How Children Learn Vocabulary – Bringing Words to Life, Part 1

One of the constant challenges of international school teaching is having a large number of students who might use limited English outside of school. Depending on your situation, you could have students with both parents as native English speakers, or both parents speaking a non-English mother tongue, or half and half. Some students speak their mother tongue with their parents and English with their siblings. Some speak one language with their mom, another language with their dad, and English at school (and sometimes you can throw in lessons or classes in the host country language). In any given class, you will most likely have combinations of all of the above scenarios.

Being bilingual or trilingual will give our students great advantages in the future, but less English exposure means that all teachers need to emphasize vocabulary development. This is not an issue limited to international education. When I started my teaching career in inner city Detroit, I was aware of the research showing significant deficiencies in language exposure for children growing up in poverty. In the National Reading Panel’s review of 45 different studies of vocabulary instruction (see pages 23-27), they found significant links between vocabulary instruction and reading achievement.

bringing words

Very few educators or parents would argue against the idea of vocabulary development in children. How then, shall we best help our students develop their vocabularies? I’m glad you asked. The best method of vocabulary instruction that I’ve found is laid out in the book Bringing Words to Life by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan. I’ve been using their methods of vocabulary instruction for more than half a decade, and If there’s one thing you should take away from this blog post, it’s that you should read this book. I will try to summarize the ideas here, but I will keep coming back to the same theme: read the book.

The authors promote the idea of “robust vocabulary instruction.” Giving students a dictionary and skills to look up words in not enough—students must have opportunities to learn the word (with simple definitions), see it in multiple contexts, and apply it on their own. Here is a lightning round of important ideas coming from the book:

Context isn’t enough

One of the first ideas the authors discuss is that simply reading a lot and learning new words from context is not sufficient for true understanding of new vocabulary. The problem is that there are several different types of context:

  • Misdirective contexts lead the reader the incorrect meaning of the word.
  • Nondirective contexts do not give the reader enough information to figure out the meaning of the word.
  • General contexts allow the reader to put the word in a certain category, but it is not specific enough.
  • Directive contexts, finally, lead readers to an accurate meaning of the word.

With so many contexts lacking specificity, or even misleading the reader, it is clear that direct instruction is the best way for students to learn new words. The next question is which words should students learn.

Tier one, two and three words

photoNow that we’ve determined the importance of direct vocabulary instruction, what words should we teach? Beck and McKeown have divided words into three tiers. The first tier is made up of basic words that are usually learned without instruction (for example: desk, write, sad, adult, etc.). The third tier contains specialized words which are important only within a certain domain (for example: photosynthesis, polyhedron, crevasse, etc.). The second tier, where we want to focus our attention, consists of words that are used frequently in literature and mature conversation and can be applied generally to different situations (for example: admire, mischievous, smother, unique, etc.). These words will be most productive for our students.

Student-friendly definitions

Anyone who has asked a child to look up a word in the dictionary is aware of the flaws of dictionary definitions. In some cases, the student may get it, but he is often just as confused as he was before looking up the word. The authors of Bringing Words to Life suggest using “student-friendly explanations” as opposed to dictionary definitions. Giving multiple, directive contexts (ie. good examples) is also important.

Let’s look at an example for the word “tender.” Here’s what your macbook’s dictionary would give you:

tender 1 |ˈtendər|
adjective (tenderer, tenderest)
1 showing gentleness and concern or sympathy: he was being so kind and tender.• [ predic. ] (tender of) archaic solicitous of; concerned for: be tender of a lady’s reputation.
2 (of food) easy to cut or chew; not tough: tender green beans.
• (of a plant) easily injured by severe weather and therefore needing protection.
• (of a part of the body) sensitive to pain: the pale, tender skin of her forearm.
• young, immature, and vulnerable: at the tender age of five.
• requiring tact or careful handling: the issue of conscription was a particularly tender one.
• Nautical (of a ship) leaning or readily inclined to roll in response to the wind.

That’s just one of the definitions. On the other had, here is my student friendly explanation:

tender – soft; gentle

It is not as detailed, but initially, it is better to teach one meaning of the word until the students have mastered it. For more examples of student friendly definitions, check out the videos on my students’ website. In my next post, I will provide a list of around 350 tier 2 words (with student-friendly definitions) that I have used.

Coming Soon

Despite pouring multiple hours into this blog post, there is still a lot to be covered, so I will break it into two parts. In my next post, I will cover sources of words and some specific instructional techniques that I use.

