Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Fun Way to Build Vocabulary

I have to share another fabulous technique I’ve learned in the brilliant BrainSMART program. This technique revolves around vocabulary building. 

Why Vocabulary Matters

Vocabulary is a skill that frequently does not get the attention it deserves.  However, its importance cannot be overstated.  As students learn, their brains are always looking for ways to tie new information to pre-existing knowledge.  In this way, the brain is able to chunk information into existing neural networks, thus making retention and retrieval more likely.  With this in mind, consider two students reading a new text.  The first student did not come from an enriched background, and has a limited vocabulary.  Even though his decoding ability is at an adequate level, he is not familiar with several of the words in his text.  His comprehension is therefore limited.  The next student was exposed to an enriched vocabulary from an early age.  As this student reads his new text, he is able to understand all the words.  When he comes across an unknown word, he is able to figure it out through context clues.  Decoding skills being equal, vocabulary made the difference.  The playing field needs to be leveled!

Level the Playing Field

A teacher can level the playing field through explicit vocabulary instruction.  This does NOT mean copying definitions from the dictionary!  Instead, one option is to try what I call Word Tallies.  I gave my second graders three new words last Monday:  peculiar, quaint, and stupendous.  After introducing the words and discussing meanings, I gave students the option of dramatizing the words (which is another strategy in itself).  One pair dramatized a phone conversation about something they found peculiar.  The next acted out a quaint tea party.  The last pair had a discussion about how stupendous their teacher is!  Finally, I put the words on the wall.  Every time someone in the classroom (even me) used one of the words, the word earned a tally mark.  Students could even earn tally marks by using the words at home (even other family members could add to the points).  I emailed parents to give them a heads up.  By the end of the second day ‘peculiar’ was used 40 times, ‘quaint’ was used 35, and ‘stupendous’ was used 45 times!  It was stupendous!  We kept our count with tally marks, and then moved the data to a chart to analyze our results. 


It was clear by the end of the second day that students had a firm grasp of the meaning of all three words.  Would they have gotten the same understanding by copying definitions from the dictionary?  I don’t think so.  The icing on the cake came in an email from an ESL parent.  She said her son came home and taught HER the words and definitions!  Wow.  The sprinkles on top of the icing… students were able to read the words.  This is now a weekly activity for my class.

I’m learning many other vocabulary building strategies as well.  This idea came from one of my BrainSMART class books, Classrooms That Work: They Can All Read and Write, by Cunningham & Allington.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Strategy to Improve Attention Span

If you’ve followed me for long, you know I love to blog about things I’m learning in the BrainSMART Masters degree program.  I’ve recently discovered something new and phenomenal!  I came across it in a book used by the BrainSMART program called, Building the Reading Brain, by Nevills and Wolfe (2009). It’s a strategy to help students extend their concentration and attention span. 

Working Memory

Many students who have reading problems have difficulty keeping names of objects or words in working memory.  All information must be processed through working memory before being passed on for possible long-term retention.  When reading, words are held in working memory long enough for an individual to comprehend the words they are reading.  Too often, students with reading difficulties are unable to maintain words in working memory as they struggle to sound out new words in a sentence. Therefore, comprehension is impossible.  Children who have this difficulty can be remediated with the strategy I’m going to share with you.  In fact, all students can improve their concentration.

Wait to Respond Strategy

The strategy utilizes “wait to respond” time.  Therefore, students must maintain and rehearse information in their working memories until it is time to share with their partners.  For example, tell students to think of 3 words that begin with the letter ‘m’.  Remind them not to share the words before instructed to do so.  When you give the signal, students share the remembered words with their partners.  As student concentration improves, increase the time or add to the task by asking for words that end with the same sound (3 words that end like ‘tire’). 

Add Complexity

Initially, exercises require a verbal response.  Written responses, “demand additional brain resources, including the motor cortex, and add to the complexity of the task” (Nevills and Wolfe, 2009, p. 80).  Therefore, when students are easily completing the tasks above, move to activities with written responses rather than verbal.  For example, give students three related words (walk, run, skip), instruct them to hold the words in their minds until told to write them down in the same order you gave them.  Eventually move on to unrelated words for more complexity.

Helpful Insights

When working with students with significant reading delays, I recommend working one on one until they begin to show some progress.  Begin by giving them three words to remember.  If this is too difficult, move down to two or one words as appropriate.  When asking these students to think of words, have them give you a signal when they have chosen their words (I ask them to lift a finger).  Wait a moment then ask for their words.  If you notice your student hesitating and searching the room for ideas… they’ve forgotten their words.  In this case, reduce the number of words and/or the wait time. 


