How Breaking My Knee Became a Blessing

A very powerful lesson I’ve learned in life is that everything that happens to you becomes what you make of it. You can’t decide what happens to you, but you can decide how you look at it, how you feel about it, and how you deal with it.

I once read about this old lady who was going to live in a retirement home. Right from the very beginning, without having step foot in her new home, she said that she loved it. She had never seen it in her life, yet she knew how she felt about it. How is this possible? The answer is that even though she didn’t know anything about her new home, she had already decided what her attitude was going to be. Therefore, everything she would experience would be wonderful. What a powerful lesson.

Eight weeks ago, as our country was still in lock down, my family and I decided to do one of the few things that we were allowed to do outside our home for fun. We rented electric scooters, the kind that you find parked in the street. I had never ridden one of those before, and I’m not really a motorcycle person, but how difficult could it be?

Well, it turns out it’s very easy to maneuver them, but it’s not that easy to ride them… As I was heading back home, a pick-up truck didn’t see me until it was too late. I didn’t have enough time to brake, and I hit the car, not without putting both feet on the ground first. My knee gave in and broke.

At first I felt fine. And then I tried standing up. It wasn’t that painful, but I guess I was in shock. I couldn’t stop crying. I mean, anything could have happened to me, and it definitely could’ve been a lot worse.

The man who was driving the truck took me to the hospital and paid for everything. I guess he was in shock too. I’m glad God was there, with me, watching out for me. In every single way.

Fortunately, this all happened the very first weekend of my summer vacation, meaning I could take my time to rest and take care of myself. I followed the doctor’s orders: I did as little as I could and stayed off my feet. This meant I had an excuse for binge-watching all the Netflix series I had put in my head’s “I’ll watch later” file. But it also meant I could take my time to read and start preparing for this year’s new adventure: teaching a brand new group of first graders through distance learning.

When the time came, I started going to the gym again and strengthening my leg’s muscles in the pool as well. Once again, I was grateful it all happened during my summer brake because I could dedicate the time that my knee needed to recover properly.

In retrospect, here’s what I learned:

  • Anything can be awesome. If you decide to look at it that way.
  • God is always with you. If you let him.
  • Discipline is key to a great recovery. If you set your mind to it.
  • In order to heal, it’s important to take care of yourself. If you love yourself enough.

Last Week of Vacation, Pandemic Style

This summer break has certainly been different. I would normally go back to Costa Rica and visit family and friends, but with everything going on in the world right now, travelling is not an option. So instead, I have dedicated my summer break to learning new things, with the intention of feeling more confident and comfortable once school starts again.

Like this blue sky with the sun’s rays shining through the clouds, I want to bring light to other people’s lives.

I have read books, articles and blog posts, been on webinars, watched videos, done workshops, and had conversations with other educators to try to understand the situation a little more. So far, my conclusion is that nobody really knows what the best way to teach and learn is right now. But we are all doing our best to find out.

Out of all the new skills and information, these are the ideas that I have liked the most so far:

  • Short videos will engage kids more.
  • Using choice boards on Seesaw is an option for kids to be able to choose how to learn and do things.
  • Sharing a morning message using Screencastify will give students independence.
  • Breaking kids into rooms in Zoom when I’m doing small group instruction allows me to confer with them at the same time.
  • The most important thing is still connecting with kids.

1. Short videos will engage kids more.

First of all, what is a short video? According to research, after six minutes students lose interest and stop paying attention. One of my favorite gurus, Jennifer Serravallo, recommends to make videos that are no longer than three minutes, especially for little kids.

On a Facebook live session in Cassie Tabrizi’s Create-abilities’s Facebook page, Jen talked about a cool Apple app, Clips, in which you can cut and paste really short videos, like Tik-Toks, and put them together as one. I used iMovie last quarter to edit my videos, but there were things that I wasn’t able to do with it. I’m hoping to improve my video-clip-making skills so that kids can feel more engaged!

