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Teaching Vocabulary



We’ve all been, at least once in our lives, handed a long list of new vocabulary words and been forced to look up and write down the definitions, study them, complete a quiz, and move on.  We also all know that the process is far from an effective method of vocabulary instruction. It can be hard to know how to teach vocabulary to make it stick. Read below for some tips and activities to liven up your vocabulary instruction to allow students to not just memorize and regurgitate definitions, but actually consider, discuss, and have fun with new words.

First, vocabulary instruction is always more relevant if students select the terms whenever possible.  I usually have them peruse something we will be reading (novel, short story, poem etc.) and highlight terms and categorize them as either unclear or unknown words to create a short vocabulary list.

If you aren't reading a text to draw new words from, a fun and easy way to bring new vocabulary into your classroom is to have an interactive bulletin board that introduces a new word of the day/week.  This is a low-stress way to expose students to new vocabulary and provides a bank of terms for you to use for vocabulary instruction.

Avoid the traditional method of having students look up all the words in the dictionary.  This is usually a very dry process that doesn’t engage students.  Instead, provide a context for the term by teaching new words using images, stories, videos, or experiences.  For example, if you are teaching the word mortified you might consider the following:

- Tell students a story of when you felt mortified.
- Show them a picture of someone who is mortified
- Show a video clip from a TV or movie where a character is mortified.


After you feel you have provided students with a deep, engaging explanation of the new words, have them show their understanding to clarify any misunderstandings.  You can do this by having them share their understanding of the terms in their own words (aloud or in writing), write their own examples in sentences, or draw or find an image that represents the new words.  It’s important that students don’t simply restate your definition or ideas, but rather provide their own original examples to show that they fully understand the meaning.  Try this free vocabulary card to have students examine a word in great detail: FREE VOCABULARY CARD


You might also consider helping students deconstruct the word at this point if there are any prefixes, suffixes, or root words to examine.  


After students have learned and shown understanding of the new words, come back to the terms a few days later to have students engage with them in a fun and creative way.  Read below to see some of my favorite ways to engage students in vocabulary practice! 

Have students find or examine famous quotes that contain the words they have learned by searching for quotes that use the word online (example search: "mortified quotes").  I also use them as a way to introduce new vocabulary by having students guess the meaning of words in the context of how it is used within the quotation. Try this activity in your class by clicking here: FAMOUS VOCABULARY QUOTES

Have students interact with the new words by having them perform a short vocabulary theater skit.  Students work in groups to write and perform an original skit that includes the new vocabulary terms.

Have students play a game of “Word Sneak.”  Inspired by The Tonight Show game (click here to see an example), students will each get a unique short list of vocabulary words that they need to casually sneak into a conversation with a partner.  They check off the words they are able to incorporate for one point each.  It’s also fun to add a few silly words (ninja, guacamole, race car etc.) to each list to liven up the game.  

Have students play a game of Vocabulary Bingo.  Students write the words they learned into the bingo squares.  You read out the definition (or provide a synonym or antonym) of the word and students have to color in the appropriate word (or use paper squares or a bingo dabber).  When they get a line colored in, have them yell out, “I love vocabulary!”  A small prize is always a nice touch.  Use these free bingo card templates by clicking here: VOCABULARY BINGO



Play a game of Vocabulary Memory.  Give students small squares of paper (preferably a thicker paper to avoid cheating).  Students make matching cards, one with the vocabulary word and one with the definition.  They mix the cards up and place them face down on the table.  Each partner takes his or her turn to flip 2 cards over attempting to match the term with its proper definition.  If they make a match, they keep the card and earn one point!
If you are looking for other resources to teach vocabulary, the ladies of the coffee shop have you covered!  Click below to check out what they use to teach vocabulary. 

Vocabulary Poster Project from Nouvelle ELA
Free Vocabulary Cube Activity from The Daring English Teacher
Vocabulary Differentiation Flipbook from Secondary Sara


Fresh Ideas for Teaching Shakespeare



1. Grab their attention with a game.

Students have a lot of preconceived notions about Shakespeare, so I try to “shake” things up by starting off my unit with an attention grabber. Previously, I always started my unit with the first few minutes of “The Shakespeare Code” from Doctor Who, which shows the Doctor and Martha arriving to Elizabethan London. The Doctor “translates” the customs and habits for Martha, like pulling her out of the way of a dumped chamber pot! This is one way to get students excited right out of the gate.

