Vocabulary Squares

Over the summer, my district hired a new Superintendent (who was previously our Assistant Superintendent, so not totally new to our district) who has made a lot of for-the-better changes in quick succession. One of the things he has really encouraged us to do is to take risks and be willing to fail. As a perfectionist/control freak, being willing to fail is certainly not something that comes easy to me as I much prefer to believe that everything I do is flawless :). Unfortunately, something you quickly realize as a teacher is that even the best laid plans and activities can fall utterly flat (at best) or go down in a horrible blaze of hellfire (at worst) when you least expect it.

I mention this because the verdict is still out on the activity I did in my level 3/4 this week. I was inspired by a recent #langchat about facilitating vocabulary instruction and wanted to come up with a new way to introduce some vocabulary to my French 3/4s (they’re in the same class). I really dislike the kill-and-drill method of traditional vocabulary instruction, but I find the vocabulary sheltering that comes with TPRS a little too limiting at times. I do still give vocabulary lists so students have some frame of reference as we work through a unit, but I don’t assess the words and I allow them to add vocabulary as needed. Still, I wanted to offer an opportunity to learn new vocabulary in context, exercise some creativity, and allow them to do more of the heavy lifting (for a change!) by teaching one another. Instead of giving just a list of vocabulary and filling in the English, we did vocabulary squares.

student vocabulary square
student vocabulary square

I split the kids up into groups of 3-4. Each group was assigned a portion of words from the vocabulary list (5-6 words). They then filled out a vocabulary square for each word; the new word is put in the middle, in one corner they draw a picture that represents the meaning of the word, in another they write a sentence using that word, and then they had to supply both synonyms and antonyms for that word in French. I also had them look up the pronunciation for each word on Forvo.com (many thanks to Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell at Musicuentos for the idea!). When they were finished, they had to present their squares to the whole class and ask their classmates what they thought the word meant, based on the context provided by the vocabulary square. If the meaning was unclear, the student had to work to clarify the meaning for the rest of the class.

I have to admit, I almost really liked this activity but a couple of things did not flow very well or were not super efficient that I think I would have to fine-tune before doing it again – mostly, students copping out and not pulling their weight enough to be an asset to the class as a whole. I also am a little stuck with what to do with the vocabulary squares after they’re all finished – my original thought was to make photocopies and create a sort of vocabulary book for the students, but that seems clunky and ecologically irresponsible, given how much paper it would use. A technological option would be my preference, but I’m not sure what kinds of tools would be suitable and accessible to a wide variety of technology – open to suggestions!

Has anyone else tried something similar when introducing new vocabulary? What’d you do? How did it work?

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