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Vocabulary Instruction in the Reader's Workshop: Making the Pieces Fit


How do you fit it all in?
                                                                   -Concerned Teacher 

In my last blog post, I wrote about how I teach tier 2 vocabulary words. I developed a whole approach using research-based instructional strategies with a fun twist for increased student engagement. If you missed that post, you can read it here

After publishing, I received many questions via email and in my tpt store. Almost everyone asked the same question: How do you fit it all in? I get it. I really do. As classroom teachers, we're inundated with curricular and non-curricular demands daily, hourly, and some days by the minute. So your questions are valid.

How do I fit it all in?

I grappled with this question for quite a while before I found something that works for me. The school district I work for mandates 90 minutes for reader's workshop and  60 minutes for writer's workshop. I had to fit in word study (we use Words Their Way), as well as the academic vocabulary instruction. These two are not synonymous. Words Their Way teaches spelling patterns, phonics, and Greek and Latin roots. Tier 2 vocabulary are robust, academic vocabulary words that students are likely to encounter across all topics and content-areas and in testing situations.  

Fitting it in felt like this in the beginning!
At first, I tried to keep all of the pieces of my reader's workshop intact. That means, I taught a reading strategy mini-lesson every day, my students read independently for at least 30 minutes every day, and I taught either guided reading or strategy groups every day. Then I tried tacking the vocabulary lesson on at the end of the session. I ended up not having time to share my mentor text with my kids. I had to have time to read aloud in my 90 minute reader's workshop block. That was non-negotiable. 

Then, I had my Elsa Moment. I let go of that impossible expectation. I really did. Because you know what? If I made my vocabulary lessons part of my cycle of mini-lessons and/or small group instruction, I was still teaching reading. Sure. I wasn't teaching the prescribed unit  mini-lessons, but my kids were still learning how to read. They were learning to read and comprehend hard tier 2 words that they encounter across all subject matters. Once I had that paradigm shift, I regained my sanity. Check out the chart below to see how I did it. 



Some important notes about this schedule...
  • Words Their Way practice occurred at home. It was a short homework task that students completed every night (5-10 minutes tops).
  • I teach 2 to 3 tier 2 vocabulary words every week.
  • I assess on Fridays, every other week. The assessments are quick and to the point. 
  • I'm not a fan of a "centers approach" in my 5th grade reader's workshop. Why? Experts say that kids need to read at least 30 minutes a day. Fifth graders should be reading 50-60 minutes daily. Guess what? It isn't happening at home. 
  • Therefore, the only other task during independent reading time is that my students complete a vocabulary thinking task in their notebooks. 
This approach isn't the only way to incorporate vocabulary instruction, but it is the schedule that has worked for my classroom. I would love to hear how you "fit it all in!" Share in the comments!



If you're looking for a way to teach tier 2 vocabulary words or want to pump up your word study practices, check these out. Just click on the picture!












Diving Into Academic Vocabulary: A Teacher's Quest for Rigor, Engagement & Meaning



Like it was yesterday. Seriously. I still remember my first swimming class at the community pool. I wore a robin's egg blue bikini with a bow attached to the swimsuit top. It had little pink flowers on it. My mom had put my hair in pigtails. I was so excited. I was six years old. The swim teacher remains faceless in my memory, but she wore a red one-piece suit. 

Our first lesson was floating. She convinced me to lay back on her hands and relax. I was floating on my back! Then, I had to put my face in the water. I leaned forward into her outstretched arms and after way too much cajoling, I put my face in the water. She let go. I was floating on my stomach! And then, I inhaled. I snorted. I retched. I coughed. I cried. After that initial experience, my swim lesson experiences are hazy. I don't think I ever got past the doggy paddle, because I could keep my face out of water for that. 

Teaching tier 2 academic vocabulary felt like my first swim class. I waded into the shallow end of the pool, hopeful. I even left my arm floaties on the pool deck. And then I snorted water...

Types of vocabulary are broken into 3 tiers. Tier 1 vocabulary are words that seldom need to be directly taught. Tier 2 vocabulary are robust, academic vocabulary words that students are likely to encounter across all topics and content-areas and in testing situations.  Tier 3 vocabulary are words that are domain specific like “math words” or “social studies words.” 