2. Using choice boards on Seesaw is an option for kids to be able to choose how to learn and do things.

Thanks to Elizabeth Barnes, the ECE-Elemebtary principal at the time, our school has been using Seesaw for a few years now. However, I hadn’t really used it properly until Distance Learning started. I mean, I had used it in my classroom as an activity for kids who love technology. But I didn’t make my own activities or didn’t really pay much attention to it at all. Boy, what a surprise it was for me when I found the things that can be done in Seesaw!

This summer break, one of the topics in which I have centered my attention is this one. I wanted to go back to school knowing how to use Seesaw well, to be able to give kids a better learning experience, despite our physical challenges at the moment, and to play with Seesaw to the best of its (and my) capabilities. One of the cool things about this website is that they know that because of the Pandemic, a lot of teachers have had to learn how to use their website as fast as possible. So they have created lots of videos and workshops to support teachers interested in upping their game.

In “Choice Boards in Seesaw“, Kris Szajner shows how to create choice boards both using Google Slides and Seesaw. I think it’s a wonderful idea! Now I can differentiate by giving kids a chance to choose how they want to learn, practice, and show their learning! I’m sure this will make the experience a lot better for kids, parents, and me!

3. Sharing a morning message using Screencastify will give students independence.

I have to confess, even though I’ve known about Screencastify for a few years, I am just learning how to use it. A lot of the podcasts, webinars, articles, and workshops I have attended mention this great website and how to incorporate it into Distance Learning. One of the ideas I got while at this year’s Seesaw Connect is exactly this one.

What caught my attention the most is the possibility of having kids watch me while I show them. For example, let’s say I want to explain how to do the math lesson. I can record a video of myself explaining what the expectations are, and then show them my computer’s screen as I open the math activity and go through it with them. With Seesaw, I can have separate videos, but kids are expected to know how to access those videos. Sometimes, they need someone else’s help to do this, but if I can show them how to do it while explaining it to them, I’m giving my first graders independence–something that a lot of parents will appreciate!

There are many, many uses for Screencastify, and I’m sure this is only the tip of the iceberg. This is something else that I have learned this summer break and can’t wait to start using!

4. Breaking kids into rooms in Zoom when I’m doing small group instruction allows me to confer with them at the same time.

Again, I have to thank Jennifer Serravallo for this one. While she was doing the Facebook Live session with Cassie Tabrizi, she mentioned how she had been using Zoom and then breaking kids into rooms.

First, let me give you a bit of context. In the interview mentioned above, Jen was talking about ideas she had come up with to help teachers do Distance Learning with more ease. She explained how it is possible to continue doing small group instruction and then confer individually with kids by sending them into the breakout rooms in Zoom. What she did was start with the mini-lesson, and then send kids to the breakout rooms, confer with them individually, and end the session by gathering them again to do the close up.

The possibilities are numerous! I can see myself sending kids in pairs to do Turn-and-Talks, doing strategy lessons, number talks, and guided reading using this modality! Another idea I can’t wait to start using!

5. The most important thing is still connecting with kids.

I can’t stop mentioning this because I believe this is the most important thing in education. It is the foundation for everything else. Without love, there’s nothing. Kids need to be heard, seen, and felt cared for. As an educator, nothing matters more than this.

There will be no meaningful learning until students feel that the adult in front of them cares about them. It won’t matter if children learn about main ideas and 3-D shapes later in the future if they don’t feel that there is somebody out there that cares about their well-being. Hopefully, their caregivers are the ones doing this. But I can’t help but think that not everyone is so fortunate. So I make sure they have someone that does.

Which ideas did you like the most? Is there anything you would like to add? I would love to start a conversation and learn from each other! Please comment below or write me an email. Good luck this school year!


Going Back to School, Distance Learning Style

How do you imagine going back to school this year?

Lately I have been thinking a lot about going back to school this year, the year of the Pandemic. A lot of ideas come to mind, but especially, a lot of uncertainty. I know I am not alone in feeling this way, so if you are reading this and wonder about the 2020-2021 school year, this blog post is for you.

There is a lot of information out there right now. I don’t think I have ever been exposed to so many wonderful ideas in such a short period of time. Truly. Now, this can be a blessing, but it can also be overwhelming. Where do we look to? Who do we follow? How do we know if what people are proposing will work? The truth is… we don’t.

