Sunday, January 9, 2011

Making the Most of Web 2.0 Tools to Support Students’ Generative Vocabulary Learning (Castek)

Jill Castek is a post-doctoral scholar with the Seeds of Science/Roots of Reading project at the Lawrence Hall of Science, University of California, Berkeley where she develops and researches integrated science and literacy curricula. Jill is a literacy specialist with a decade of experience working with striving and struggling readers in grades K-12, especially students who are learning English. Her classroom-based research examines the challenges and opportunities for reading, writing, and learning on the Internet and explores the contexts and conditions through which the new literacies of online reading comprehension are acquired.

Jim Baumann (University of Missouri) and Ed Kame’enui (University of Oregon) are editing a second edition of Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (Guilford Press) to be published in 2011. Bridget Dalton (Vanderbilt University), Dana Grisham (National University) and I were invited to submit a piece that addressed special topics in vocabulary instruction.  In our chapter, Using Multimedia to Support Students’ Generative Vocabulary Learning (Castek, Dalton, & Grisham, in process) we suggest that the use of digital media in vocabulary learning should not only be receptive (e.g., viewing vocabulary graphics), but also generative (actively engaging students in using language and media to express themselves and to create products that represent their new knowledge). We assert that this type of vocabulary learning empowers students as agents of their own learning. The act of creation supports ownership, introduces authentic reasons for learning, and tangibly links reading, writing, and communication in ways that mirror learning outside of school. This post draws ideas from the chapter and suggests ways to promote students’ active word learning using Web 2.0 tools. In this post, I discuss three ways to utilize digital media to enhance word knowledge. 

Vocabulary Videos: Today’s students have grown up with YouTube as part of daily life. Consider having students’ produce their own vocabulary videos (or ‘vocab vids’) -- 60-second videos that situate word learning in a specific context.  The varied student-created examples found at VocabAhead (e.g., the entry for amble and the entry for headstrong) illustrate how video creation and multimodal expression make the word learning experience more memorable for both the video producers as well as the viewing audience. For tips and tools for creating videos, see the teacher page at VocabAhead.

Vocab vids illustrate how meaning can be communicated in 60 seconds or less, with few or no props. Bridget Dalton and a teacher colleague partnered to create a model that illustrates the power of video to illustrate word meanings (see Figure 1, below). Using a flip camera, they shot a video illustrating the word overwhelmed. The video opens with a shot of a desk piled high with books. The teacher is sitting on the floor, hidden by the desk. Suddenly, his hand appears, pulling a book off. More books disappear as the teacher pops up repeatedly, looking increasingly distressed. At the end, the teacher appears with a sign displaying the word overwhelm, saying, “I’m distressed, drowning in a deluge of books. This is an overwhelming amount of books to read! Can you tell I’m feeling totally overwhelmed?!” Note that all of the italicized words were found during a Web search the pair did to prepare for the video. They used different forms of the word (overwhelm, overwhelmed, overwhelming) and incorporated related words (distress and deluge) to aid in the development of concepts. The strategic embedding of a word into a web of multimodal meaning helps make the word learning experience more memorable for both the video producers and the viewing audience.

 Figure 1: Vocab Vid
iIllustrating overwhelmed. 

Simulate Twitter to Promote Target Word Usage: Today’s widespread twitter phenomenon tells us something important about language use and engagement. In 140 characters or less, information about “what’s happening now” can be shared instantly with an online community. The defining characteristics of a ‘tweet’ are brevity, timeliness, and the ability to instantly respond to others. Without actually creating twitter accounts, educators can bring twitter-like experiences into the classroom to expand vocabulary learning. 

To model a vocabulary related twitter, provide a target word or concept and challenge students to keep a related stream of tweets going as long as they can. Set the expectation that both target words and related words must to be used in each post. Provide a context such as a breaking news event, a topic you’re studying in class, or a book you are reading. To simulate twitter in a closed environment, try Wallwisher. Once the topic themed-wall is set up, this free online application does not require individuals to login and everyone can post together in a shared space. Like tweets, comment space is limited (Wallwisher allows 160 characters). 

The following interchange may serve as a tangible example. Imagine reading and watching online news reports about an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Students could then create a twitter- like stream to express reactions and questions, using the target words pollution and disaster. Before beginning, discuss the words’ meanings. Then talk through a few examples, as follows.

Twitter-like stream
Student 1: Bad news. An oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. Pollution is going to be a problem.
Student 2: Oil will pollute the beaches. What a disaster!
Student 3: You can’t swim in polluted water.
Student 4: The seagulls and pelicans will be hurt by the oil. It gets on their feathers.

