2-Pane Combined
Full Summaries Sorted

Making Vocabulary Instruction Active with Language Field Guides


Making Vocabulary Instruction Active With Language Field Guides

Starting with our Word of the Day feature, students in a Virginia middle school “learn to think like linguistic ethnographers” as they explore language.

Credit...Rebekah O'Dell

To help us celebrate Vocabulary Week here on The Learning Network, we asked the English teacher and writer Rebekah O’Dell to share an idea that has transformed instruction for her middle school students at St. Michael’s Episcopal School in Richmond, Va. She writes that creating what she calls language field guides has made her students into “explorers, mining words for nuanced meaning” instead of passive recipients taking in basic definitions.

We like her idea so much that we’ll be challenging students all over to create their own versions next spring, and we plan to publish some of the best examples. In the meantime, have a look at how Ms. O’Dell frames the idea and weaves it into her classroom routine.

The Learning Network

Making Vocabulary Instruction Active With Language Field Guides

by Rebekah O’Dell

Here’s what vocabulary instruction has looked like for me in the past:

I write the New York Times Word of the Day in the top right corner of a board, making sure to use my prettiest Expo marker — aqua with a hint of teal. The ink swims as I pen “obtrusive” and its definition as the bell rings and the classroom crescendos with laughing, high-fiving, exclaiming, complaining, whooping.

For the most part, “obtrusive” just sits there, largely unnoticed. One or two pairs of eyes glance at the Word of the Day. Jack shouts, “You know what’s ‘obtrusive’? Nick. Nick is ‘obtrusive’.” Classmates giggle; Nick playfully swats in Jack’s direction.

And that’s it.

Active word-learning

As you can probably tell, my biggest obstacle in vocabulary instruction over the years has been its passivity: students peeking at a word written on the board each day, or copying lists of words and definitions, or matching words and definitions in a workbook, or even creating their own sentences with words they only half understand. I’ve tried it all. And without investing far more instructional time than I can spare, it seems that vocabulary instruction is something I’ve done to students as they sit back and wait for knowledge to land on them.

But this isn’t how learning works.

For students to learn new words and retain that knowledge, they need active engagement in which they generate ideas rather than memorize definitions. They need to learn highly relevant words used frequently in the real world (like the New York Times Words of the Day). Deep learning requires connection-building, question-asking and meaning-making. In other words, learning new words requires action.

But how can we do all of that in a few minutes per week in the midst of all the other instruction?

Learning words in the wild like naturalists


Credit...Joshua Heath/Getty Images, for The New York Times

It might help us to think like naturalists.

While bird-watching hobbyists might use a field guide of North American birds to identify what is in their backyard, ornithologists create field notes and build field guides to record the observations and discoveries they make as they study birds in their habitats. What if we could train our students to do the same with vocabulary “in the wild”?

One of my former students, Michelle Kirchner, is a Ph.D. student in entomology and biology at North Carolina State University. Her specialty is ants.

Whether 70 feet up in a tree or digging a hole to find them, Michelle learns about ants by taking careful notes in her field notebook, building a record of her discoveries — precise GPS measurements of each habitat’s location, the weather (including humidity and temperature), the type of tree or plant on which an ant is found, neighboring animals that are present, interesting ant behaviors, pictures from the field and her hypotheses about the species of ant she is collecting.

These field notes, created through an alchemy of persistence, patience and wonder, construct new understandings of various ant species, how they interact with their environment and how human development affects them.

“My field notes are valuable to me because they’re the record of all of my work,” she said, “and while they are very useful to me, the notes may also be useful in 100 years for future scientists.”

With naturalists as our mentors, my students have been creating their own field notes to record their discoveries about words in their natural habitats — words we find in our reading, but also words they are learning in history class and geometry and music and at dance rehearsal and baseball practice. Collected together, these notes construct students’ understanding of language, how it works, how it evolves and how they can tap into its power.

Each “note” is essentially a one-pager, exploring a single word from myriad angles. It relies on a combination of words and images to explore the nuances of a word’s ecosystem. When we compile these over the course of the year, we have made a field guide for language itself.

Like notes about a rare species of ant, language field guides help readers and writers better understand how words behave: how they work in authentic sentences, where to find them, what other words or phrases they hang out with, what they sound like and how to use them.

Creating field guide entries for words about which students are curious requires active learning — activating prior knowledge, synthesizing definitions, evaluating a word’s etymology, analyzing its usage. Each entry is a deep dive, not only into “what does the word mean” but also “how has that meaning changed”? “Why do we use this word?”

And because students are engaging with the word in a variety of ways, the learning is more permanent.

Introducing students to language field guides


SadieXs field note on Xloquacious.X

Credit...Rebekah O'Dell

Most of my students aren’t very familiar with nature field guides, but understanding what a field guide does utterly changes the way students understand their own role in learning new words.