Now, I have students play through a digital breakout I madecalled “The Missing Script”. Students play as Alex, an aspiring actor, and Alex helps Shakespeare’s servant find a misplaced script. The game takes students through the Globe (they look high and low – maybe the servant left it in the Galleries?), over the London Bridge, and through the Royal Exchange. They solve puzzles as they learn about Shakespeare’s London, and, if they are successful, they find the missing script!

2. Introduce Shakespeare's Language (gently)

I love Shakespeare’s language as much as the next gal and I’m capable of really nerding out about it. That doesn’t necessarily mean our students are ready to do the same. Instead of giving them a list of the two thousand words Shakespeare added to the English language, why not focus on just a few? Likewise, you can introduce a few politeness concepts like “thou” vs. “you” that carry a lot of meaning in his plays.

One of the ways I do this is to have my students complete a Webquest focused on Shakespeare’s language. They watch a brief video (3 minutes!) about Shakespeare’s contributions to English and a portion of a TED talk by Akala that explains Iambic Pentameter in a memorable way.

You can also distribute these bookmarks to your students to help them remember the basics – who doesn’t love a good bookmark? 





3. Bring your classroom onto the stage.

I love incorporating drama into my classroom, so it’s not a stretch to give students the stage in our Shakespeare units. If you’re a little hesitant about how to work this in, I’m here to tell you that you DO have time, and students WILL step up and embrace the responsibility.

I’ve been working with shortened scripts lately (I call them Shakespeare in 30 since the final show only takes 30 minutes!), and it’s amazing! Students can use these scripts for Reader’s Theatre after a class period or two to practice. They could even work a little longer and add blocking and costumes for a Staged Reading. Lastly, they can memorize their lines completely in a 2-3 week unit and perform their plays for each other. This is a great way to expose students to more Shakespeare beyond just one play – you could easily have your students in groups that each perform a different text.





4. Give your students permission to play with the language


It’s easy to think that Shakespeare’s texts should be held on a pedestal, but the reality is that he changed around his scenes all the time. Particularly in comedies, he was constantly at work to get the biggest laugh to cater to the biggest scandals of the day (think SNL here, folks). We can give students this same creative license.

One of my favorite projects from my very first year of teaching was to have students rewrite the end of Much Ado About Nothing as a tragedy. This idea came from another English teacher, and I was a little skeptical, but the kids dove in. They had such a great time giving characters dramatic monologues and forlorn glances and soap opera deaths. Another project I’ve seen in my time working with our local teen group, the Southeastern Teen Shakespeare Company (SETSCO), is a retelling of Romeo & Juliet in five pop songs. From the brawl scene (“Uptown Funk”) to the lovers’ deaths (“If I Die Young), the whole thing takes about 15 minutes and is just a hoot. Whatever way you come up with, challenge students to make the stories their own.





5. Invite new interpretations and adaptations

Lastly, challenge students to look for new insights into old texts. This is why we still have Shakespearean scholars, right? Because there’s still more to learn.

Instead of giving students one correct story, allow them to find many stories in the text. How would it change things if Claudio were perceived as a bumbling stepfather who’s really trying, but Hamlet just won’t let him in? How about if we look at Lady Macbeth through a modern lens of mental health and diagnose her with anxiety and depression? What if we examined all of Othello through Desdemona’s eyes?

Students can also create their own adaptations. One of the things that SETSCO did was to perform a mostly-mime Much Ado About Nothing. In this version, each character only said 1-2 words at a time, and meaning was conveyed through inflection and movement. This unique spin on the story amplified the depiction of Don John and Don Pedro’s manipulation of the other characters and gave the audience new insight into an old story.

Final Words

There’s no reason for students to ever consider Shakespeare old and tired. Instead, help them view these texts as a playground for imaginative analysis and creative reworking. These are a few of the things I do in my classroom and community, and I can’t wait to see what you do in yours! Tag me on Instagram at @nouvelle_ela and let me know how it’s going. :)




You can also check out these Shakespeare resources from other Coffee Shop teachers:


Teaching Poetry? Focus on the Process

Teaching poetry analysis by focusing on the process. Tips and strategies for middl and high school English teachers.
Let's face it. Many of our students see poetry analysis as one the world's greatest mysteries. They read a challenging poem and hope that something or someone will appear before them to unlock the secret. If they don't "get it" right away, they shut down and proclaim that the poem is too hard -- or "stupid." 