In the meantime, here is an interview with one of the authors, Isabel Beck (link if the embed doesn’t work):

The final question you may be asking, as you read this “ed tech” blog, is where does the technology come in? I’ll get to that eventually, but when students are learning new words, thinking about the SAMR model, I’m not sure technology is that necessary. I use shared google documents and spreadsheets with my students, but paper and pencil do a fine job for all of this.

Once my students have mastered new words, however, we get into all sorts of fun technology: iPads, doodlecast, youtube editor, and google sites, all of which I’ve written about on this blog.

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Student and Teacher Created Google Sites

google sites-icon-largeAs my students created more and more vocabulary tutorial videos, published to youtube, the question became how could we best organize and share them with other students. For our own use, we started simple with technology the students already knew – a basic google doc with each word hyperlinked. I thought about creating a twitter account to tweet a word of the day, and had a brief love affair with blogger, but I knew the best way to share the videos would be a website.

I started researching how to create websites and realized I had a lot of work ahead of me. Luckily, at our face to face meeting, Phil explained how easy google sites were to set up, and Kim assured me that third graders would be able to navigate and edit the site without too many problems. By lunchtime the site was set up, and I created a quick tutorial to show my students how to use it:



After that we were off. I haven’t needed the entire class to work on the website, so we did it on a volunteer basis, but it only takes a few minutes a day to update the site with the latest videos. Here is what it looks like now.

Google sites are so easy to set up and use, I will be using them more frequently for both teacher and student created pages. It only took a few minutes to set up a research hub for my students to learn about biome plants. Here’s how to do it:



At this point, I see only a couple of drawbacks to using google sites as part of the google apps for education suite:

  • Unwieldy domain names – Forget simplicity or a name your students can remember. It will more likely look like this:
  • Difficult to find with search – A problem closely related to the first one (and strange considering it’s a google product)…I can’t enter a few words into google and find our site. You have to either have a link or type in the entire url.

Those minor problems aside, google sites are a fantastic way for both teachers and students to share and communicate. Let us know if you’ve tried it and how you use it.

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Visible Thinking with iPad Math Tutorials

How many times have teachers looked at a student’s finished math problem, seen an incorrect answer, and wondered how the learner got from point A to point B? Conversely, how many times have students solved problems correctly but still had conceptual misconceptions in their thinking along the way? The issue in both situations is that the students’ thinking is invisible.

One of the top benefits of implementing new technology in the classroom is the ease with which you can document your students’ thinking. Using tablets and screen casting apps, students can solve problems while explaining their thinking, and the entire process is recorded.

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After getting some inspiration at the EARCOS Teachers’ Conference, I recently experimented with visible thinking in math. Through our big vocabulary project, my 3rd grade students were already experts on using “Doodlecast Pro” on the iPad. If you’re unfamiliar with screen casting, this post will give you some basic information on how to do it. Through my own flipped math lessons, they were also familiar with teaching and learning through video, so there were low barriers to getting started.

We brainstormed a list of learned math concepts, and then each student chose one, grabbed an iPad, and they were off. Unlike other videos we’ve made, I asked them to create their math tutorials unscripted. When finished, we published the results to youtube:



Though difficult for the perfectionists in my class, I asked them to keep going through minor mistakes. Documenting thinking was the main purpose–the global audience was an added benefit (and there’s no need to publish the videos at all if you prefer to keep them private). Some students did a great job of stepping into the teacher role though:




My students went ahead and linked the videos to our vocabulary website, so you can see the rest of them there under the “math” tab.

Watching your students’ videos will give you great insights into how they think and what ideas they need help with. In general, I noticed right away that my students needed more instruction with mathematical vocabulary. I also was able to give individuals specific feedback on misconceptions I saw. If the project continues, we will have well-documented records of their thinking over time.

One more quick question for teachers interested in trying this: how do you get an entire class recording videos at the same time without too much commotion? It can be a logistical challenge in one classroom. Luckily, my classroom is surrounded on three sides by the outdoors, so we took advantage of the nice Spring weather in Tokyo and recorded outside. We also finished by spreading out in the cafeteria, and I encouraged them to use a loud voice and power through background noise.

Let me know if you have questions or if you’ve tried something similar in your class.

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Redesigning a Performing Arts Unit with Technology

A year into my Coetail journey, I’ve redesigned many aspects of my teaching with technology in mind. Last year my team modified a unit of inquiry on plants, with students eventually demonstrating their understanding of the central idea through imovie documentaries.