To do this, we begin with “inquiry.” I grab a few copies of nature field guides from my local public library and pass them around. I ask students to keep a log of the kinds of information included in the guides, and then we compile a large list as a class. (You could also do this with digital images of pages from field guides on the internet.)

Then, I ask, “Thinking about what naturalists include in nature field guides, what might we include if we were to create field guides about words instead of birds, fish or mushrooms?”

Through discussion and brainstorming, we develop a chart translating nature field guides into language field guides.


Credit...Rebekah O'Dell

This takes about one class period, but it’s worth it. Vocabulary instruction becomes instantly richer when students understand and have ownership over this working metaphor. Rather than being something to quickly look up and memorize, a word becomes an adventure.

How to create a language field note with the New York Times Word of the Day

While there are many ways we can use the rhythm of language field guides to meet the intentions of our reading and writing instruction, one of the simplest ways to build more robust vocabulary instruction is to invite students to create field notes using the New York Times Word of the Day.

The assignment is simple: Fill a page in your field guide with the discoveries you make about a word of your choosing from the Word of the Day archives.

Here is our routine:

This could be a word the student has never seen before, a word they can’t exactly define or a word they know well but are curious about. The Times archives are filled with high-frequency words, many of which have multiple definitions and are used in an authentic text. Students have an element of choice, and you are assured they can dive deep.

  • Students explore that word within The Times.

For Word-of-the-Day-based field notes, I like to keep students within The Times as much as possible. Think of The Times as the natural habitat for each word — what can we discover about this word by exploring it in its own ecosystem?

Every field note needs to have some basic information:


Some field-note basics.

Credit...Rebekah O'Dell

Then, students fill the remaining space on their page by choosing from this menu of “might-haves”:


A menu of additional field-note choices.

Credit...Rebekah O'Dell

  • Students record their discoveries in a field note.

As students explore, they jot their discoveries: in a dedicated notebook, a section of a notebook or binder, or a Google slide or doc.

  • Students share their field notes.


Credit...Rebekah O'Dell

Discoveries aren’t just meant to be recorded but shared. These field notes are living records of the way a word is used at a moment in time. Students might share their discoveries in lots of ways:

  • Informal Turn-and-Talk — A classroom perennial, turn-and-talks work because they encourage conversation in short bursts of time. Ask students to teach a classmate in one to two minutes about the word they explored. (My students keep a log in the back of their field guide for words they learn from their peers.)

  • Gallery Walk — Ask students to leave their field note visible on their desks. Set a timer for 4-5 minutes, and invite students to cruise around the classroom and read a field note or two that piques their curiosity. (Students can also record these words in a log in their own field guides.)

  • Flipgrid — Students can record a quick 1-2 minute video sharing some of the most interesting facts they discovered about their word. Then, ask students to watch a few of their classmates’ videos. The benefit of video sharing is that students can learn about one another’s words across class periods.

Ideas for fitting language field guides into your packed classroom schedule


Credit...Rebekah O'Dell

Although a field note can be a one-time assignment, there is power in creating a routine by compiling field notes into a larger field guide throughout the year. Over time, students begin to think like linguistic ethnographers — noticing interesting words (and maybe even pausing to explore one or two) as they come across them in their reading, writing and lives.

For my students, a strong field note takes around 30 minutes. Here are three ideas for fitting this into your schedule:

  • Bell-Ringer: Devote 5-8 minutes at the very beginning or end of class each day for students to work on their field note. By the end of the week, they will have a completed note.

  • Homework: A field note as a weekly homework assignment. At the beginning of the week, students select words. At the end of the week, the note is due.

  • Field Note Deep Dive: Devote 30 minutes of class time one day to creating a field note from beginning to end.

Considering the influence of field guides in her life, the author Helen Macdonald wrote, “The more animals and plants I learned, the larger, more complicated and more familiar the world around me became.” She added, “Field guides made possible the joy of encountering a thing I already knew but had never seen before.”

Language field guides have transformed vocabulary instruction in my class. Instead of passively hoping to learn a basic definition, we are explorers, mining words for nuanced meaning so that we can not only understand them but use them. Our field notes make the world of words “larger, more complicated and more familiar” as we truly see words in a way we never have before.

DMU Timestamp: May 12, 2023 14:09

0 comments, 0 areas
add area
add comment
change display
add comment

Quickstart: Commenting and Sharing

How to Comment
  • Click icons on the left to see existing comments.
  • Desktop/Laptop: double-click any text, highlight a section of an image, or add a comment while a video is playing to start a new conversation.
    Tablet/Phone: single click then click on the "Start One" link (look right or below).
  • Click "Reply" on a comment to join the conversation.
How to Share Documents
  1. "Upload" a new document.
  2. "Invite" others to it.

Logging in, please wait... Blue_on_grey_spinner