Sunday, July 1, 2012

Word Harvesting

In February of this year, I had the opportunity to attend a professional development seminar by Tim Rasinski. He's a great and inspiring educator, but the thing that held my attention was something he mentioned only briefly, and that was an approach to vocabulary he called Word Harvesting. He read an article about a school whose test scores went up so tremendously that they were audited to see if the tests had been altered in any way. The scores were authentic, and, after looking into it, were found to be attributed to this style of vocabulary instruction. I'll come back to this story after I talk more about what Word Harvesting is and how to implement it.

During the seminar, Rasinski read the first few pages of the Caldecott and Newberry award winning children's book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, asking us to note any words a child might not be familiar with. In another demonstration, a hypothetical class studied one poem a week, picking out words to study. In both instances, students use authentic texts to focus on words they might otherwise read around. The next step is to put these words on a word wall and discuss their meaning. Afterward, the students and teacher use these new words in everyday conversation.

One of the things that intrigued me the most about the aforementioned article about the school with improved test scores was that classrooms walls became absolutely covered with chart paper recording these harvested words. I have a sort of pet peeve about creating artificial classroom environments, but this an example of a truly authentic environment. What better way to decorate your communal space than with words you mean to (and want to remember to) use on a day-to-day basis? And what better way to demonstrate to your students how important vocabulary is than to help them fill their environment with it? I found that to be a very powerful message.

So when I started student teaching with my 4th grade class, I wanted to implement this into our schedule.

The students were incredibly excited about it to begin with. The classroom teacher did not have a word wall to begin with, so I didn't have to "change the rules" of it, which I was a little nervous for. Rather, I began fresh with a blank bulletin board and explained our process. I handed each student a sticky note to either keep on their desk or use as a book mark (I'm the type of person that would use it as a book mark). I told them that I would normally tell students to write down any word they didn't know the definition of, but that because I wasn't sure how many of those we were going to find, I wanted them to write down any word they found interesting and wanted to add to their vocabulary. (Turns out there were actually a lot of words they came across that they didn't know.) We talked briefly about our academic vocabulary vs. daily vocabulary ("the words we know and understand vs. the words we actually use when we speak"). I reminded the students to write relatively small so that multiple words could be recorded on the same sticky note (and to remember to record the page number and book from which they found the word), but left the pad of sticky notes where they could access them at any time.

The 4th graders were excited to find interesting words and to announce their words to the class. Because so many wanted to share every day, I decided to call name sticks so that each child got a fair chance to share. I had the students state their vocabulary word, find the word in the online dictionary projected on the SMARTboard, and read the definition aloud. I wrote the word on a standard-sized index card while they did so and stapled it to the bulletin board. Then we discussed the word and attempted to use it in sentences.

The first problem was that once I called a name stick, the other students, disappointed, checked out. They seemed not to care about words their classmates found, only their own words. They didn't want to create sentences with the new words, and at times I couldn't even the student that gave the word to create an original sentence using it. How could I have made this more interesting? Probably by solving the second problem.

Which was in using the vocabulary words in daily context. I recognize that this was absolutely my fault in failure to model properly. I can only clearly remember using one harvested vocabulary word in everyday speech. I know it's difficult, but I now see that, for the entire method to work, the teacher must devote special attention to using the words her students have harvested. I know that's the critical point that I missed. It's tricky and requires flexibility and concentration, but it's absolutely necessary.

A third, smaller problem was the time required to discussing and defining harvested words. I say it's a small problem because while it does take time, so does anything worth doing. I found that I needed about 3-5 minutes per student/word, and on the days I did it, I usually only got around to two or three students. Perhaps the process would have gone faster if we devoted more time to it and got into the swing of it.

From 4th Grade Student Teaching

*Unfortunately, although I emailed Rasinski for the article he read from during the seminar, he did not respond with a link or title.
*Vocabulogic -- Word Harvesting: Using Authentic Literature as the Source for Vocabulary Learning (Rasinski)
*Center for Development and Learning -- Word Harvesting: Using Authentic Literature as the Source for Vocabulary Learning (written by Tim Rasinski)
*Essential Strategies for Word Study, a book by Tim Rasinski and Jerry Zutell
*Word Knowledge - Harvesting Words, a Scholastic PDF from the above book