’s or peer’s feedback on an essay, help adolescents to understand that the critiques should not be taken defensively. The aim of feedback is to praise areas of strength and assist in areas of need, with the end goal always being student improvement.   

Perhaps one of the hardest lessons of growth mindset for middle schoolers is the fact that we should not measure our own successes against the successes or failures of others. Why is this so difficult? We’ve all experienced the competitive, and sometimes downright judgmental moments during our adolescence. So, it should come as no surprise that middle schoolers are always comparing themselves to their peers. Stress the fact that one person’s success does not discredit your own. If a friend or peer does better on a quiz or assignment, do not internalize that as your own failure by comparison. Instead, help teens to realize that they can learn something from their peers—and that they, too, will be sought out for help at some point.

 

Mindset Matters: Growth Mindset for the Elementary Schooler


Growth Mindset vs. Fixed Mindset is a very hot topic in the education world right now. What began as a pedagogical, research-based concept coined by Dr. Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford, has now trickled down even into kindergarten classrooms. A basic explanation for a not-so-basic concept is the fact that
people can improve their achievement, motivation, and even their intellect by adopting a growth mindset and strategies that correspond to such a mindset.

Growth vs. Fixed

Teaching young learners about growth mindset involves countering thought processes that they may have already begun to acquire. Students in elementary school have likely already begun to find their strengths and weaknesses. We all have certain talents, but elementary schoolers can adopt a growth mindset by refusing to limit themselves based on areas of weakness. Teaching growth mindset to younger learners can be as simple as swapping out our language and praise in the classroom.

Stressing only natural-born talents can be detrimental to adopting a growth mindset. While some of us are born with natural gifts, such as artistic, athletic, or musical strengths, the flipside to stressing the importance of natural gifts is the fact that children will believe that, if they are not born with these abilities, they cannot acquire them. Additionally, this fixed mindset does not encourage learners to accept challenges. Instead of attempting something outside of their comfort zone, children with a fixed mindset may rest on their laurels—believing that, unless it is one of their innate gifts, they will never be good at it.

Instead, stress the importance of acquiring new skills. Yes, natural abilities are wonderful in that they are innately effortless. However, do not forget to encourage children to practice skills, activities, or hobbies outside of their natural realm of abilities. Growth mindset involves a belief system that ability is limitless, so long as the strategies are there. Again, this is about embracing challenges with the realization that, while we may not be the best at a new skill right away, we can take charge of the challenge by practice, learning, and growing.

Emphasizing success while downplaying failure ignores the essential process for improvement. Children with a fixed mindset consider failure to be inevitable if the task involves something that they deem that they are simply “not good at.” This discourages any amount of effort or motivation because they truly believe that “once a multiplication failure, always a multiplication failure.” In this sense, people with a fixed mindset internalize failure. They believe that they are not good at something, therefore they will never be good at it, so what is the point of putting forth excessive effort? In a sense, a fixed mindset creates its own roadblocks.

Help children to look closely at and analyze possible reasons for moments of difficulty or perceived failure. Don’t shy away from discussing why your child struggled with something. Instead, have open and honest conversations about how they could use different strategies the next time. Growth mindset revolves around the idea that intellect and ability are fluid—and that we can control our success rates by practicing and strategizing.

A child with a fixed mindset will often strive for perfection. What’s the problem with that? Well, for one, perfection is a relative term. There is no way to measure “perfection.” It also discourages or discredits hard work unless the child received 100% on an assignment. In a child’s fixed mindset, it is either 100% or nothing.

While a fixed mindset ignores the concept of improvement and growth, the alternative praises evidence of improvement. Yes, you may have gotten a C on your math test; however, that score is leaps and bounds above the D you got 3 weeks ago. When having children examine and analyze their own growth, they begin to find trends in their learning process. These trends help them to identify which strategies are most beneficial to them as learners. So yes, the C grade may not be as exciting as the A+, but the steady improvement tells us a lot about how a child has acquired new learning strategies.

Group Work: How to Make it Work


Cooperative learning, collaborative strategies, group rotations—whatever we decide to call it, the research behind group work in the classroom makes a strong case for embracing collaborative learning. As beneficial as it is, however, group work can easily go awry if the planning and structures are not in place. Here are some suggestions for well-managed group work in the classroom.

