Tag Archives: vocabulary

Word Study Uno has been a favorite for reinforcing word study for spelling or morphology (roots, prefixes, and suffixes) knowledge.  Word Study Uno is just one of many fun word study activities in the book Words Their Way by Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton, and Johnston.

In the traditional game of Uno, players match numbers or colors to the top card on an incrementally increasing stack.  Once a player lays down all of his or her cards, the game is over.  The first player to lie down all of his or her cards wins.  In addition, there are special cards that make players draw additional cards (Draw Twos), lose turns (Skips), and change the color of the cards to be matched (Wild Cards).


Instead of matching by color or number as in traditional Uno, students match cards by either spelling patterns or morphological structures in Word Study Uno.   Traditional special cards like Skips, Draw Twos, and Wild Cards are integrated into the game as well.

To introduce the game, I ask students if they have ever played Uno before to determine their prior knowledge of the game. I often ask students who have played before to share their understandings of the rules with those who haven’t, offering  clarifications as needed.

The example photos I am including are from a Word Study Uno game used with students who struggled with short and long a spelling patterns.  Some of the words are different from words the students had studied in order for me to assess whether they could transfer spelling pattern knowledge.

Short a CVC


Long a CVCe (Please forgive this one’s “sidewaysness.” I can’t seem to get it oriented correctly!)

Long a CVVC

Other Cards

Students enjoy playing the Word Study Uno game. During this particular game, I asked the students to say the words aloud when they laid them on the table. Students were tentative about this in the beginning. I repeatedly asked them to pronounce the words, and I modeled saying the words as I laid down my cards. Students’ confidence increased, since they began to see that they would be able to pronounce the words correctly based upon the spelling patterns. For instance, bath and bathe made students a bit nervous, but as we discussed that the silent e denoted a long a sound, they tackled other unknown words successfully.

The same process can be used for roots, prefixes, and suffixes as well.  However, one potential morpheme learning activity is building words with cards. My friend and colleague, high school literacy coach Kathy Bonyun (@kathybonyun), developed a game called OPA! (Greek and Latin roots, get it?)  Students must build words from their hands (a little like Scrabble), but they must also lay down prefixes, roots, and suffixes on previously built words to create new words.  The student who is the first to lay down all of his or her cards wins (sort of like Uno).  You can easily create your own hybrid game such as this, or you can pick up a set that Kathy created from her Teachers Pay Teacher site.


Are there card games that use to build students’ word knowledge?  What has worked for your students? What didn’t work?

The Vocab Games: Talk a Mile a Minute/The Pyramid Game

This is the first entry in The Vocab Games! series of blog posts.  New posts will be added every Wednesday throughout the spring.

Talk a Mile a Minute

One of the most effective and engaging vocabulary review games I have used with students is called “Talk a Mile a Minute.”  It is incredibly easy to implement. Here is how it works.

1.  Post a list of vocabulary words from one of your units of study where all of your students can see it.  If you have implemented content vocabulary word walls in your class, you can play Talk a Mile a Minute at any time.  It also makes a great “sponge” activity when you finish a lesson a few minutes early.  Below are two examples of word walls from teachers I work with: one in math and one in chorus


IMG_07592.  Next, ask students to stand, and group themselves into pairs.  One student will face the words (the clue-giver); the other student will face away from the words (the guesser).

3.  The clue-giver will choose a word from the list and give the guesser clues about the word.  Students cannot use the word in their clues.  Based upon experience, I have also added these two “no-no’s”: (1) you cannot give a clue like, “It’s the second word on the list”; or (2) you cannot give a clue such as “It rhymes with motosynthesis.”  Students will find creative ways to have their partners guess the words, but we want the strategies to be content-oriented.

4.  When a the guesser has correctly identified all of the words, the students will switch roles.  With large classes, I ask students to high five when they switch to give me a visual and auditory clue of their progress.  I circulate around the room to help students who are struggling.

5.  Once both players have correctly identified all of the words, they sit down to give me a visual cue that they have finished.  I keep a mental note of the first three or four pairs who sit down.

6.  Once all teams have had an opportunity to identify the words, I call the first team that sat down to come to the front of the room and explain the meanings of each word.  I then ask the class to determine whether the pair really know the meanings of all the words.  This serves two purposes: (1) additional exposures to the words and (2) a system to keep students honest about their word knowledge.  If the first group cannot correctly define the terms, the second group has an opportunity, and then so on until the class is satisfied that a team knows all of the word meanings.

