Quitting Quizlet: A Better Way to Teach Vocabulary in Math, Science and Social Studies

Kids at school

Vocabulary instruction is such a common (and boring) component of most curriculums that even we teachers sometimes forget just how difficult – and critical – it is. We thoughtfully plan out our units, penciling in days for inquiry based projects and cooperative learning activities …. and then suddenly it hits us: Where are we going to fit in vocabulary? We get out our big pink eraser and squeeze in some time to copy definitions from the textbook, throw in a round of Kahoot or Quizlet, and maybe even assign a packet of four-squares. Vocabulary? Check!

Vocabulary instruction as an afterthought is bad enough, but even worse is overlooking how very different the process and purpose of teaching vocabulary is in ELA classrooms – as opposed to the content areas of math, science and social studies. Until my fifth or sixth year as a middle school social studies teacher, I never really gave the matter much thought. But then, I was asked to teach ELA two periods a day, and reflecting on my instruction through those two very different lenses completely changed my perspective!

In ELA, if kids don’t quite understand the deeper meaning of a word, it will certainly make comprehending the reading passage a bit more challenging. However, context clues, word part analysis, and many other reading strategies can often compensate for any unknown words they may encounter. In ELA, new vocabulary words are simply tools we give students to help them achieve their ultimate goal – reading comprehension. It is rare that a single unknown word is pivotal to their comprehension of the entire reading piece.

In the content areas, however, misunderstanding a single word can indeed derail the entire unit of study. Words like communism, denominator and heredity aren’t the kind of words students can deduce the meaning of using context clues. Analyzing their word parts won’t give them a deep enough level of mastery to ensure they can meet the unit objectives. In other words, in math, science and social studies, teaching the meaning of new words doesn’t just make reaching the goal easier … mastery of these terms is the goal. Teaching vocabulary and teaching content are one and the same.

After years of struggling with traditional methods of vocabulary instruction, which usually originate in ELA classrooms and often teach vocabulary in isolation, I realized my social studies students needed something different. If vocabulary in the content areas is the content, then I needed to treat it as such. Flashcards (digital or otherwise) just weren’t going to cut it!

Instead, I created Connection Cards. Connection Cards are 25 to 30 content related words written or typed on individual cards and used by small groups of students to create concept word sorts. In a concept sort, groups of 3 or 4 students use their collective knowledge to organize vocabulary words into groups, pairs, webs … or any other visual representation that makes sense to them. In doing so, and even more importantly in explaining their thinking to others, students have to draw upon the basic, textbook definition of each term – and also on its connections to other key terms in the unit.

You know those rare teaching moments when the clouds of confusion part, a bright light shines down, and the angels sing? Those times when the students are buzzing (in a good way), and you keep checking the door praying that an administrator will walk in to do an evaluation? This is THAT kind of strategy! Take this conversation I overheard just the other day as my seventh grade World Geography class was working with Connection Cards:

Student #1: “Let’s put Palestine with Israel because they are the ones fighting.”

Student #2: “Yeah, and we could put religion with those two because that’s the main reason they are fighting.”

Student #3:  “Wait … I thought they were really fighting over who owns the land more than religion. Shouldn’t we put land there too?”

Student #2: “Oh yeah … but, I don’t see a card with the word land on it.”

Student #1: “Ooo! Here’s one that says nationalism! Doesn’t that mean wanting your own country? That’s kind of like fighting over land, right?”

You just don’t get that level of discussion with a game of Kahoot!

Here are just a few more reasons why I love it:

  • The ability to organize the words in many different ways allows students to think outside the box; and yet, the relationships between the words ensures a focus on key information.
  • Student conversations promote internalization of the word meanings and a familiarity with the way they sound in a spoken sentence.
  • Lively debate takes place! To make things interesting, I always include some words that are not necessarily essential terms but extension words; words that will require students to make judgements or prompt friendly arguments as they sort. Words like, “fair,” “most” and “different” are sure to get them talking and jump start some interesting discussions.
  • Pictures can be included to stretch student thinking and appeal to visual learners.
  • After the sorts have been completed, there are hundreds of different ways you can extend the learning even more. Have groups switch tables and see if they can explain why another group has sorted their cards differently. Have students choose 5 words to use in a quick written summary of the unit. Have each student choose a word and see if you can create a chain with students explaining how each word connects to the next, all the way around the room. The possibilities are really endless.
  • Most importantly, the meaning of each word is learned through its connections to other words in the unit and to their own lives and background knowledge. And, we all know that making authentic connections is the best way to ensure student learning sticks!

Connection Cards have changed the way I view my social studies curriculum. Vocabulary is no longer a box to check off or a matching quiz to grade. Definitions aren’t even something I require my students to know. Instead, we learn the deeper meaning of each new word as it relates to the rest of the unit; we look at the whole puzzle instead of each individual piece!