What I had done was purchase a vocabulary product from an educational publisher. I was looking for an easy way to begin, and this seemed like the best way to go at it. A month into this worksheet-oriented resource, my kids were moaning every time we talked about vocabulary. I was bored, too. I tried to pep up my lessons, but the problem was that the resource I had purchased never moved beyond "this is the word, look up the definition, memorize it, write it in a sentence, test it." Incidentally, my kids didn't do well on the assessments, and I found myself having to review and reteach over and over again. 
I needed something engaging. My students and I needed to be excited about it.  I reread vocabulary research, and thought about what I know about pedagogy. Kids need to have ownership over their learning. They respond well to games. Choice can be a huge factor in a student's success. I put the book on the free table in our staff lounge and began to build my own pool of vocabulary lessons and activities. 

First, I made student jobs in our vocabulary workshop. We had a Dictionary Digger, a Word Caster, Wall Mason, Sound Mixer and Town Crier. The Dictionary Digger looked up the vocabulary in the dictionary or online dictionary. The Word Caster read the vocabulary sentences that I wrote on the board for each lesson. The Wall Masons built the vocabulary word wall on our cabinet doors. Each day we introduced a new word, they were in charge of placing it correctly. 

The Town Crier rang a bell and announced vocabulary headlines that summarized our weekly vocabulary learning. And finally, the Sound Mixer played a sound effect each time the vocabulary word was used throughout the day or in a content-area lesson. I had purchased a nifty sound effects handheld machine at Target just for this purpose!

I introduced props into our vocabulary workshop. The Town Crier used a large old-fashioned school bell to summarize the vocabulary learning for the day. The Sound Mixer used the sound effects machine. The Wall Masons wore bandannas around their necks and kept a large bedazzled paintbrush on their desks for the week. The Word Caster wore a feathered boa or movie star sunglasses. The Dictionary Digger wore a pair of garden gloves as he or she paged through the dictionary. The kids couldn't wait for their turns at the jobs!

Finally, I incorporated some whole-class games. We played these in the morning instead of doing worksheet-y bell work. They required strategy, talk, and critical thinking. We had a blast!


Part of my dissatisfaction with the canned vocabulary program I had purchased was its lack of rigor. It was worksheet after worksheet. In fact, it reminded me of the spelling workbooks I loathed when I was in elementary school. So I reread Robert Marzano's research on vocabulary instruction and I discovered Making Thinking Visible by Mark Church and Ron Ritchart.  

Suddenly the pieces began to fall into place. What I wanted in my vocabulary instruction was student voice. I wanted my kiddos to be talking about words, exploring them, looking for them, and playing with them...the way writers and readers do. Visible thinking routines did that for us. 

I developed my instructional routines for teaching vocabulary. First, I introduced vocabulary words by placing them in a context.  For example, I introduced a vocabulary word like analyze by writing three sentences (funny and engaging) that used the word. These sentences were about the students, myself, or humorous classroom situations. 

Ms. Willis analyzed how much time it would take until her teacher forgot about her homework.

Carson wanted to analyze how much chocolate it would take for Ms. Willis to give the class an extra recess.

Janie needed to analyze how many basic facts problems she could complete in one minute. 

Using the sentences, we discussed what we thought the word analyze means.  Then the Dictionary Digger looked it up either in a dictionary or an online dictionary. We compared and contrasted our predictions with the dictionary definitions. 

Then, I began to play with using routines like Circle of Viewpoints, 3-2-1, CSI, Headlines, and Generate-Sort-Connect-Elaborate in my lessons. The 3-2-1 routine was one of my favorite routines to use at the very beginning of my vocabulary quest. After unpacking the new vocabulary word, we met in thinking councils and thought of three words that came to mind when we thought about  the vocabulary word. 

Then we asked two questions about the word. We discussed those questions. We tried to answer them.

Finally, we created one metaphor or simile for our vocabulary word. 

Check out this example for the word analyze:

3 WORDS: Dissect, parts, think
2 QUESTIONS: In what subject areas would we use this word? Does the meaning change if we change part of the word to make it analyzed or analysis?
1 METAPHOR/SIMILE: Analyze is like looking for the greatest common factor of  two numbers in math class.