Now it’s time to look at another unit, this time on performing arts, and better integrate technology from start to finish. Rather than posting the entire 9 section planner, I will highlight the standards and changes we will make to enhance student learning with technology.

Standards Met: – 1 and 2

1. Creativity and Innovation
Students demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology.
2. Communication and Collaboration
Students use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively, including at a distance, to support individual learning and contribute to the learning of others.

Central Idea: The performing arts are a tool for creativity, expression, and enjoyment in different cultures.

For those unfamiliar with the PYP framework, the goal of the unit is for students to demonstrate their understanding of the central idea through a summative assessment. For this unit, the students prepare a final performance in groups. They have freedom in choosing what to do for the final show, and the results are often creative, such as this combination of Filipino tinikling (traditional, bamboo stick dancing) and Taylor Swift.

The unit went well without too much technology last year, but I think there are some tremendous opportunities to increase student communication and reflection. Curriculum wise, it is a nice meeting of the 2nd ISTE standard (see above) and the PYP trans-disciplinary skills (communication skills and social skills). Here are the news things we want to implement:



For the first line of inquiry, students investigate common features of different performances. One way we investigate this is interviewing adults and other students about performances they have done. Last year we did this with paper and pencil, but audio recording the interviews would be a great chance to develop communication skills while doing research.

In the past, I stayed away from podcasting in part because I imagined it to be difficult, involving fancy microphones, complicated software, and an involved publishing format. I recently stumbled across audioboo, however, and it seems to be a quick and simple way of recording and publishing, done with an iphone or ipad.

I will report back with a future post once we’ve actually tried this, but for now we’ve already planned to go ahead and give podcasting a shot.

Video (recorded and uploaded by students)

We’ve used video before to reflect on and improve performances, but everything was filmed and shown by me. I think it’s time to relinquish that control and let the students take over. As a Google Apps for Education school, YouTube is the simplest way for us to share, privately and publicly, but I’m still in conversations with our tech team and admin over whether or not 3rd graders should be publishing with their own accounts (previously everything has gone through mine). I’d love to hear what other schools are doing about this issue.

Regardless of which direction we go, we are planning to make video a weekly part of the unit, rather than something we did once or twice in a month and a half in the past. The students do many small, classroom performances leading up to the big one, and video will be a key way for students to self-assess how their skills are developing.



With this commitment to video, we need to decide the best way to share and reflect on the student work we are uploading. In the past we’ve used edmodo, but my recent experiments with Blogger have shown that its ease of use and privacy settings would allow us to try blogging for the first time. We will start with a private, class blog, where students can upload a small performance and get feedback from peers through the commenting.

Ideally, after they learn the skills of blogging, I would like to continue with open blogs as they finish the year with two research-heavy units, but we can cross that bridge when we get there.

Google Drive

This will be the simplest thing to implement, as we’ve already been doing this. Still, interview questions for podcasting, whole class scripts, and groups scripts will all be written on shared documents through Drive.

Of all the technology in the plan, I am least familiar with podcasting and student blogging, so that will require more research along the way. I will report back about how those things go, as well as the unit as a whole. Please let me know if you have ideas or suggestions about the plan so far.

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Student Created Video Dictionary (update)

It’s been about a month and a half since I first proposed the idea of an online video dictionary, created by students. At the time, we had one prototype and many ideas of how to make things better. Since then, my students have taken on the project with enthusiasm, creating 30+ videos in only about 3 weeks of school time. We also teamed up and taught the creation process to a neighboring fourth grade class, who made 15 of their own videos one morning last week. Here is an example:


I am happy with both the quality of the videos and the amount of time spent making them. I was initially worried that this project would soak up too much time and take away from other inquiries, but we’ve settled into a routine where, after writing the scripts and drawing the pictures in advance, the students can create and publish a video in less than an hour. They’re also becoming skilled with Youtube Editor and adding annotations. We’re planning to work on new videos about once a week. Screen Shot 2014-01-19 at 1.27.13 PM

Now the question is how to move forward. This project could go for the rest of the school year and beyond and will probably become my course 5 project. I have an abundance of ideas and questions about what to do in the future:

Possible future steps:

  • Get other classes involved. We’ve already shown a fourth grade class how to make videos. At our school, we have two other fourth grade classes and one other third grade class we’d like to get involved. If the other classes embrace the idea, it would increase the number of words we are able to teach fourfold.
  • Recruit an audience to learn from our videos. Right now the videos are linked on our class Edmodo page, and they are public on Youtube, so people may stumble across them. We want as many students as possible to learn from the videos, however, and in the beginning, I may have to go out and find an audience. I’ve already chatted with the second grade teachers at our school about having their classes watch the videos (and later having my students quiz them), so that’s a start.
  • Take things outside of our school. Starting close to home is a good idea, but a global audience, by definition, goes farther than down the school corridor. Getting other schools involved, first in learning from the videos, and eventually in creating videos of their own, is an important goal. Let me know if you’re interested.
  • Start blogging the videos. I recently discovered how easy it was to get started with Blogger if you are already using Google Apps for Education. The first thing I set up was a “Word of the Day” blog. I haven’t done anything with it yet, but we already have enough content for more than a month, and it would be an easy way to introduce my students to the idea of blogging.
  • Start tweeting the videos. Another simple step to promote the videos could be creating a twitter account and tweeting the videos a few times a day. I personally haven’t been on twitter for about half a year, but my brief experimentation with it last year showed it could be a good medium for showcasing student work.
  • Create a website to house the videos. This is the big step. Twitter and blogging are a good start, but when the quantity of videos reaches a certain point, more than 100, a dedicated website would be the best way to organize them. This would also fulfill the idea of a true, online video dictionary. There’s a lot to learn before then (I’m happy to take suggestions), so I will hold off on this one for now.

I’m sure there are other things I’m forgetting, but those are a few ideas about how to move forward. I’d love to hear some feedback, and I will keep you updated on how things progress.

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Experimenting with Blogger (Google Apps for Education)

Now that my school is a year into using Google Apps for Education, everyone is familiar and comfortable with the main features, especially Gmail and Google Drive. There are other features worth exploring, however. For example, it takes literally less than a minute to set up a blog from your Google account. Let me show you how.

First, click on your shortcut menu in Gmail. Google often changes the architecture of its layout, but for now it’s in the top right side. When you click, you will see several App icons.

Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 5.58.25 AM

Click “more” to see the Blogger icon on the bottom right:

Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 5.59.00 AM

The blogger home will appear in a new tab. There is a list of your blogs (empty if you are new to this), and big button labeled “New Blog.” After clicking it, you must enter a name and url for your blog, and you are also given templates of how you want your blog to look (you can change this later, so don’t fret too much over the choice):

Screen Shot 2014-01-16 at 6.04.12 AM


The next step is to start blogging. Coetail members are already familiar with how to do this. Coetail uses wordpress, but blogger is not too different. If you prefer to set up outside of the Google world, here is an ed tech guide to setting up a wordpress blog.

Now that we’ve got the technical stuff behind us, let’s talk about how to use your new blogs. My primary interest is getting students involved with blogging. This can be tricky territory, especially if there is no precedent at your school. Some schools charged ahead with student blogging years ago; others have never considered it. Jeff Utecht makes a good case for student blogging (check out his free ebook). If you only want to experiment, there are steps you can take to keep the blogs private. On your blogger dashboard, click on the “settings” tab. This is where you will add authors (perhaps your students) and decide who has access to your blog.

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Right now I plan to use this as another outlet to publish my students’ videos. Later on, I think the transition from digital learning logs to individual student blogs is a natural one, but we will take things slowly.

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Using Google Drive for a Class Reading Log

Like many elementary teachers, I assign independent reading as part of my students’ daily homework routine. We keep this simple — no summaries, no book reports — just choose a book, read for at least 20 minutes, and record the title and author. Ideally, this log of books serves as a launching pad for conversations about different stories, genres, and authors. In practice, however, it’s difficult to find time during class each week to go over the reading logs and check in with each student individually. When it happens, if it happens, it’s often rushed.

To counter these problems, my students have moved their reading logs to the cloud with Google Drive. Now that my class has started with Google Apps, I was able to set up a class reading log in less than 10 minutes. Here’s a quick tutorial I put together to show the steps:


As soon as your students enter a few books, it will look like this:

Screen Shot 2014-01-15 at 6.43.36 AMTo add comments or questions about your students’ books, select a cell and click the comment button in the upper right side (or select Insert –> Comment).

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So far I’ve kept my comments and questions simple — I don’t think a spreadsheet is the place for deep conversations — but I’ve been able to communicate with my students about their book choices with more regularity than before. Students are also able to make comments to each other. I haven’t promoted this feature yet, but it’s already happening.

