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If music be the food of love,” as Shakespeare suggests, then the food for the mind is vocabulary.

The term vocabulary is defined as “a list or collection of words or of words and phrases usually alphabetically arranged and explained or defined.” There are a number of reasons to think about these lists of words and phrases as things that are consumable. Consider how often references to words or phrases are framed in metaphors of food:

  • Food for thought;
  • Digesting what was said;
  • Chew on it for a while;
  • Difficult to swallow.

These metaphors continue in today’s digital age, where words and phrases are encoded over “feeds” or electronic transmission of news, as from a broadcaster or an Internet newsgroup. screen-shot-2017-02-05-at-9-06-49-pm


All these food metaphors signal how important vocabulary is to a student’s developing academic life. Just as food is metabolized and turned into the building blocks and fuel that the body needs, educators should see vocabulary to be part of the building blocks of critical thinking. Just as any student must internalize food for energy, research shows that for vocabulary to be effective, students must internalize words to use them correctly in both receptive and verbal language. And just as food is necessary every day for physical growth and stamina, vocabulary is necessary every day,  in all subject areas, for a student’s academic growth and stamina.

These food metaphors also support the idea that vocabulary should not be an isolated activity, but a daily requirement that teachers need to incorporate in all lessons. The teaching of vocabulary is too important to be left to workbooks or worksheets; teaching words and word meanings must be part of speaking, listening, reading and writing in every day’s lesson.

While the first step in a successful vocabulary program is explicit instruction, the steps of continued exposure and direct practice are also important. According to the U.S. Department of Education, in teaching vocabulary educators should:

Use repeated exposure to new words in multiple oral and written contexts and allow sufficient practice sessions.”

In their article posted on, Explicit Vocabulary Instruction, researchers have found that “Words are usually learned only after they appear several times.” Words that appear infrequently may not be the words that should be targeted for explicit instruction.

This research is supported by Robert Marzano who outlined a six step process for educators in Education Leadership Magazine, “The Art and Science of Teaching / Six Steps to Better Vocabulary Instruction” (September 2009). These six steps outline how repeated exposure might be accomplished:

  1. Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  2. Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
  3. Ask students to construct a picture, pictograph, or symbolic representation of the term.
  4. Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms in their vocabulary notebooks.
  5. Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
  6. Involve students periodically in games that enable them to play with terms.

There are many ways that students at every ability level can be independently engaged on digital platforms that support vocabulary activities. There are multiple software programs with “feeds” that can help student practice vocabulary with games or flashcards on different devices. Examples of these platforms include:

Research suggests that it is the repeated exposure to words that is most effective, especially if they appear over an extended period of time. Researchers estimate that it could take as many as 17 exposures for a student to learn a new word.

This kind of repeated exposure echoes the practice of the Pulitzer Prizewinning Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold, who is featured in the (2015) documentary City of Gold. In the film, Gold explains that before writing a review on its food, he will visit a restaurant sometimes a dozen or more times, often tasting the same dish several times “to make sure I get it right.” Gold’s multiple visits to a restaurant “to be sure to get it right” can serve as an example of how educators need to recognize the need for repeated exposure in vocabulary so that students can “get it right” as they ingest and digest vocabulary words.

Students must regularly read their vocabulary words the same way they eat three meals a day, and a possible snack before bed. They must write their vocabulary words, listen to their vocabulary words, and speak their vocabulary words.  In offering an academic diet that is rich in vocabulary, educators should know “students are what they eat.”

“Stand up…. Now, put out your arms,” the instructor stood watching us.

“OK, pull your right arm back past your body.”Screenshot 2014-02-09 06.56.12

This was a EDR 500 level class, a graduate course in teaching remedial reading to pre-school and elementary aged schoolchildren. On this first night, we did not know what to expect.

“Now try with the other arm.”
We waved our arms erratically in the air.
He paused for a moment, looked amused and asked, “Can you teach someone to swim like this?”

The 26 of us were standing in a very dry classroom with no water in sight.

We all shook our heads in agreement, “No”, “Not Really”, “Probably not.

“Well, how can you learn to teach reading without actually working with students?”
We were surprised. Our instructor was admitting to the disconnect in teacher preparation programs.
“You need to be in the classroom to learn how to teach,” he admonished, “any thing else is waving your arms in the air.”

In this class, we were a mixed group in age and experience. Some of us were already employed as teachers in classrooms; others were completing degrees in order to be hired. All of us were learning how to improve student reading from 4:30-7:30 PM on a Tuesday night in a classroom. With not a student in sight, we were learning in the abstract.

Learning in the abstract is not unusual. A large percentage of learning for students in pre-K through grade12 is spent learning in the abstract. For 13 years, students practice skills they will use in college or in real world careers.