These routines and Marzano's steps for teaching vocabulary rocked our world and my instruction. After my first couple of lessons with the thinking routines, it became apparent that we had waded into the deep end of the pool. 


In order for vocabulary to stick, my students had to make meaning for themselves. We accomplished this through tons of peer-to-peer and small group discussions. Thinking routines demand that of learners. My students began to think more symbolically and metaphorically. Discourse happened. Accountable talk happened.  We used thinking routine language like:

Why do you think that?

At first I thought...now I think...

I need to be sure to remember...

I think...because...

 Their independence grew, and they were able to use thinking routines in their vocabulary notebooks. They were able to explain their thinking more succinctly. 

This quest has been a long journey. Over the course of four years, I've waded into the deep end of the pool, without my arm floaties, and I put my face into the water. Even when I came up sputtering, I kept going. It was worth it.  It changed how my students view word study and who they become as writers and readers. This time in the pool, I didn't even cry. 

                                                           Until next time, 


I worked hard so you wouldn't have to... You can snag everything you need for your own vocabulary quest right here! Click below! It's discounted for the entire month of July!



How the Wild Blue Yonder Saved My Sanity


This story begins like many of my teaching stories begin...curriculum crunch! With mandated state testing occurring in April, I needed a high-interest way to combine several learning goals in math, science and language arts. So my fifth grade kiddos and I flew off into "the wild blue yonder" together, because let's face it, after state testing, everyone's brains are mush. Worksheets and internet learning programs just don't cut it. We had been sitting in front of our computers for weeks as we clicked answers on a screen. We needed to move!

We began by researching types of paper airplanes on the internet. Students identified a type they wanted to fold. They took their research sheets home, finished their research there and brought their completed airplane back to school.  When I used this project in summer school, we did the research together.

Once they had their airplanes at school, we shared their different designs. We read about thrust, force, and aerodynamics and watched some online videos about aviation and design. Then my kids were ready to fly.  One of our learning targets in this project was to learn about the scientific process. Students wrote hypotheses before testing their planes. They conducted five flight trials and recorded their distances in inches. 

My kids needed more practice with converting customary measurements, so after they had recorded their data in inches, they converted it into feet and yards.   We were able to review range, median, mode and mean as well.  I used this project to also teach my students about line plots by plotting our class data together. In addition, we reviewed bar graphs and learned about line graphs. 

This portion of the project took us about a week of one-hour sessions. However, we had touched on so many math and science 
concepts, it was worth every minute. Plus, my fifth graders were ENGAGED! For this time of year, that felt miraculous! After this, I was ready to teach more about controls and variables. We spent time learning about why controls and variables are so important in the scientific process. I used a lunch room example in our discussions. If the lunch ladies wanted to know which pizza was the most popular with fifth graders, and they ordered pepperoni pizza from Little Caesar's and cheese pizza from Jet's Pizza, would they be able to answer their question?  My kiddos determined that all pizza needed to be ordered from the same restaurant in order for the question to be answered with accuracy. From this discussion, we
moved on to applying control and variable to our paper airplane investigation.  I gave each student the folding directions for a basic dart airplane. These airplanes became the control for the assessment phase of this project. 





 I wanted to test my students ability to conduct the experiment on their own. I designed this part to assess their mastery of these concepts: Measurement, customary measurement conversion, graphing skills (coordinate, line and line plot), problem-solving, writing a math/science response, comparing and contrasting two sets of data, and identifying the control and variable of an experiment. 


My kids flew their control airplanes, recorded their data and analyzed it. Next, they took that same airplane and added one feature to it. This became their variable. Some students taped the fold together. Others added a paperclip to the bottom of the plane. Some taped a rudder on. There were many different variable designs. However, each plane only had ONE variable. Then they tested their airplanes
again and recorded their data once more. Finally, they created line graphs showing the two sets of data, and wrote compare/contrast responses that analyzed their data and made conclusions about their variables. 
I developed a quick rubric for my assessment. I had shared this rubric with my kids at the beginning of the assessment phase of this project, so that they would understand the target expectations. 


This project rocked our world for two weeks, but it also saved our sanity.  We have so many curriculum expectations, and I've found that melding subjects into creative learning experiences is the way to go. My kiddos were engaged, excited, and on fire!