There are other options for children to share what they are reading. Some classes at my school are into BiblioNasium, which is like Goodreads for kids. I can see advantages to a website like this, but right now, Google Drive is the simplest choice for my class.

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Getting Started with Google Apps for Education

With more and more schools adopting google’s suite of applications, there are an increasing number of teachers and students learning to navigate gmail, drive, youtube, blogger, and the rest of google’s offerings for the first time. Many tech-savvy people are already familiar with google’s products and can quickly adapt them to an educational setting, but there are many teachers and students who are operating this software for the first time. Getting started can be intimidating.

google ed

Last year I experimented with one google account for my class in December, and my school implemented the entire suite of apps in January (which coincided nicely with the gafe summit (and the start of Coetail)). I was all in. In fact, looking back at my blog from that time, the first ten posts all dealt with google in some form.

This school year, although my students had accounts from the first day, I’ve waited to get started. We have used google occasionally, but when I asked them to sign into their accounts last week, more than a fourth of my class couldn’t remember their passwords, a sign of infrequent use.

Forgotten passwords aside, I’m ready to get back into it, and for the aforementioned teachers who don’t know where to start, I thought I would document a few things that will help you along the way.

If you’re new to google apps for education, the first thing you should do is put your students’ emails into your contacts list. After that, it’s time to set up two folders in drive that will allow you to share documents with your students. If that sounds complicated, don’t worry, I’ve created a quick video to show how it works:


This will be basic for many Coetail readers, but I’m hoping to share other tips in the coming weeks, and I’d love to see how others are using google in their classrooms.

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Unleashing 3rd Graders with Youtube Video Editor

After my students began to create content for an online, video dictionary, Clare and Mariko gave some good feedback about how to improve the videos. When recording, the students gave example sentences for a vocabulary word with illustrations included. One of the suggestions was to add the text of the sentences to the videos, so the viewer could both hear and see the example sentences.

The bad news is that the tool we are using to make the videos, Doodlecast Pro, does not include a feature that allows you type text. And writing the sentences by hand would be too time consuming—we want the video-creation process to be as streamlined as possible.

The good news is that youtube, where we have published all of our videos, allows you to add text easily. This is a useful feature which is unfamiliar to many people. I created a quick video to teach my students the process:

[fvplayer src=””]


After watching the tutorial yesterday, one of my students was able to add annotations to her own video in less than 10 minutes. This segued into the “Kids-Teaching-Kids” method, and in less than a day, half of my class was comfortable with adding annotations.

I was initially worried that Youtube video editor would be a little too complicated for third graders, but once again I am happily surprised with their ability to quickly adapt and figure things out.

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The “Kids-Teaching-Kids” Method of Implementing Technology in Elementary School

Rolling out new technology to a full class of elementary students is an intimidating task. No matter how well you model the tool with a projector, most students will not properly learn until they use the tool, make mistakes, and get assistance along the way. When a rollout happens at once, however, with a class of 15-25 kids, a lone teacher can easily become overwhelmed. There are ways to assuage this problem. You could bring in extra teachers to help your class. You could enlist older students to assist younger students. Or, if students have their own resources at home (or are in a 1:1 setting), you could flip the lesson using a video screen cast and hope students have parents or siblings around to troubleshoot when problems arise.

When my students recently started a video vocabulary project using iPads with Doodlecast Pro, I chose another way of implementing the new technology. Rather than trying to show my entire class how to create videos, I started with two students.


Photo credit to K. W. Barrett (Flickr).

The next day those two paired up with (and taught) two other students. Later, those four taught four more, the eight eventually expanded to sixteen, and within a few days my entire class was independently writing, creating, and publishing videos. Some students chose to continue working in pairs; others chose to make videos by themselves. It was much smoother than a huge roll out where everyone is confused and the teacher is pulled in a dozen directions at once.

I’m sure this has been done countless times, but I’ve never heard a name for it, so I’ll call it the “Kids-Teaching-Kids” method of technology implementation. Once my students were into the project, I still turned on the projector and showed the whole class a few tips and tricks, but mainly they were teaching each other.

I’d recommend this method to anyone who is hesitating to start a new project involving technology. Big rollouts are intimidating; starting small is a piece of cake. The next step for my class is to teach my school’s other third grade class, and then have the entire grade get another grade involved.

Has anyone tried a similar method of introducing new tech in the elementary? Or suffered from a disastrous big rollout? Let us know in the comments!

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