Twitter-like stream (examining the news event from the perspective of different stakeholders)
Shrimper: Major disaster. Oil rig blew and oil gushing in Gulf of Mexico. Pollution might wipe us out.
Oysterman: What about oyster beds? I have to fish. Polluted oyster beds mean no oysters. What a disaster for me and my customers.
Beach lover: Gulf Shores beach has black oil washing up. Seagulls coated. Can’t swim in polluted water.
Clean up crew: Dish detergent is the best thing to clean oil pollution from birds. Who knew?!!
Oil company: The faster we cap the oil rig, the faster the pollution stops. 

Have Fun with New Slang: The dynamic and inventive nature of language is dramatically evident in the torrent of new words we manage to create each year. While we all may feel the need to chillax (calm down and relax) in the face of students’ often unconventional vocabulary use, seize the opportunity to build word curiosity and playfulness. Two excellent Internet resources for learning about words and language are the Visual Thesaurus and the Oxford Dictionary of English. The latter posts a list each year of new words added to the dictionary. Another excellent resource is the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary.  Also, at Wordspy, Paul McFedries tracks published neologisms (new word creations, many of which are slang and/or linguistic blends). 

Technology and media can play an important role in developing students’ vocabulary through generative, multimodal expression. Giving students experience with the digital technologies required in the 21st century will be motivational as well as academically beneficial. 

Castek, J., Dalton, B., & Grisham, D. (in process). Using multimedia to support students’ generative vocabulary learning. In J. Baumann and E. Kame’enui (Eds.) Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.


  1. Thanks for the great post Jill. I'm excited about the new edition of Baumann and Kame'enui's book. There is a lot of valuable information in there for teachers and students in the original 2004 publication. I'm very curious to see the updated version! In particular, I have long recommend Shane Templeton's chapter "The vocabulary-spelling connection: Orthographic development and morphological knowledge at the intermediate grades and beyond". While this is an important chapter for researchers, I think it is a particularly rich description for teachers of what vocabulary instruction can look like in the classroom.
    I also agree that videos offer a great tool for teachers and students to investigate vocabulary. I hope you don't mind if I point to another example of teacher made videos that build understanding science concepts and terms while developing morphological problem-solving strategies. You can find these two amazing videos at this link:

    Great stuff Jill!

  2. Hi Peter,

    Great to hear from you! You'll be glad to know that Shane is slotted to write for the new addition as well (on the exact topic you mentioned).

    Thanks a million for sharing your videos! These are an exceptional resource for building science understanding and will undoubtedly spark a great many ideas for teachers and students who seek to develop illustrative vocabulary videos.

    I really appreciate you sharing!

  3. Here at the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, we are constantly bombarded with the need for teacher preparation to include ideas for information and digital literacy. Recent program standards revisions (for the reading specialist and the teacher librarian) have included the terms but not everyone who is involved in revising standards understands what these terms mean and how they relate to both teacher preparation and student learning. This post is a wonderful example for anyone who struggles with these concepts.

    Geri Mohler

  4. I felt the same way, Geri. Maybe because the Web itself is so wide, that particular standard is difficult to contain. I especially applaud Jill's focus on creating networks of related words ( overwhelm, overwhelmed, overwhelming, distressing, deluge, etc) and the importance of generative and active word learning. I also appreciate her point that this can be done quickly (60-second videos, for example, and brief tweets). Great examples for how to use the endless resources of the Web in ways that are not time intensive.

    Thanks again, Jill!

  5. Thanks for your comment, Geri. I agree with your point that the terms used to describe reading, writing, and communicating online tend to be confusing. While informational literacy, digital literacy, and even new literacies bring to mind differing meanings depending on different academic perspectives, work in this area tends to share a set of common assumptions:

    (1) new skills, strategies, dispositions, and social practices are required by new technologies for information and communication;
    (2) digital literacy is central to full participation in a global community;
    (3) skills and strategies associated with digital literacy and new literacies regularly change as their defining technologies change; and
    (4) new literacies conversations need to be multifaceted and benefit from multiple points of view.

    Envisioning instruction with these principals in mind has helped me as I write for teachers and plan instruction for students.

    As Susan mentioned, the standards revisions can be difficult to interpret which presents quite a challenge. Planning quality conversations around implications for teacher education and student learning is certainly in order. Sharing ideas will guide as all toward better addressing this important area of literacy education. Much appreciation to Susan for providing a public forum in which to begin these important discussions.

    Thanks, Susan!

  6. General technological competencies are more appropriate specific skills for young children in a rapidly changing technological society. By developing this at a young age, the next generation will be more comfortable, confident, and secure in their own capabilities.

  7. Anonymous2/29/2016

    Thank you so much! Awesome!


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