I've also used this in my summer school teaching experiences. Summer school is often a special kind of misery for many of our kids, isn't it? It needs to be focused, but it MUST be fun, too. 

If you haven't checked out my cross-curricular project-based learning experiences yet, you just gotta...they'll save your sanity!

                                                              Until next time!








The Difference Between Giving Up & Knowing When You've Had Enough


There is a difference between giving up and knowing when you've had enough.
                                                                               Dave's Words of Wisdom


The last time I blogged, it was February 18, 2018. It's unlike me to go so long without writing about my kids and my classroom.  Both are such huge parts of my life and identity. I had so many cool things to share with you this spring. But it felt dishonest to write about them, because I've been struggling. I don't feel creative right now. I don't feel hopeful. I look at my students, and I want to hold them and cry.  

My momma always told me, "If you don't have anything nice to say, then don't say anything. 


So I haven't said anything.  Not one word. Because to give words to the rage I have felt over the past three months feels like an act of self-harm.  I do not want to argue about gun control   I grew up in a hunting and fishing culture. Guns were valuable tools used for putting meat on the table and dispatching pests that caused problems on our rural property. I was taught how to shoot, how to handle a gun safely. I was taught to be respectful of it. And I was okay.  However, what is the purpose of weapons of war? It isn't to shoot a deer or rabbit. The purpose is to annihilate anything it's turned on. And in our country, they are turned on teachers and students, not on the lawmakers who accepted millions in campaign payouts from the NRA. 

Two weeks ago, I sat in ALICE training and listened to the 911 recording of the librarian from the Columbine High School during the shooting. I could barely keep my shit together. It is harrowing to listen to, and I choked back sobs. We talked about how to build a blockade, how to run, and the accuracy of a shooter when the target is moving. We practiced. 

In the last three months, I've watched teachers in West Virginia (my birth state), Arizona (where I used to live and work) and North Carolina fill the streets in protest. I've read the ugly, filthy comments of people on social media directed at those teachers. I am unhinged.  We can take a bullet for your children, but we don't deserve benefits and livable wages? 

Adolf Hitler said, " Universal education is the most corroding and disintegrating poison that liberalism has ever invented for its own destruction."  One of the first rumbles of fascism in pre-war Germany was the suppression of its teachers.  In the U.S., we are not just being suppressed, we are being demonized...until the latest school shooting, when we become either heroes or victims who are easily forgotten.  Quite frankly, it feels like no one is standing up for us. 

When I became a teacher, I was ready to shake the world up. My grandma and my mom were both teachers. It is in my blood. I had the optimism and zeal of  a "wet-behind-the-ears teacher."  I was going to make a difference. I've been teaching for 25 years. I spend about 2 months (when added all up) of my time with my students administering district and state-mandated assessments. The minutes I am supposed to teach all subjects are also mandated, and they add up to more minutes than there are in the school day.  I'm given about $3-$5 to spend per student for school supplies, for the entire school year. I can not write off the money I spend on my students. 

And now, I need a bullet proof vest. And I've been thinking about buying a baseball bat to keep next to my classroom door. And I need to teach my students how to pile furniture up in front of my classroom door for our next lock-down drill. 

Last week, I listened to a friend ask me why her tax money should go to public schools. She wants private school tax credits for her kids. 

Last month, another friend told me that I'm "too political." I wonder, is it because teaching is thought of as a "female profession" and nice girls don't have strong opinions? 


But you know what? Too bad. I've had enough of not being enough. Teachers have worked hard enough, cried enough, begged enough, and died enough in this country.  Period.

Next time, my creativity will be flowing. Next time, I'll write about beautiful ideas and beautiful students. Next time, I'll have hope to share, because I was taught to pull myself up my bootstraps. Next time. I promise. 


Until next time, check out my educator friends below. 



3 Amigas = Tons of Fun! A Trifecta of Authors, Resources & Freebies!


This month's Teacher Talk Featured Authors are three amigas! Deann Marin of Socrates Lantern and Retta London of Rainbow City Learning, both organizers of TBOTEMC's monthly Teacher Talk blog link up and Tracy Willis of Wild Child Designs, Teacher Talk's Featured Author Editor. They secretly wish they could've taught together but are separated by geography. Here they are, united in spirit

Read about this creative threesome, their products (shhhh...there's a secret sale going on!), and their freebies below. 