It’s a learning experience

For the first time in a long time, we are entering a new territory in our educational world. What to do? I say, why not just throw ourselves out there and find what works for us and our students? Just like in our old classrooms, it’s a learning experience.

Great teachers are the ones that aren’t afraid to try out new things but not because they are fearless, it’s because they know that mistakes make them powerful. The more they learn, the more new things they try, and the more new things they try, the closer they come to finding what they are looking for. The secret is that once they do, they don’t stop. They find new things that help them better their practice.

Building relationships

One of the things I’ve found repeatedly is the importance of building relationships first. If when we were able to teach in the classroom physically it was fundamental to work on getting to know students, then now that we are starting the year off virtually, it becomes essential.

Like I’ve said on other blog posts, we don’t know what our students are going through. We may easily be the only person they have a real conversation with for an entire day, so let’s make it count.

How can we make it count?

One of the best ideas I’ve seen out there has to do with the importance of play. In this article, there are a lot of great tips for having kids play during distance learning. Also, they mention why children need to play and how to explain it to their parents.

I think this can also be applied to older students. I have a teenage daughter and I know for a fact that she loves it when her teachers play games with her. What I’m thinking is, it’s a great way to start the year with new students! Why not play during the live video sessions? Better yet, what if we ask the kids what they love to play and adapt their ideas to play with them?

I’m still not sure how I will be doing a lot of things, but I know that I will take my time to build relationships with new students and their families this year. Something in my gut tells me that this is what I need to help my kids (and their families) grow this year. How about you? What are your thoughts? How do you envision your beginning of the year?

“We knew that it would be better for all of us as a community if we could improve our play. Less crying and yelling and more laughing and talking made for a better experience for all of us.”

Emphasizing the Importance of Play During Distance Learning, Edutopia.com


Top 5 Lessons I Learned While Doing Distance Learning

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A few days after the school year ended, I looked back at the last quarter and started reflecting on the experience. All school years are unique, for sure; but this one has its own reasons that make it stand out. I’m sure a lot of educators are still trying to learn from what worked and to fix those different issues that arose during the world’s first massive distance learning experience. Here are the top 5 lessons I learned. I hope they enrich your experience.

1. Relationships are what matters most.

This unprecedented moment in time is different for everyone, including children. We are all processing this world-wide crisis in our own ways, learning as we go. Now, more than ever, loneliness is a strong emotion present in many people’s lives. What we were able to do before is only a memory and a wish for the future. In spite of all this, relationships continue to be what matters most.

People, especially kids, need to feel there are others out there who care for them. As teachers, we have an incredible power in our hands: we get to show little ones that what they have to say and share is received by someone. Their voices are heard. They are seen. They matter.

These last few months I’ve learned many things, but I think the most important lesson I’ve learned is how valuable human interactions and contact are, even if they have to be done through a screen. During the last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year, I got to know my students and their families in a way that I could have never imagined. We weren’t able to hug each other or be in the same space at the same time, but somehow, we were able to comfort each other. The reason is: relationships are what matters most.

2. You’ve got to make it fun.

The second lesson I learned while doing distance learning is kids still need to have fun. Yes, we need to try to keep the learning going, but why not make it fun?

I’ve got to admit… I have an advantage. I’m also a mom. This advantage gave me the chance to look at this experience through different lenses: the teacher’s and the mom’s.

As a mom, I saw when my daughter had completed all her tasks in one hour, which meant that for the rest of the day she would be wasting her time on the Switch, iPad, or Netflix. At least at first. That got me thinking… If my daughter didn’t find what she was learning challenging or fun, did this mean that my students probably didn’t either? I also saw what thought-provoking, fun activities made to her. So I started thinking differently. My first grade teammates also helped me in this area a lot! We started including optional virtual field trips, and experiments, and spirit weeks, and arts and crafts. Not all the kids participated all the time, true. But the ones who did had a blast!

By the end of the quarter, I received messages saying that it was fun. And I’m sure they kept learning through it all.