More often than not, these reactions happen because a student gets overwhelmed and doesn't know where to start. That's why I devote lots of time breaking down the steps of poetry analysis, so my kids feel less afraid of the whole process.  


Here are five strategies I use to remove the fear and mystery associated with poetry:


Teaching poetry analysis by focusing on the process. Tips and strategies for middl and high school English teachers.

One of the best ways to help kids understand poetry is to get them to experiment with writing some first. When students play around with their own words, they will be more likely to recognize when and how another poet is doing the same. 


Before I start any poetry unit, I make sure my students are very familiar with the ways that language can create meaning. We do figurative language challenges and word choice lessons to ensure that students understand the power of their own language. Then I give them free reign to express themselves through poetry. We have many conversations about using words to create meaning, and students explain their craft and purpose to each other. These conversations will help them later, when they do poetry analysis, because they can connect the techniques they used in their writing to the ones that they will explore in our poetry unit.


Teaching poetry analysis by focusing on the process. Tips and strategies for middl and high school English teachers.

I certainly want to give my kids challenging poetry that stretches their brains, but I don't do it on the first day. If I break out the Romantic and Victorian poets in the beginning, barriers will go up that I'll never climb over. My poetry unit will be dead on arrival. Instead, I prefer to create some interest and buzz with poems that teens can relate to, as well as ones they can "get" pretty easily. I want to build my students' confidence and interest first and then work toward more challenging poems. My favourite way to start is with Billy Collins' Introduction to Poetry, a poem that addresses the purpose of poetry analysis and that always leads to a great discussion with my students.  Then, we spend a class or two exploring some other high interest poems before we get too deep into analysis.


I've compiled a list of some engaging and accessible poems (with some recommendations from my friends at the Coffee Shop). You can grab it here.Teaching poetry analysis by focusing on the process. Tips and strategies for middl and high school English teachers.

One of the best ways to get your kids on board with analysis is to show them how you do it. This helps them see that it does take work. Despite what they may think, we English teachers didn't come out of the womb clutching the secrets to poetry analysis. However, somewhere along the way we learned how to approach the process, so we don't shut down as soon as it gets hard.  

Give your students a peek into your brain by projecting a poem on the screen, or enlarging one and putting it on a piece of chart paper. Read the poem with students and then speak your process out loud. Start with your first impression of the poem. Then, talk about the things you don't understand: I'm not sure what the poet means here... she could be suggesting that...or it could be...  Annotate as you speak. Write ideas in the margins, including unanswered questions. Continue on until you've come up with some conclusions about the poet's purpose. Then, ask the kids what they think. If you're really brave, the best way to do this is with a poem you have never seen before. Ask the kids to find a poem for you to analyze. They can email it to you or bring a copy to class, but you need to make it clear to them that you've never seen it before. It may seem like a terrifying prospect, but it's a very effective strategy to show your students that we don't always know what we're doing, but when we're stumped, we have strategies to help us get over the wall.


Teaching poetry analysis by focusing on the process. Tips and strategies for middl and high school English teachers.

I give my students several opportunities to collaborate when they are learning to analyze poetry, so they can help each through the process. One of my favourite activities lets them work in groups to focus on only one element of a challenging poem; after, they get to see how each element works together. 
(you can grab the free lesson plan here)

Teaching poetry analysis by focusing on the process. Freebie for middl and high school English teachers.

You will need to choose a poem that has multiple elements that you want students to look at (diction, imagery, sound and rhythm, figurative language, etc.). Each group will look at one of these, and after discussion, will create a poster that explains their conclusions about the poet's use of their assigned element. Groups will hang all of their posters on a wall of the classroom. Next, they do a gallery walk so each student can examine every group's work. Finally, the class will have a big discussion about the effect that each element has on the poem -- and how they all work together to create meaning. This exercise works really well because students get a chance to see how each part works to create the whole.



Eventually my students need to do a poetry analysis on their own. However, I still provide them with the opportunity to focus on the steps of poetry analysis, so they don't get overwhelmed when faced with a challenging poem.



Teaching poetry analysis by focusing on the process. Tips and strategies for middl and high school English teachers.

We use learning stations, and at each stop, the student is reminded of the elements they should consider in their poem, like structure, sound and figurative language. Since I've started using these stations, I'm grading papers that are so much better than the old days, when I assigned a poem without giving my students any scaffolding.