However, for those preparing to be teachers, the “real world” is the classroom. Our instructor was acknowledging that the classroom environment is the pool and prospective teachers and veterans should be immersed in that pool in order to learn how to teach. Unfortunately, the evening time slot and location of the class distanced us from authentic practice.

Accessing classrooms and students for teacher prep is largely unavailable under our current agrarian model of education. There are logistical problems for colleges and universities in scheduling, supervision, and, in today’s tense climate, security. Nevertheless,hands on classroom experience is a critically important part of undergraduate teacher preparation, and a semester or two of supervised student teaching is not enough. Teaching training programs need regular and continuous access to students. At minimum, there are must be more integration and collaboration between the teacher training programs, graduate and undergraduate, and local classrooms that are geographically located near these programs. 

In addition, the professors/instructors in teacher preparation programs must be current in the practices that new teachers are expected to know. They must be current on how their state is integrating the Common Core State Standards, the surrounding controversies around the adoption of these standards, and the testing programs that have been funded to access the effectiveness of these standards.

Also professors/instructors must be current in their state’s evaluation programs and how the teacher competencies being evaluated. Information disseminated through handouts and powerpoint presentations on these topics is not sufficient; classroom practice in teaching strategies through simulations, feedback, reflection and extensive discussions on these standards and evaluation procedures are critically important at every level of teacher training.

Finally, the professors/instructors in teacher training programs must be familiar with the wide range of technologies being used in preK-grade 12 classrooms. The disconnect between college programs and the use of technology in real-life classrooms has been widening. The professors/instructors in today’s teacher preparation programs must develop proficiency with the software teachers are expected to use. They must be familiar with Google Apps for Education, Edmodo, Twitter, Quizlet, Dropbox, Khan Academy, Class Dojo, Pinterest, Evernote.

There are forces outside the education profession that are exerting pressure and changing the face of education for new and seasoned educators alike. There is political pressure from legislators designing state evaluation and curriculum standard programs combined with pressure from testing companies. The voice that is missing in response to these pressures is leadership from those who design and implement teacher training programs in colleges and universities.

Leadership is more than just an advertising slogan or an elective course offered by colleges and universities. Teacher training programs need the leadership of professors/instructors who connected with the realities of the classroom. That kind of leadership requires direct involvement and reflection on the curriculum, instruction strategies, and means of assessment in classrooms today.

Only that kind of leadership can design programs that meet the needs of the classroom today as well as anticipate the training that prepares new and veteran teachers with both pedagogy and experience for success.


In this current sea change of education, teacher training programs must become the force that exerts pressure and change, not the institutions forced to respond. Teacher training programs currently offered by colleges and universities must move from the abstract, from the practice of training on dry land, in order to move teacher preparation into deep waters of classroom experience. 

Anything else is just waving arms in the air.

The Twitter English Chat (#engchat) last night (5/6/13) was on vocabulary, and I was too late to join the conversation. There was, however, one tweet went by that I would like to answer. Shawn White (@swpax) posted:

Does anyone have fun, effective ways to teach/learn Latin & Greek roots?

Yes. Try a kinesthetic approach.

This past January, I posted two sets of Greek Root vocabulary words on Quizlet. This free software allows anyone to “study anything” or “find or create what you need to learn.” I found two sets of Greek roots that were already posted. Quizlet allows teachers to share materials, so I copied the words and posted them to an account that students could access.

Set I:

Set II:

Quizlet also posts the lists to Twitter so students can access the lists. There are a variety of ways that students and teachers can use Quizlet. The flashcard mode has an audio mode which is really helpful for students to hear the correct pronunciation.

Screen Shot 2013-05-06 at 8.32.41 PM

After the 9th graders had the lists, we practiced the words and their meanings kinesthetically. The students used their fingers to spell out Greek roots: ant (against), tech (skill), exo (outside).







EXO- Outside

EXO- Outside

They twisted their bodies into letters and spread out against the wall spelling out xen (foreign), phob (fear).

This was fun. (Sorry you cannot see their smiles)

This was also effective. The class average was  96% on Set I and 87% on Set II.

Greek roots are difficult to memorize, but they are essential to decoding other vocabulary words. Between 5-25% of English words are derived from the Greek. The Greek roots are particularly important in understanding today’s vocabulary in science and medicine.

How fitting, then, that kinesthetic is a synonym for biomechanics. And guess what the etymology of biomechanics is? Greek, of course!  Bios (living organism) + mechane, (machine).

This connection between my activity and the root might just be Greek fate…. but that’s another lesson!





forbesFobes recently published a feature article/photo spread, 30 Educators under 30:The Millennials Overhauling Education And Leaving No Child (Or Teacher) Behind by Meghan Casserly, 12/7/2012. The lead in for the article read:

The 30 Gen-Yers on our list are innovators, advocates, thought-leaders and reformers. Through outreach initiatives and engineering they’re committed, like my mom, to giving kids everywhere the best chance at success. They’re committed to making the lives of teachers like her just a little bit easier, whether through technology that saves them precious minutes communicating with parents or helps them use data analytics to track performance more efficiently than traditional paper grade books ever could.