3. It is possible to enjoy a good book, even without the book at hand.

There are a bunch of great websites where kids can listen to someone read a story they love. One of my favorite ones is “Storyline Online.” It’s a site where actors read a book and share why they like the book so much. The characters and settings come to life through the pictures and the way these actors impersonate the characters. Plus, they have a great selection and the books are wonderful. They even have lesson plans and ideas for how to share the books with your students.

Now, if what you want is for students to do the reading themselves, then there are other options as well. Epic (getepic.com) also has great books to choose from, and during distance learning it was free. You can find books like the National Geographic Kids series, Curious George, Splat the Cat, and Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type. Another option is RAZ Kids (kidsa-z.com). You’ve got to pay for this one, though. But I totally recommend it. They have leveled books, and you can choose to keep the read-aloud option open, meaning kids can listen to the story ready to them before they read it on their own. This also gives kids the opportunity to listen to and follow along stories, even if they are still not ready for them.

4. Take care of yourself.

This is a hard one, but it makes sense. We are all so fixed on trying to help everyone else, that we forget to take care of ourselves. It took me a while to learn this lesson, but in the end I did.

It all happened when I realized that I was working all day long and didn’t have any free time. I think I got into this cycle where I thought that it would all be over soon, so I just did what I felt I had to do. But it left me drained. The thing is, they say that when you love your job, you don’t work a day in your life. And I do, and it’s true, but by the end of the day I always felt like a train wreck. I had no energy left. So I decided to give myself a schedule and include things that I love to do in it. That way, I would get back into a routine where I had an important role, meaning I would give myself time for me.

5. Parents aren’t teachers, but they are great allies!

I have to thank one of my teammates for this one. At the very beginning of distance learning, she used an activity from Seesaw (web.seesaw.me) in which kids had to interview their parents to find out how they used math in their lives. The lesson I learned from this was so simple, yet so valuable.

Kids are not in school right now, but many parents aren’t at work either. For one reason or another, many adults are staying home now. So why not include them in our students’ learning? The activity mentioned above was cool for many reasons, but my favorite one was the look in my kids’ faces when their family members were being interviewed. How proud they were to be showing off what their moms and dads do for a living!

Many of our students’ parents are not teachers and have their own jobs they need to take care of. But that doesn’t mean we can ‘t include them in the activities! On the contrary. I learned that it enriches the experience when we do.

As the new school year approaches, I can’t help but feel excited and a little bit nervous. For the first time in my life, I will meet a new group of students from my computer and not in person. Although the last quarter of the year taught me important lessons, and I have really been out there participating on online courses and webinars, and reading as much as I can, I think nothing can really prepare me for what is to come, especially because I teach kids in Early Childhood Education. One thing I’m certain of: this will be a unique year!


Teaching Robust Vocabulary: Context Clues and Writing

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About 20 years ago, I had orientation week at a school that I still love. My mind was blown away as I learned about teaching vocabulary in context. Basically, we had to make up a short story that included the 7 to 10 words that were going to be introduced that week, and then talk about it with students. It made a lot of sense to me, and I could see the practicality. However, there’s so much more that goes along with that idea! There was something missing. Now I understand that back then I was more focused on teaching the words to students, so I didn’t quite know what to do with students who were not learning them. I had a long ways to go…

A Short Recap

In my last blog post, I wrote about teaching robust vocabulary meaningfully to Early Childhood Education students who are also English Language Learners living in a country where English is not spoken as a main language. This blog post focuses on teaching vocabulary in context and using new vocabulary in writing. Many of these ideas come from the book Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, by Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan (2015).

Teaching Vocabulary in Context

Going back to the story about what I learned during orientation week, after reading the book and reflecting on my previous experience, I realized that there is a lot of value in teaching vocabulary in context, but the method we were using needed work. It is possible to infer what unknown words mean if the context is set up correctly, but it is also important to follow through with a bunch of exposure and practice.

