Success Story: Ms. Gaines

Ms. Gaines is using Vocabulary.com to prep her students for literacy tasks. It’s also a meaningful classroom activity that her kids can do independently when she’s supporting others. We visited her classroom and sat down afterward to talk shop.
Subject:ELA
Grade Taught:8th
Years Teaching:16
Using Vocabulary.com for:3 years
  • Have you seen what the kids are doing with Vocabulary.com?
    Vocabulary.com: So you’re the teacher who initially brought Vocabulary.com to your school. Thank you! How did it all take off?
    Ms. Gaines: It came across my email and I figured, “Why not?” You know we’re always looking for something that’s going to enhance our curriculum. And it wound up being really cool. I remember talking with my colleague Ms. Hyde, and she said, “I really like this.” And I said, “Yeah, I do too.” I also remember the day I got my kids set up — I saw the benefit immediately, and Ms. Hyde and I were talking back and forth and we were like, “Have you seen what the kids are doing with Vocabulary.com?”
  • It is a much more effective way than doing a vocabulary mini-lesson with students.
    V: Tell us about a time when you really started to integrate it with instruction. How did that go for you and your students?
    G: We were doing a literacy task analyzing a speech on climate change — it’s a great speech, but it’s loaded for them. Even my honors kids, they can’t say chlorofluorocarbons. I mean I can barely say chlorofluorocarbons! But learning about a topic like greenhouse gases, it’s something they’re not used to. So I went into my list on Vocabulary.com and I was very purposeful in the way that I selected the definitions for the words. If there was not a definition that matched exactly how it was used in the speech, I made sure the example I selected was really close. I was able to put text from the speech directly in if I wanted to use that for my example. It is a much more effective way than doing a vocabulary mini-lesson with students. And so the conversation I had with my kids was about those multiple meanings. You know, how are we using this word in this setting? And that was one of the first times that I really noticed the students were really talking about the multiple meanings and seeing the differences.
  • Especially in our diverse school, vocabulary improvement is vital to our students’ education.
    V: We’ve been hearing a lot about performance tasks and the language skills needed for those. It’s not enough just to know the content. What are your thoughts on the role of vocabulary in preparing students?
    G: They need the academic language. Some of our students can’t describe what analysis or synthesis means, and that’s the kind of language and thinking that’s the basis for any of these. If we can get students to the point where their vocabulary has improved in general, that kind of thinking becomes more second nature. Especially in our diverse school, vocabulary improvement is vital to our students’ education.
  • Vocabulary.com helps them in so many ways; obviously, learning new words improves their writing, reading fluency, and speaking, but it can also assist them in becoming more fluent in other languages.
    V: Can you talk more about language diversity in the classroom?
    G: Many of our students speak multiple languages. I have many students who struggle to find the right words in English, and I notice that they have a hard time translating.This hinders their progress. If students go to school all day and speak English, that’s all well and good; but if those students don’t have the opportunity to practice their English outside of school — at home and in their neighborhood — it’s difficult to maintain the language. This becomes an issue at school as well, since many students who are learning English are embarrassed about speaking English in school and might hesitate to participate in classes.

    Vocabulary.com helps them in so many ways; obviously, learning new words improves their writing, reading fluency, and speaking, but it can also assist them in becoming more fluent in other languages. Practicing vocabulary often seems like a “stand-alone” skill for them; in reality, practicing with new words, or words they have heard and may have used but cannot define out of context, allows them to recognize those words in everyday conversation, books, media, etc.

    Another issue is the fact that texting, email, social media, and the growing acceptance of informal language and slang have hindered their vocabulary growth. Some students are strong enough that they can code switch appropriately. Most, however, do not have that ability in middle school. The more vocabulary improvement they make, the more likely they will be to have a range of conversations that are appropriate for the setting.
  • Vocabulary.com individualizes instruction and makes it exciting. Most of my students now go directly to Vocabulary.com immediately when they finish their other work.
    V: What has Vocabulary.com allowed you to do that may not have been possible with other approaches to vocabulary instruction?
    G: When I first began teaching 16 years ago, my English classes were 120 minutes long. We spent 30 minutes doing silent reading every day. Vocabulary was a natural part of my daily lessons. Over the years, we’ve reduced class time to 65 minutes with 12-15 minutes of silent reading. That doesn’t leave much time to teach them, allow them to practice with me, provide collaborative practice with their peers, and then work with them individually. Add to that the fact that our curriculum is jam packed. It’s next to impossible to get everything done in a session.

    Vocabulary.com individualizes instruction and makes it exciting. Most of my students now go directly to Vocabulary.com immediately when they finish their other work. In large classes, many will work on it when they’ve gotten stuck on an assignment and have to wait for me to finish with another student before I can assist them. It’s become a natural part of the day for kids. Even if we do not get to a small segment of vocabulary instruction in our lessons, students are still seeing new words (and practicing words they know) on a daily basis.
  • ... students who need to learn these words have the time to practice until they master them.
    V: That’s what the adaptive platform is all about. Do you find that it makes it easier to differentiate for the range of students in your class?
    G: It’s so easy to set up our own wordlists and share them amongst the teachers in the department. Having the capability to copy a list and modify it to suit our kids’ needs is paramount to our ability to incorporate vocabulary instruction based on what our individual students need. Students who know the words breeze through the lists we create, actually get to master the words more and can move on to more challenging words. Conversely, students who need to learn these words have the time to practice until they master them. And kids are able to work at their own pace. I can set a two-week window for an assignment, and if it seems like some kids are struggling, instead of having all students meet 90% completion of a list, they might get 80%. I can modify things to meet the needs of my students. I can also work with groups of students without fear that others will sit idly by waiting for me to get back to them.
  • I can use the data to show how increased vocabulary practice helped them improve on various state, local, and classroom assessments.
    V: How are you using the Teacher Dashboard to help with this? Are you finding the data helpful?
    G: Having access to the data allows me to gauge how they’re using the system. Are they just answering tons of questions without reading them? Are they working slower than they need to? Are they not focusing when they are using it? These are things that I can tell from the data provided, and I can work with them in class. I can also gauge how eager students are to compete with each other, other classes, and other teams. If they are excited about it, I can use that to my advantage and show them the data to move them along. I can use the data to show how increased vocabulary practice helped them improve on various state, local, and classroom assessments.
  • I am likely the least competitive person ever. I love when my kids are on top, but it doesn’t matter to me if they win as long as they are learning.
    V: Speaking of competition, your school has been state champion in the Vocabulary Bowl, and your principal and colleagues recognize students for doing well. What’s the effect of Vocabulary.com or the Vocabulary Bowl (the competition element) on student engagement?
    G: I am likely the least competitive person ever. I love when my kids are on top, but it doesn’t matter to me if they win as long as they are learning. We do have some very competitive students and staff members. The Vocabulary Bowl allows my students to compete against kids in the school that might be on a faster track. This helps with confidence and self-esteem. The fact that we can access their points in comparison to others makes it easy for us to nudge them forward by pitting them against all sorts of groups. We can challenge our 6th graders to beat our 7th graders, our ESOL kids to defeat our honors kids, etc. We may not describe it in that way to students, but there is nothing more exciting than a struggling or younger group of students surpass a more advanced or older group, especially because you can do it in such a way that it doesn’t single anyone out. It can be a class, a team, a grade, a department, etc. Those are the moments teachers live for — where kids feel great about themselves because of something they’ve accomplished!