1. existence or occurrence together or in connection with another
2. a thing that exists in connection with another
Last year I was fortunate to be involved in a ‘collaborative inquiry’ funded mostly by the Ministry of Education. I came to find out that it was basically a shared project that was more or less fast and loose semi-research. There were several key players including a kindergarten and grade one teacher from two different schools, some people from Spec Ed and some people from Program. I was originally invited to consult ‘briefly’ with the team because the inquiry question was settling vaguely on best practices for teaching vocabulary. They figured an S-LP could help shed light on what they meant by ‘vocabulary’ and how best to measure it’s growth. From there, my brief consultation turned into a rather involved role in the whole process! I’m glad, though, because it gave me new perspective on curriculum, classroom teaching activities, and consultation with teachers in general. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up a bit.
The final inquiry question was ‘What is the impact of explicitly teaching vocabulary categorization using experiential learning activities on student oral language development?’. Basically, how best to teach vocabulary through categorization tasks and field trips? The way the team went about it was to have each kindergarten and grade one teacher get together with an S-LP and plan their curriculum together. Each topic the teachers chose was linked to an ‘experiential learning activity’, which was fancy way to say a field trip or guest speaker. For instance, to learn about plants and animals, the students went to a local greenhouse and farm. There were various topics for each class such as plants and animals, community, weather patterns, and so on. Before each trip, however, the teachers planned various activities to learn the general vocabulary and concepts based on the Ontario Curriculum. That’s where the S-LPs came in. We were there to provide suggestions on how to structure these activities. Our basic premise to the teachers was that it is best to teach vocabulary within a relational framework using activities that targeted associations, categorization, and similarities/differences (what we later dubbed “the big 3”).
Now, if you’re an S-LP reading this, you may be thinking the same thing that we were and, like us, you may believe these activities to be obvious. Let me tell you that the second biggest surprise I got out of working on this project was that teachers do not see this as obvious. At least, not the teachers we were working with, and these ladies were pro-stars. When we began talking about making associations and sorting vocabulary by category, the teachers told us that they thought of those activities as math based, not language based. When we discussed similarities and differences we got a similar answer. Finding out what doesn’t belong, a classic categorization or sim/diff activity, was a math/patterning activity in their minds. I have to applaud them, however, on making the mental shift and trying out our ideas – it must have been difficult to change their daily approach! Difficult at first, in any case. Once they began changing the way they approached vocabulary instruction, they began to see results and once they saw results, they were sold. Forever. I know that they still use the same approach because they’ve recently told me so.
For each school there were three experiential learning activities, one per month, from January until March. Remember how they also wanted to know ways to measure growth? I had suggested using the PPVT-4 and EVT-2 (versions B and then A) for vocabulary and the Word Classes subtests on the CELF (CELF-P2 first and then CELF-4) for associations/categorization. We tested the kids in December and then again in April. Four measly months to see any potential differences. I was very explicit that no one should get their hopes up and that it’s incredibly difficult to change standard scores in such a short time.
The two schools had very different profiles as luck would have it. The students in school A had very high scores, generally, and the students in school B had much lower scores, generally. On the direct measures of vocabulary, the students did not make any meaningful changes. No surprises there. When we tested their categorization/association skills, however, I got the biggest surprise of the project: there was a dramatic increase in both schools. The strong students in school A increased from generally average (SS=10) to high average (SS=12). In four months! Then it got better. The students in school B (especially the grade one class) increased from low average (SS=7), many of them being below average, to average (SS= 10) and not one student was below the 25th percentile. They collectively moved up an entire standard deviation!!! For those of you who don’t speak ‘research math’, that’s an incredible amount. Even more incredible that it was in only four months.
The take home message for each of us in the project was a little bit different for each professional but all along the same lines. Here were my biggest take-home messages:
1. Teachers can make a tremendous impact on students’ language processing skills in a short time by making a few small changes in their curriculum delivery. As I said before, the teachers only changed a bit of HOW they taught the vocab and concepts. They used their SmartBoards to pair off and/or sort images related to a specific topic. They had students brainstorm all the words related to a specific topic and then created concepts webs to resort those words. They had students find the object/picture that didn’t belong and explain why it didn’t belong. They compared and contrasted things on a regular basis and in regular discussion. By doing this, the teachers helped the students build and organize a framework in their minds and, by extension, improved the students’ thinking skills. The students were more specific (e.g. instead of ‘pig’ they would say ‘pot bellied pig’), their writing was clearer because their thinking was clearer and they had a better organizational foundation to work from.
2. Teachers require several discussions about how to structure these tasks. I found that it took at least two of the three meetings we had surrounding the three different field trips before the teachers began to really grasp the types of activities we were suggesting. It also took that long for them to become adept at creating their own activities surrounding a new topic. It wasn’t enough for me to say “activities where students make associations between words, categorize and subcategorize words or compare and contrast words/concepts are helpful”. Again, as S-LPs we find this to be enough and to be self evident. It is not. The teachers required several concrete suggestions repeatedly to be comfortable with the process. I just wish I had the time to devote to every one of my teachers to do this process all the time!
3. Teaching curriculum around experiential learning activities was very beneficial. And they don’t need to cost a fortune. Going to the local grocery shop, the bank, or even the nearest wetlands would work just as well. The point was that the teachers prepared their students with various language processing activities in class, then everyone shared a common experience surrounding that topic, and then they did a few more activities after the learning experience. There was a great deal of discussion and writing surrounding each activity. The teachers also said that they found it much better to have these activities happen throughout the year, rather than as a culminating project at the end of the year, because they could anchor back to those experiences and further enrich the students’ understanding.
I think the best part of this was that these students now have that framework in their heads because that way of thinking and organizing language was explicitly taught to them. Now these students will have an easier time learning and remembering new words in the future because they can simply input them into the framework they’ve already established! It was a win for everyone involved!