The College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards state that it is expected for students to understand what a word means by using context clues, among other skills related to vocabulary. However, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan discuss several reasons why this is not achievable all the time; they illustrate their point with a few examples of misleading context clues. What they mention is that sometimes using context clues might do the opposite and confuse the person reading. Because of this, they believe the real focus should lie on learning the process and not so much the product.

Another important point to consider is that vocabulary becomes meaningful when it is taken from real examples, like, let’s say, the books being read aloud in the classroom. In other words, taking advantage of those precious moments when you share a book with students, and being intentional in the books that you choose to read by planning ahead what those vocabulary words are, will contribute to student engagement and, thus, raise their lexical bar a notch. But it doesn’t end there. Afterwards, in your vocabulary lesson use this previous experience to make learning vocabulary in context purposeful and significant. Putting it differently: read the story first, introduce how to use context clues to understand those new words later.

Here’s how Beck, McKeown, and Kucan propose teaching vocabulary in context:

  1. Read and paraphrase. Go back to the story read aloud. After this, paraphrase in a simpler way, making sure to emphasize the unknown word.
  2. Establish the meaning of the context. Talk about what is going on and what is being said. What are the sentences about? This helps the “reader develop a sensitivity to the relationship between a novel word and the context in which it appears.” (p.132) In other words, guide students to focus on the process of figuring out the meaning and not the actual meaning. That part comes in the end.
  3. Discuss initial identification/rational. This is the interesting part where students can make their thinking visible. Try asking: “What makes you say that?” Here’s where some coaching can take place.
  4. Consider further possibilities. Talk about the different meanings the word may have because of the context in which it is found. Continue coaching students if necessary. Don’t expect to find the meaning of every unfamiliar word, and make sure to let students know this.
  5. Summarize. This last step helps students draw conclusions. This is also the part where the real meaning of the word is revealed. But remember, the focus is on the process and not the product.

Following my reflecting on this past experience, I came to two conclusions: first that I should have focused more on the process of using context to figure out new vocabulary words, and second, that the problem wasn’t so much the way those new words were being introduced, but it had more to do with what happened later. Just like it isn’t enough to sit on a bicycle and start pedaling in order to learn how to ride it, listening to unfamiliar words being used in context isn’t enough either. You’ve got to learn the process and practice! Repeated exposure to what is being learned is a fundamental part of that learning process… if you want it to last. There are many ways to practice, but making it fun will engage students more!

Applying New Words to Writing

As a teacher, I feel really proud and excited when students organically use new vocabulary words in their writing. I regret to say it doesn’t happen as often as I wish it did, but the good news is there is something that can be done about it!

Beck, McKeown, and Kucan talk about Lisa Yonek’s dissertation research from 2008 in which she proved kids can be encouraged to use more sophisticated and precise words in their writing. Yonek kept a poster with the words they had been studying up on the wall and reminded her students about it before they started their writing assignment. Just by pointing them in that direction, she noticed a great increase in the use of new vocabulary in her students’ writing. Of course, she had followed Beck, McKeown, and Kucan’s recommendations for robust vocabulary instruction in the first place, meaning students were set up for success.

Anyway, maybe those students didn’t include more sophisticated and precise words as a natural choice, but I wonder what would happen if this same exercise is continuously repeated throughout the year? I bet we would see more Tier 2 and Tier 3 words* used naturally in our students’ writing pieces than if we just let them be.

In Conclusion…

Reading the book has made me more aware of the effects of teaching vocabulary meaningfully in reading comprehension, writing, and language use. Even though we will not be in the classroom like before when this new school year begins, this topic continues to be an important piece of the literacy puzzle. I welcome the challenge of doing this virtually when the time comes! If you have any thoughts or ideas, please comment! I’d love to hear from you!

“If vocabulary instruction can improve reading comprehension, then it may be possible to improve the quality of student writing by teaching vocabulary in the same manner in which it has been shown to impact reading comprehension.”

Duin and Graves (1987)

*Read my last blog post to learn about Tier 2 and Tier 3 words.

In Retrospect

I know… It’s been a while.

What a year!