I hope I've given you a few ideas that you can use in your own classroom. If you'd like more information about focusing on process with literary analysis, you can head on over to this blog post. Also, my friends here at the Secondary English Coffee Shop have some amazing resources for poetry too. Check them out!


Presto Plans: Poetry Annotation

Nouvelle ELA: Poetry Escape Room
Secondary Sara: Digital Poetry Slam
The Daring English Teacher: Poetry Analysis with Sticky Notes
Addie Education: Poetry Activity Pack








Espresso Shot: 9 Ways to Take English Class Outside



Now that Spring's here, your students are getting antsy, and their attention keeps drifting towards the window. You may be antsy yourself, dreaming of Saturday morning when you can finally spend some time in the back yard or at the park. Well, the ladies of the Secondary English Coffee Shop are here to share some of our favorite ways to take English class outside.


1. I love to take my kids outside, but as we all know, releasing teenagers from the confines of the classroom does not always lead to much work. To make outdoor time meaningful and not just a sun-basking exercise, we have to be smart about what we ask them to do. One of my favourite activities is my poetry "scavenger hunt". We go to a nearby park and I send my kids to different locations to "find" inspiration. Then, when we do return to class, they have follow up activities to do. It's always one of the best days of the semester! Read more about it at my blog. -Room 213


2. I love it when a gorgeous day coincides with my plan to use a podcast in a lesson! Students almost always have their phones and earphones with them, and we go out to get some fresh air while listening. This is also great for students who need to move, or students wanting to lie in the sunshine! To read more about how I use podcasts in the ELA classroom, check out this post-Stacey Lloyd




3. Have your students play the role of photographer by sending them outside with their phones or cameras to capture images that can be used as inspiration for writing. Students can take pictures of anything that inspires them and send you best picture they took via email. Then, you can print the pictures, provide credit for who took the photo underneath, and use them as prompts for narrative or descriptive writing. This would look great on a bulletin board display with the pictures and writing displayed next to each other! -Presto Plans





4. Like Presto Plans, I love sending my students around the school to take pictures. We do this as part of our Photography Analysis unit, and students create the photos that their peers will analyze. We work on playing with space, perspective, light and shadow, and many other aspects of photography as we shoot. This is a great activity that can happen within school walls if, for some reason, you can’t take students all the way outside. The photo below was taken in the auditorium as students rehearsed for the musical.  -Nouvelle ELA



5. If you’re trying to review before an assessment, try “Quidditch”! We went outside to get ready for final exams. This game can be adapted to other non-grammar topics as well! You can read more about this at my blog -Secondary Sara



6. One of my favorite ways to help students find writing inspiration is to take them outside for a quick writing exercise. When we do this, we go to the quad or a grassy area on campus, and I instruct my students to write. It is more of a freewriting exercise than anything else because I want to instill in them that writing can be more than just an academic assignment many of them loathe. I have them describe with all of their senses what they are experience, or have them make up a story using the outdoors as a blank canvas, or have them write their feelings. -The Daring English Teacher




7. Sometimes I take my students outside just because, especially after spending a LONG winter inside the classroom! Last year, we went outside on the first nice day of spring and completed some peer edits on essays. Everyone was spread out, enjoying some sun and because they weren’t confined to their desks for a change, they seemed to focus that much more on each of the edits! -The Classroom Sparrow


8. The outside environment is the perfect place to have students think about the five senses to write an Imagery Poem. Even if the weather isn't perfect you can still spend some time outdoors soaking in the sights and sounds of the outdoor world. Ask your students to think about all of their sense and brainstorm vivid verbs and descriptive images to help students paint a picture with their words. And the change of pace and switch in location will help get your students' creative juices flowing. Have fun! -Addie Williams



9. I am a huge proponent of helping students practice mindfulness through yoga, meditation, and nature. Having the opportunity to take students outside, even just briefly, is a powerful opportunity! You can work with students on basic yoga techniques, breathing exercises, and meditation practices to help prepare them for the day ahead of them. Practicing these outside in nature provides a specific space and time for students to unplug, focus, and balance their minds for the day! -The SuperHERO Teacher





What are some other ways you bring your English class "into the wild"? Let us know in comments, or reach out @secondaryenglishcoffeeshop. We can't wait to hear from you!



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