Friday, November 23, 2007

Project Idea: Word Wall (Vocabulary) Project

Last year, my school pushed the idea of putting a "word wall" in every classroom. A word wall, for the uninitiated, is basically a vocabulary bulletin board. This is widely used in elementary classrooms (especially early elementary) for sight words, words that a reader should know on sight without having to look it up or think about it. I am all for anything that incorporates more literacy into the classroom, but there are two big challenges:
  1. Using word walls in high school classrooms is uncharted territory. Most resources (websites, books) about word walls are designed for elementary students--far too easy for high school students.
  2. In two years of use, no one at school has ever told us how to use a word wall. The administration wants one on every classroom wall in case anyone from the district wanders in to see what we're doing to help our LEP students (the group did poorly on state tests last year and thus we did not make Adequate Yearly Progress). It also gets written into our campus plan and other plans of action to say "Look at all of the things we are doing," whether they are actually helping or not.
Instead of dismissing the word wall as meaningless and useless (which I do with a lot of harebrained ideas thrown at the teachers), I have been adapting elementary-level ideas, high school vocabulary-building ideas and successful ideas from my years teaching social studies to turn this into something positive.

Instead of starting a new topic on our short week before Thanksgiving Break, I used that time to do a Word Wall Project to review all of the relevant vocabulary we had covered so far. All of the words are included or are part of a concept covered on our state-mandated TAKS test. Best of all, this project can be used for any subject and most grade levels, although this is probably most appropriate for middle and high school students.

The project requires students to recall or look up the definitions of about 25 words from the word wall, write clues (definitions, examples, pictures, or graphs) in their own words, and arrange them into a crossword puzzle. The crossword puzzle could be replaced with a word search or anything that would require giving the clues a second and third look. The important part of the project, though, is that students create the clues in their own words, ensuring some level of understanding.

I also included five reflection questions which, besides insuring they wrote more, reminded them the importance of such work and helped me learn which concepts still need reteaching:
  1. List the words that you already knew the definition for in your head.
  2. Why is it important to write definitions in your own words?
  3. Why do we need to know these vocabulary words?
  4. Which words do you understand better after doing this project?
  5. Which words are you still confused about?
As you can see in the project directions, each day had a specific task to keep students focused and on track to finish. The first day was devoted to creating the clues, and the second day was for creating the puzzle and answering the reflection questions. I also included a checklist to make sure they completed everything before turning it in.

I created a 20 column, 20 row table of .25" by .25" squares to give to students on day two, to avoid time wasted drawing boxes and fiddling with rulers. Any grid paper would suffice.

20 words may be too much for students to complete in the allotted time--cutting it down to 15 should give classes that are working diligently but need more time enough to finish it in class. You may also keep the 20 words but allow students to work in pairs so they can split the work.

Extension Ideas
  1. Give students standardized test questions that include each term or concept.
  2. Pick out the best puzzles from each class and give them back to the students in that class as an extra credit assignment.
  3. Have students write 1-2 of the definitions they created as a "Do Now" assignment in subsequent class periods.
If you like this idea, you can find more about it and nine other adaptable, classroom tested lessons in my book Ten Cheap Lessons: Easy, Engaging Ideas for Every Secondary Classroom.