Looking back at what I’ve written, I want to say that I feel very proud of myself. I know that it is not socially acceptable to say this, but I am! It’s amazing to be able to take a look at what I was thinking one year ago. To me, there is no better way of doing this than by putting my thoughts into writing, which is why I decided to come back and write about what I am thinking right now.

In this past year, I was able to accomplish some of the goals I set for myself, and forgot about others. I guess that’s what experience gives you: the opportunity to choose the path you want for yourself. It’s all part of the learning process, and as long as I continue looking at it this way, I know I will be fine.

Here’s what I did and didn’t do:

  • I did use shorter videos to help kids learn from a distance. However, as time went by I was able to sneak in longer videos. The kids in this class loved the ones that engaged them in some sort of activity with their bodies, so I especially looked for those.
  • Breakout rooms helped us differentiate instruction in ways we couldn’t imagine! From reading strategy instruction, to sharing our writing, to SEL (Social Emotional Learning), breakout rooms are a wonderful tool this day in age!
  • I didn’t use Screencastify on my morning videos, but I used the built-in video feature in Seesaw instead.
  • I didn’t use choice boards either… too complicated for first graders!
  • I did make wonderful connections with my students and helped them become as independent as I could. We became a community in which we all helped each other.

This Pandemic has given us so much! (And taken away a few things as well…) It helped us open our eyes to see what is valuable in life. It helped us build stronger communities and closer bonds between us (teachers) and students & their families. It helped us become better at what we do.

What Am I Up to Right Now?

I have been focusing on the importance of teaching kids strategies. My grandmother used to say “Give a person a fish and they will eat; give a person a fishing rod and they will learn to fish so they can eat.” I absolutely believe in this and hold it close to my heart. This is why I focus my teaching practice on strategies.

I’m also using the self-reflecting tool our wonderful ECE Principal, Corinna Krocker, gave us at the end of the year. In the past, just like in many schools, we didn’t revisit PD’s or tools like the one Corinna gave us. But I really found this one to be useful. It made me stop to think about what went well and what needs some tweaking. The interesting thing is I have been adding on to it ever since I started filling it out. Every article I read or new piece of information I receive that I think will help me in some way, I include into this self-reflection tool, hoping to revisit it constantly in order to keep track of what I want, what I am doing to achieve it, and what I will be doing once I’ve accomplished my goals.

This new year comes with a promise that life will somehow start to feel more normal every day. I don’t know if we will be able to go back to school to teach, but I know now that we’ll be fine either way! We just have to focus on what’s important.

Teaching Robust Vocabulary: Introduction

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In my last blog post, I mentioned that I wanted to write about the book I was reading: Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, by Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan (2013). The reason why I wanted to write a blog post about this topic is that vocabulary instruction has always been challenging for me. Even though I thought I was devoting enough time to teaching new words to kids, I’d end the lesson feeling like they only learned the words superficially, meaning that probably the day after they wouldn’t remember most of the words (so they didn’t really learn). I’ve always felt like there was a piece missing in the puzzle and thought that there must be a more effective, engaging, and productive way for students to learn vocabulary than the traditional format… you know, the one that comes with the reading programs some schools use? Long story short, at one of the workshops I attended, the speaker talked about Bringing Words to Life, so I thought, “Well, isn’t this my lucky day? I finally have what I’ve been looking for! A different approach to this.” So I asked my principal if the school could buy the book for me. They did, and I finally found the time to read it 😊.

Of course, probably the fact that I’ve only had experience with international schools in countries that do not have English as a language spoken in the country, has something to do with my struggles regarding vocabulary. Most students at these schools normally begin learning English only when they start school. And the only contact they have with English is at school, in the music they hear, and the television shows they watch, provided kids keep them in English. So the learning experience these students have differs from the one that English Language Learners (ELL’s) living in the USA or other English-speaking countries have. The funny thing is… I’ve seldom read any articles or books dedicated to this vast world. I mean, think about it: how many international schools are there around the world? How many children are learning to speak English under these conditions? And yet, there is little or no literature to help all of the teachers who dedicate their lives to this segment. Soooo… I read this book through the international-teacher-living-in-a-non-English-speaking-country lens.