  1. Consistency is key when introducing group structures and routines. Rotations, stations, and group collaboration involve much more than having students circulate through different activities together. Before you can even begin the actual group work, students need to be explicitly instructed on how they will form and work in their groups. Devote some time to having students practice moving into their groups in a quick and organized manner. Encourage students to have only necessary materials out during group work. Practice timed cleanup so that groups familiarize themselves with the amount of time needed to wrap up a work session.
  2. Teacher-derived groups should be deliberate on multiple levels. Be sure that groups contain personalities that will jive and complement one another. Also be careful to level the groups so that there are higher-ability and lower-ability group members in each group. When possible, groups should be gender-balanced and small enough that every person will play a vital role in the process and product. For the typical classroom, groups should be kept to 4 students or smaller to allow for accountability.
  3. Begin implementing group work by stressing the importance of the process, not necessarily the product. Of course the end result is important; however, cooperative dialogue, perspective-taking, and synergy are the foundations for a successful group—perfecting the product will come later. You want the groups to work like a well-oiled machine in the sense that each person knows that her individual input is necessary to achieve the end goal.
  4. Have open dialogue about that end goal. Part of the nuisance of group work is the fact that every group member has a different work ethic, mindset, motivation, and concept of the result. We have all experienced the headache and stress of completing “group work” individually because a partner or group mates were banking on someone else completing the job. To avoid this common pitfall, encourage groups to discuss what each individual’s end goal is and work on compromising from there. If one person’s goal is to complete the task in as little time as possible, assign that person one of the initial planning, prewriting, or beginning tasks for the project. If another person expresses a deep desire to perfect the group’s project, put that person in charge of checking the final product against the rubric and making edits or adjustments as needed. If one person simply aims to turn something in for credit, put him or her in charge of organizing materials, brainstorming ideas, keeping the group’s notes, etc.—the key is to play to each person’s strengths and desires so that everyone’s intrinsic motivation leads the group to the same end goal.

The Other Stuff: How to Approach High-Level Thinking Questions

It is important that educators exude a sense of passion for the content that we teach. Whether it be math, science, English, etc., our love for our subject areas helps to engage our students and keep them motivated. While much of our instruction focuses around the content, we are also tasked with teaching skills that allow students to access the content that we are teaching. Depending on grade level and ability, students could be all over the map when it comes to these essential, foundational skills. We must first assess the tools that our students bring with them to the classroom and then be prepared to focus part of our instruction around these crucial basics.

“Dissecting the question” is a practice that students will encounter in EVERY content area throughout their education. Whether responding to a writing prompt, answering a word problem, or following chemistry lab procedures, students must be aware of the end goal when confronting a task. Often times across content areas, questions or practices are framed in wordy, complex, or very involved language. This type of wording has the potential to not only confuse students, but also to discourage them right from the beginning before they have even considered the question. To hone in on an answer, students must first learn how to identify exactly what the question is asking.  

Consider the following prompt: Authors use many different literary devices to convey mood in a narrative. Identify and analyze two devices that J.K. Rowling uses to convey mood in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone using evidence from the text to support your claim.

Now, this prompt is a tall order in terms of a student’s need to focus in on the actual question. Model the process of “skimming the fat” from the question so that only the essentials are present. For example, have students cross off any “fluff” or unnecessary information in the question. This goes for math, English, science, history, etc. For our example above, students could cross off the entire first sentence in the prompt—this simply frames the context of the prompt.

Next, help students to translate or better comprehend the academic language that all content-area questions will use. Terms like analyze, assess, compare, estimate, and classify may seems straightforward to us; however, students often find these directives to be confusing. Have students practice highlighting the common academic language terms as they encounter them in questions, prompts, and tasks. Then, spend time as a class discussing what these terms actually mean—i.e., what actions will we take as readers when we identify and analyze something? What does it mean by devices? Perhaps students need a refresher on literary devices. This is where graphic organizers and other note-taking strategies will come in handy for students needing a quick review of a concept.

Next, help students understand that identify simply means to find, name, or choose two devices that the author uses, while analyze means to explore, examine, or question how these devices convey, or show, mood. Students that are still struggling to begin responding to the question may benefit from a sentence frame or sample starter. This strategy is great for English and math, where teachers are likely seeking complete sentences or full thoughts in the answers and responses. Consider providing students with something like this as their starting thesis statement:

(AUTHOR’S NAME) uses (DEVICE AND DEVICE) to convey a (SPECIFIC TYPE OF MOOD) in (TITLE).

Once they have filled in the blanks for the thesis statement, prompt the analysis piece by asking leading questions. These suggestive questions will help students with the initial practice of analyzing, assessing, or making connections between their claim and their reasoning or support for the claim. Again, this practice takes time and repetition—attacking a high-level thinking question like this is not something that can be mastered in one class period. The key is to provide students with strategies to help steer their thinking in the direction of the actual meat of the question. By helping to define, explain, eliminate, and order the process of the question, students are much more equipped to begin answering.

So remember:

  • Eliminate fluff
  • Locate key terms/academic language that indicate what is being asked
  • Define those terms for students
  • Provide graphic organizers or refresher notes when necessary
  • Consider providing sentence frames or examples for students to use as a springboard