A series of slick, glossy photos of well-dressed, smiling bright-eyed entrepreneurs and CEOs followed. Readers were advised to, “Click through the gallery for the 30 men and women who are disrupting education from top to bottom.” Disrupting? Is that what needs to happen to education? To disrupt? To disrupt means:

1. To throw into confusion or disorder;
2. To interrupt or impede the progress, movement, or procedure of;
3. To break or burst; rupture.

Disrupting is a perplexing choice if the purpose of the article is to praise the contributions these individuals are making to the business of education. When students disrupt a class, they are given detentions. The choice of the verb is contradictory because in the next sentence readers are encouraged “to visit their websites and reach out to congratulate them, to give them well-deserved credit for their hard work.” Are we being asked to congratulate disruption?

I did visit some of the websites mentioned in the photospread, and I do want to express my thanks to the CEOs who provide free and well-designed software programs. Specifically, I noted the photos of  Nic Borg, 26, Cofounder and CEO, Edmodo; Sam Chaudhary, 26, and Liam Don, 26, Co-founders of ClassDojo; and Andrew Sutherland, 23, Founder, Quizlet.  I will agree that these products contribute positively to my classroom environment. None of their products are “disruptive”.

The photos of these four product founders and their 26 smiling cohorts confirmed that all were vibrantly under 30, so I concede the “30 under 30” part of the headline. And yes, all 30 individuals are associated with the business of education, but they are not educators. These 30 individuals are educreators. The difference? Educators are in classrooms….Educreators are not.

Educators are in the classroom designing lessons, developing assessments, grading papers, contacting parents, posting bulletin boards, collecting data, analyzing data, meeting with teachers, collaborating with special education teachers, organizing supplies, selecting resources, and adjusting plans every minute of ever school day, and in most cases, for hours before or after school. In short, educators teach.

All Edu-creators have been in classrooms…as students. One edu-creator featured in the article spent three years in a classroom for Teach for America, one year more than the required two years of service. Each of the edu-creators has a product to improve education, but that does not make them educators. They are not in the classroom teaching; many are marketing a product for the classroom.

There has been an explosion of educreations that parallels the expansion of technology in the classroom. Many of these educreations from educreators are offered free or in “lite” versions. Ultimately, these products will make money for their founders and CEOs; there will be subscriptions or advertisements that generate revenue for these ’30 under 30″, and that is how capitalism works. A good product will sell, and many of these are good products. However, these products are tools for educators to use, not replacements for educators themselves.

Other members of the “30 under 30” are contributing to education policy by serving on boards, writing books, or being advocates for non-profits. These roles are also important, but again, these educreators have little practical experience to anticipate the problems that even the smallest changes in policy can have in the classroom. For example, a change in a state endorsed teacher evaluation system can result in thousands of hours for training evaluators and teachers  to meet new requirements, and those new requirements will be modified numerous times until an evaluation system proves effective. The effect of policy on the individual teacher or classroom is rarely witnessed; instead, policymakers are focused on the collection of “data”, not the hundreds of personal stories policy creates.

Comments under the article decry the lack of teachers. As Becky D succinctly  states:

I think it an egregious oversight that this list doesn’t include a single practicing educator.

Meghan Casserly’s response?

Educators obviously impact hundreds if not thousands of students over the course of their careers–and I looked for ways to weigh that against some of the other people on this list. Particularly for teachers under 30, it was extremely difficult to compare them in any apples-to-apples way. That said, there were some amazing teachers nominated who I was sure fit the bill—only to find out they were already 30!

So, are we to take from this comment that there are no real educators under 30 who are overhauling education and leaving no child behind? Perhaps there are no “amazing teachers” under 30 immediately visible to Casserly because they are so busy designing lessons, developing assessments, grading papers, contacting parents, posting bulletin boards, collecting data, analyzing data, meeting with teachers, collaborating with special education teachers, organizing supplies, selecting resources, and adjusting plans every minute of every school day that they simply do not have the time to create new educational software programs, run advocacy groups, or write educational policy. They are teachers, and they are real educators. They will not be featured in a Forbes magazine article about overhauling education because they are engaged in the time-consuming and productive activity of building skills and improving understanding for students of all ages.

What did Casserly get right with this article? She suggests that if the reader does get to meet one of the featured “30 under 30”, that the reader should ask, “…what teacher they have to thank for helping them land on our pages.” I agree;  their educators would be proud of the success of their former students, their own educreations.