I am excited about using this strategy with my students.  I have also shared it with parents who make a game out of the activity at home or in the car.  Our brains are trainable just like our bodies.  Let’s exercise those brains for optimal results!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Student Created Readers Theater

I’m trying to create more brain-friendly lessons based on what I am learning in my BrainSMART classes.   One point of research suggests that students do much better when their subjects are integrated as much as possible.   That gave me another bright idea…

My Idea

We are in the midst of a unit about Sequoyah and the Trail of Tears.   My idea was to blend our unit with writing, fluency, and vocabulary.   Thus my students embarked on a reader’s theater learning adventure combining their knowledge of Sequoyah or the Trail of Tears, with their writing and vocabulary skills. 

The Collaboration

My classroom is set up to encourage collaborative work.  Therefore, each table group became a reader’s theater group.  Students decided as a group whether to focus on Sequoyah or the Trail of Tears.  We reviewed what they had learned so far about each subject.  I wrote their comments on the smartboard for reference.  Finally, they began writing.  I had each group write their script on a single piece of paper, with the student who would read each part actually writing down what they would say.  At the end I made copies for each person in the group. That way I hoped to avoid ‘handwriting confusion.’

The adventure then began.  I gave them a relatively free reign just to see what they could accomplish.  It was interesting watching the groups work together to solve problems and make decisions.  One group immediately began mining books for more information to reference in their script.  Two other groups began by writing out a cast of characters and deciding who would play each part.  A fourth group began arguing about which subject to choose, then about who would play each part.

Ready to Perform!

Our script writing took two class periods. I was incredibly proud of how well the groups worked together to solve problems, integrate knowledge, and collaboratively write their scripts.  I just couldn’t wait to see the final products!  Soon my enthusiastic young writers were rehearsed and ready.  I videotaped their first performances so they could critique themselves and add to or delete from their scripts.  They were thrilled and motivated to see themselves on the smartboard! 

We invited our school principal in to enjoy the final fruits of their labor.  He gamely attended the afternoon performance and applauded each group.  Even though not every fact was correct, they did a fantastic job.  As usual I was humbled by what my second grade students can accomplish… and VERY proud of them.  I’m looking forward to our next student created reader’s theater!


Student created reader’s theater is beneficial because each student writes his or her own part; therefore it’s not too far above any given student’s reading level.  Each play is multi-level by default.  Specify what vocabulary or spelling words you would like to see included in each play, this way students get ‘real life’ practice with the words.  Decide on a writing skill you would like to see reflected in their work.  Capitalization?  Punctuation?  Complete sentences?  The list can be as long or as short as you want.  A word of caution…don’t put too many restrictions or it will detract from their creativity.   When you give this a try, keep in mind that it will get better each time your students participate.  Open the creativity gates and integrate those subjects at the same time!

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Saturday, November 6, 2010

Learning to Teach to the Brain

I mentioned to someone that I’m getting my Masters in Brain Based Teaching.  The response was, “Isn’t all teaching brain based?”  I used to think so also.  I’m now in my second course of the BrainSMART program (available through Nova Southeastern University).  I am learning extremely valuable information.  Knowledge that is transforming my teaching!  I’ve learned that the teaching style employed by thousands is in fact, NOT brain based.  Which is undoubtedly why our educational system is in such a questionable state.

My first BrainSMART course began with an overview of the important body-brain system, how to take care of it, and then delved into research about how the brain learns best.  The BrainSMART model was broken down into its individual components and studied.  We then learned specific strategies for utilizing each component of the SMART model.  From that first class, I was able to write my blog post Transforming Teaching.  If you haven’t read that, I recommend checking it out as it shows my before and after teaching strategies.

My current course is getting even deeper into how the brain learns, what exactly has to happen in the brain for learning to occur, what research shows are brain-friendly teaching strategies and interventions to achieve that learning, and why.  What I like about this class is that I’m learning even more of the WHY behind the strategies.  It’s utterly fascinating. 

Once example is mirror neurons.  Through the use of mirror neurons, children grow a powerful system of connections in their brains by simply watching what adults do.  According to Nevills and Wolfe in Building the Reading Brain, “This amazing system allows children to activate a neural set of connections as if they were actually doing what is being watched.”  In other words, children can grow neural connections as if they were reading by simply watching and listening to someone read!  This is yet another confirmation of the importance of reading to children.  Additionally, this reinforces the practice of modeling desired behavior in class.

Nevills and Wolfe also say, “One of the human brain’s most amazing capacities it its ability to sculpt itself based on what it experiences.”  This concept of neuroplasticity is amazing!  Students are not just products of their environment.  Brains can be ‘exercised’ and reworked to learn new and complex material.  That’s exciting!  We aren’t slaves to our DNA.  The important thing is to teach the way the brain learns.  It seems obvious, doesn’t it?  Yet so many teachers still only teach through lecture… and research proves students only retain 5% of a lecture.  Our kids deserve better than that.

Our educational system in much of the country is in trouble.  Each one of us can make a difference.  If you are thinking about a Masters Degree, or just want to learn to be a more effective teacher, I can assure you that BrainSMART is the way to go.  We can transform our educational system… BrainSMART is one tool, which I believe can do just that.  
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