The Pyramid Game

The Pyramid Game is another name for this same game. Some teachers use this title as a reference to the old game show The $25,000 Pyramid which uses a similar format. A social studies teacher I work with always shows a clip from the show on YouTube when first teaching the game to students.

An Episode of The $25,000 Pyramid


Some teachers have students play in teams of four with two students giving clues and two students guessing.  Other teachers prefer using PowerPoint slides to display words rather than use word walls or whiteboards.  They may use the fly-ins feature on PowerPoint to control the pace of the game.

Your Turn:

Have you used this game before? How effective was it for helping your students learn new terms?  What variations have you tried? What issues did you have?  Please comment below to extend the conversation.

When White was White, and Other Ugly Truths from My First Year Teaching

I am constantly inspired by the positive work that I see others sharing on blogs and social media.  I, too, find value in sharing what works, but I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the value of learning from mistakes.  So, I am sharing some of the poor choices I made when I first  taught and reflecting on my growth since then. Isn’t it wonderful that we have the capacity to grow and we are not defined by our past mistakes?

During my first year teaching, I entered the classroom of a rural and mostly poor community unprepared. Not only were my practices instructionally poor, but they were culturally blind. I did not consider my students’ cultures at all, and I wrongly assumed that their beliefs, interests, and values were identical to mine simply because I was white and so were most of them. I set the same standard for all students.

For example, I taught two standard-level English IV classes that first semester. I assigned a paper that required the students to write about Beowulf’s heroic characteristics. Assigned is the appropriate word because I did not really teach my students. I never assessed their prior knowledge to determine how they viewed the term hero, nor did I ask them about people who they believed to be heroes. In essence, I did not tailor my instruction to students at all; I believed that they all viewed the concept of hero in the same way that I did. My practice at the time reminds me of a quote from Gloria Ladson-Billings in her book The Dreamkeepers, “Often they [teachers] believe that ‘culture is what other people have; what we have is just truth.” I thought that my view was true, and I could not understand why my students did not share it.

I did provide my students with a rubric and a thorough explanation of the assignment; however, I never truly taught them how to write.  I never modeled writing, never use pre-writing activities to help them brainstorm ideas, and never helped them organize their ideas. I believed that, as seniors, they had these “prerequisite” skills.

Since I did not assess my students’ prior knowledge, did not know them as people, and I did not provide quality instruction, most of my students did not achieve. Many did not write papers. Some turned in papers that they had plagiarized from the Internet. I gave them zeroes. I was angry, and I blamed them. Most of the students who received zeroes were economically disadvantaged. I unknowingly punished them for lacking my culture and knowledge; thus, I perpetuated their learned helplessness. For the rest of that semester, I developed much lower expectations for those students. My instruction did not excite or challenge them, and I had many discipline issues.  I still think about those students today, and how I underserved them.

So, it is quite serendipitious how I began reflecting on this part of my career that I’d rather forget.   As a literacy coach in my school district, I now work with teachers to integrate effective, engaging literacy practices in their classrooms. Now, I am much more cognizant of and responsive to cultural differences. My current role operates on the philosophy that we as educators should have high expectations about student capabilities and that we are responsible for tailoring our instructional practices to support all students. It is through this work that Beowulf came back into my life.

Recently I had the opportunity to collaborate with a new teacher who was teaching Beowulf. There is a stark contrast between my first-year of teaching this material and the way I co-planned and co-taught this time. The new teacher and I decided to collaborate on a lesson where she would have students read an informational text, introducing the Anglo-Saxon culture of Beowulf to her students. Her class is culturally and linguistically diverse, and the text she had chosen was quite difficult. I encouraged her to use the difficult text but to use scaffolding to support students in a way that respected their differences.

Before the students read the text, we had them do the “Say What?” strategy. This strategy lets students preview the text for unfamiliar words and share the meanings they know with one another. Next, we gave explicit instruction on any remaining words that students could not teach one another. We operated on the belief that students were competent enough to teach one another words they knew; in fact, they were more effective than we were because they explained terms in language their classmates readily understood.