Because I am writing a blog post about a whole book, I decided to break it into parts. This is the first one regarding this topic. It’s not only a way to put my thoughts in order, but I am also hoping it is a means to start a conversation with those of you who read this post. In other words, it’s an introduction with the intention of setting the ground for friendly dialogue.

First Things First: Where to Start?

The first thing you need to know is that, according to Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2015), words can be classified into 3 tiers:

  • Tier 1: words people use in every day conversations
  • Tier 2: words that are not normally heard in conversations but can be found in literature and need to be addressed in order to be learned
  • Tier 3: words specific to domains or topics–academic words

The authors mention that students are ready to start learning Tier 2 words when they are able to “get along on the street.” This means something totally different when living outside of the US. For the population that I’m talking about today, I think this could happen when kids are able to follow a whole group conversation in the classroom and participate in it. Everyone knows that kids have their own pace when learning, which means that some kids are ready to start learning Tier 2 words in Pre-K, others in Kinder, and yet there’s another group who are still not ready at the end of first grade. As with everything else, the key is to differentiate; kids who are still learning Tier 1 words are going to need more time and intensity when learning Tier 2 words because they’re not quite ready yet.

So How Can We Teach Vocabulary Meaningfully?

Some time ago, a very dear friend of mine, colleague, and coach, Rebecca Kramer, told me something that explained why some international schools use reading basal programs: the high teacher turn-over. It makes sense. One way to assure a bit of continuity from one year and teacher to the next is if everyone teaches the same content and in the same way. However, I have found that when doing this, the teaching (and learning) don’t quite reach a level of excellence. Anyway, that’s a topic for a different blog post, but the point is: even though your school’s reading program already has chosen vocabulary words for you, try reflecting on your class’ and students’ needs, interests, and readiness. Because most of these books were written for native speakers, it is understandable for you to make the necessary adjustments, especially if you want students to make important connections to those words. Here’s a way to do this.

The first step is to choose the words you will be teaching your students. Some good questions to ask when identifying those Tier 2 words are the ones that follow. Remember, these are words that don’t occur in every day conversation but will show up when reading:

  • Will students be able to explain the new word using words that are already well-known to them?
  • Is it really a Tier 2 word, or is it Tier 3 or a high frequency word?
  • How are you going to deal with the word as a teacher?
  • Is the word worth learning? Will it be useful in a variety of contexts and domains? Will it give the students more precision to express themselves? Will it help students communicate their ideas in a more mature way? Will it contribute to the verbal functioning of students? Is it a concept the students will understand?
  • How many words will you choose for that particular lesson? What time of year is it? Will students be able to handle it? What is the level of difficulty of the other concepts being learned? Which words are going to provide students with the most leverage?

The first two questions are of special consideration with the population of students we have been talking about, keeping in mind that these kids are learning English only at school. Ask yourself: which words are well known to them? Mostly, these are very simple and concrete words when you are working with students who are in Early Childhood Education (ECE).

Asking these questions will help guide you to choosing words that can become meaningful to the students.

Then, How Are Words Introduced to ECE Students?

Once the words have been chosen, with little kids, they can be introduced when reading out loud to students and not before. Remember, children in ECE are learning to read and write as well, so Tier 2 words are introduced in read-alouds because these are usually longer and harder to decode at the beginning stages of reading. As the teacher reads, he or she stops briefly and explains the word to the kids. With ELL’s, this explanation will be accompanied by a conversation about the context as well, making sure to scaffold when needed. Pictures are a great support at this point in addition to everything else.

After reading the book, the next step is to have conversations about some of the words chosen. The authors mention that, according to their research, it is recommended not to do more than three per lesson; however, I would say that with our ELL’s in ECE, two words are more than enough.