We also assessed the students’ prior knowledge so we could give appropriate instruction. We used several other techniques to support students such as chunking text and establishing cooperative groups. After several difficult weeks with these students, the new teacher was pleasantly surprised by both the students’ excitement and the sophistication of their work. She told me that she had originally planned to make them copy overhead notes before we decided to work on the lesson together. In fact, she said the students developed much better summaries of the introduction than she would have.

And in my own personal “re-do” of Beowulf from my first year teaching, we planned lessons where students described characteristics and examples of “heroes” according to their own viewpoints, and then they compared and contrasted their views to how Anglo-Saxons viewed heroism.

When I look at my teaching journey, I notice that early on I only tended to behave in more culturally proficient ways when I worked with students who were  linguistically or racially different from me. Ironically, I was most unsympathetic to white students, who I believed were intentionally doing the “wrong” thing. Most of the students I failed in my first year were white. Since our skins shared color, I mistakenly believed we shared culture. Thus, I think we as teachers need to understand that culture is not fixed by race nor ethnicity or even income. Culture is a complex set of ever-changing factors that are different for every individual . We must look critically at our own cultures to understand that they are not the “truth”.  Our goal should be to learn about each of our students as individuals, allow them to connect to their own background knowledge to make connections to content, and become more cautious in how we interpret the actions of our students through our own cultural lenses.

Quizlet Engages Students in Vocabulary Learning

Quizlet Engages Students in Vocabulary Learning Quizlet is a free website providing learning tools for students, including flashcards, study activities, and games. All of the material is user-generated.  Students enjoy studying terms with Quizlet because of its interactive nature.  Quizlet even has an app so students can easily (and for many teens, discreetly!) study vocabulary!

I recently created two sets of terms for sophomore English language arts students.  If you have never used Quizlet before, check out these links to get an idea of how Quizlet works.  Feel free to use them if you would like.

English I and II Common Core Literary Terms 

English I and II Common Core Academic Language

Quizlet can become one tool for students to learn new vocabulary.  Based upon the work of Robert J. Marzano and Deborah J. Pickering in Building Academic Vocabulary, games are a vital part of their six-step process of learning vocabulary.  Quizlet on its own will not solve all of your vocabulary problems, but it will powerfully enhance your classroom instruction.

Want to begin?  I have compiled some information to help you navigate Quizlet if it is new for you.

Creating an Account

Creating an account on Quizlet is relatively simple, but it is not always necessary.  One can click “Create a Set” on the top bar of the screen to make a set of terms to study.  The set will be searchable on Quizlet, or you could save the weblink of the card set to get back to it it later.  However, the advantage of having your own account is that you can find all of the card sets you have created easily.

To create a free account, simply click on “Sign Up” in the upper right hand bar on the website.  You will need to enter your birthdate, a username, and a password.  You will also need to check the box that says that you agree to the terms of service.  Once you have an account created, you can simply click on “Log In” in the upper righthand corner of the site to enter your username and password.

Creating a Set of Vocabulary Terms

Simply click “Create a Set” on the top bar of the website.  You will be prompted to enter a title and description for your set of terms.  Select a language for terms and definitions (these may be different if you are a world language teacher).

Quizlet has a new “auto-define” feature, which can save you a lot of time. When you enter a word, Quizlet will offer you some suggestions for definitions.  You may choose to select one of the auto-define selections or enter your own definition.

To add words to your list, simply click the “+” at the bottom of the text boxes.

Using the Vocabulary Sets

Students can retrieve terms easily if you place a link to your set on your teacher website or other webpage.  Once they have found the set, they can study using (1) Flashcards, (2) Learn, (3) Speller, (4) Test, (5) Scatter or (6) Space Race.

Creating a Class

Another option is to create a class.  Click “Join or Create a Class” in the lefthand column.  Enter the name of your class.  Then you can enter the name of your school.  You may add your card sets into the class.  Students can be invited into your class two ways.  First, you can send an invitation through the student e-mail.  If you choose this method, students will need to be able to access their school e-mail accounts.  Second, you can post an invitation link.  This link can be embedded on your teacher website or another web page.

Many educators have found Quizlet to be an amazing tool for enhancing vocabulary learning.  If you’re new to Quizlet, or if you haven’t used it in a while, I highly recommend checking it out.