During their research, these authors came up with the following steps to introduce 3 new vocabulary words in one lesson:

  1. Provide a context for the word. When explaining the word, talk about what happened in the story as the word was being used.
  2. Explain the meaning using child-friendly words. For this, it may be a good idea to think about the definition before doing the mini-lesson. Sometimes it is not easy to conjure word meanings out of thin air!
  3. Have students repeat the word. Yes, even though it may sound old-fashioned, repeating is still a good strategy to use. As kids are verbalizing the word, they are internalizing the correct pronunciation and practicing its sound. With ELL’s, this is an important step because they are learning the language too. I recommend to have students repeat the word several times. Using different voices might make the experience more fun (“Say the word like a baby! Now say it like a whale! How would a robot say it?”)
  4. Talk about examples in other contexts. Kids tend to think of the word only in the context in which they learned it. For example, if you are talking about how Sara showed responsibility when she remembered to bring her permission slip signed, then kids will probably be thinking about other situations related to bringing something to school. Therefore, use the word in one or two more contexts to show other ways of thinking about and using the word.
  5. Have children come up with their own examples. With our population of ELL’s, one way you can scaffold is by using sentence stems. Keeping the same example as the one above, you could say, “After breakfast, Edgar took his plate to the sink and then put his snack and lunch in his lunchbox. Can someone use the word responsibility to talk about Edgar? It would go something like this: Edgar showed responsibility by ___.” After kids have had some time to talk about the new word, then they are ready to give their own examples. This step might take a little longer, meaning they probably need a few days and conversations to be able to think of their own examples.
  6. What is the word that means ___?
    Before finishing the lesson, rephrase the meaning of the word and have kids repeat the word one last time.

According to Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, this same process is repeated with 2 more words in the same lesson. In my experience with these special ELL’s, I recommend trying one word to begin. After a few lessons in which a new word is introduced, if students show readiness, then go ahead and try two. Practice this for a while and play it by ear. Some classes will be ready to have a third word added in in the same lesson, while others will be fine with just two–and that’s okay! Keep the pressure off! It’s better to have a deep understanding of a few words than to have a superficial understanding of many words. They also recommend introducing six to ten words over a period of five to nine days.

In my next blog post, I will continue this conversation about teaching robust vocabulary to English Language Learners who live in countries that don’t have English as a language spoken at all. I will probably be addressing how to teach words in context, specially because it is part of a standard, and how to incorporate new words into writing. What I still haven’t quite figured out yet is how to do any of this remotely 😣. If you have any ideas or would like to keep the conversation going regarding any of the information shared in this blog post, please comment below! I would love to hear about your experience teaching kids who live in non-English speaking countries!

“There is sufficient evidence to indicate that the vast differences in children’s vocabulary need to be addressed from the beginning of schooling if those differences are ever going to be mediated.”

(Beck, McKeown, Kucan, 2015)

Coach Gone Back to Teaching

Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

A year and a half ago I decided to return to the classroom. After two years as an instructional and literacy coach, I realized my passion lies with kids, so I came back to what I really love: being in the classroom. Ironically, during my first year back, I ended up teaching from home and not IN the classroom… thank you, COVID-19! However, instead of holding me back, this Pandemic has actually opened me up to using apps and online resources like I never had before. I have learned more in the last three years as an educator than my first 20!

I decided to start writing because I have so much to say and so many ideas going around my head! I want to keep track of them in some way, and if you are reading this, I’d also like to hear from you. As a coach I learned about the importance of talking things through. There’s so much power in conversation–even if the conversation is with yourself, but more so if other people are involved! So here I am, starting a blog. Something I never thought I would do.

Our last day of work officially was last Friday. Instead of the usual stuff and because of the worldwide situation, this summer break I am determined to learn more about topics that have called my attention for awhile: robust vocabulary instruction, creating a nurturing classroom culture, social-emotional learning–self-regulation included, teaching beginning readers more efficiently, using math games as a tool, etc. I have a stack of books in my shelf, all lined up for this stay-at-home vacation. What I want to do is use this blog to keep track of all these wonderful things I’ll be learning.

Bringing Words To Life - 2 Edition By Isabel L Beck & Margaret G ...

My next post will probably be about the book I’m reading right now: Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction by Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan, a book I learned about when I did the summer writing institute at The Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University. I’m not sure what I will be writing exactly, but I think it will probably be some sort of self-reflection and how to put all these ideas into action, from a distance learning point-of-view, of course! So stay tuned!

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