Hi, I'm Deann from Socrates Lantern. I taught SPED for many years and for most of that time I taught emotionally handicapped middle schoolers. My heart went out to them, mostly because of their tough and unfair homelives. Eventually, this took it's toll on me and burnout was inevitable. Since I have double certification, I can teach both SPED and Regular Ed. My dream job opened up when I was offered a 6th grade ELA/Social Studies position and got to co-teach with my best friend. Creating exciting lessons that would turn kids on to ancient history and make it come alive was my new challenge. I so loved seeing the excitement on their faces when they wrote and acted in plays, held debates, trials, and brought in mud bricks to school to make a class ziggurat. 

Now I'm retired and a full time teacherpreneur. I just had my new website built and am so excited to share my knowledge and products with everyone. I'll be starting an email series soon and would love to have you sign up. You'll receive entrance to my FREE resource gem library!




I'm Tracy from Wild Child Designs. My 24 year teaching career has been varied and fun. I've taught k-8 music, directed choirs, taught grades 2-6 and newcomers, and I've been a literacy coach. Currently I teach in a self-contained fifth grade classroom. Jon Muir taught us that all things in nature are connected. If you tease out one thread of a web, all organisms feel that vibration. I believe the nature of learning is like that, too. Deep down, we're all wild children. My passion is connecting core subjects and the arts into rigorous and fun projects. At my blog, Wild Child's Mossy Oak Musings, I write about project-based learning and math, reading and writing workshops. Currently, implementing Visible Thinking Routines and reading about creativity research make my little teacher heart beat faster. 

My subscribers enjoy a monthly freebie for their upper elementary and middle school classrooms!





Hi friends! It's Retta. Forever a teacher, I am enjoying retirement here in Michigan. My blog and TpT shop are both named for Rainbow City, the classroom I shared with m third, fourth, and fifth graders for many magical years.

During my classroom years, I loved really getting to know my kids as people and learners. I found that the empowerment of my students was the key to reaching and teaching them. Project-based learning and authentic assessment are my passions in the classroom. Out of the classroom now, I love volunteering in the schools and staying in touch with what's important to teachers and to kids. I enjoy sharing the lessons and units that made a difference for m own upper elementary students, as well as developing new ones that make a difference for yours! Grounded in research and kid-approved, resources from Rainbow City Learning offer creativity and fun, served with rigor and attention to learning standards.

As a Teacher Talk blogger, I get to peek into classrooms across the country and explore new ideas in education. Collaborating with other teachers is inspiring. I look forward to talking with more of you on social media sites!

Best-Seller Resources


Some of our best-selling resources are pretty perfect for April's Poetry Month. Even better, we've put them on sale this week,  just for you!




This resource is a gorgeous art project, poetry writing, descriptive language and biography poppy-licious project. I've used it to counteract the Standard Testing Blues. It kicks off our Poetry Month festivities. Click picture to view!





My Poetry Portfolio contains 11 of my favorite poetry forms with templates and examples to get your kids excited about creating poetry of their own. It's perfect for use as a 4-6 week unit, or use it at intervals throughout the year! Click the picture to view. 



Don't you just love the smell of spring in the air? When I think of spring, I think of poetry. What better way is there to teach this genre than to take a group of kids outside, have them lie under a tree and write a poem. This resource will inspire your students, just as it did mine!

Our Favorites

We know, we know. Teachers aren't supposed to have favorites, but we couldn't help ourselves. These faves are also on sale for this week!


I love Storybook STEAM because it is rigorous and fun. The mini-poster prompts invite students to think outside the box and to plan a project as an individual or a group. It uses classic tales and adds problem solving and critical thinking to the mix. Teachers say,  "Incredible resource!" Click picture to view!


Have you ever gone to sleep and dreamed about lesson plans? This resource is dream-created. Students learn about Piet Mondrian & plasticism, view Mondrian-inspired examples and explore the fractional amounts in each painting. Decimals and percentages make an appearance, too. Using fractional parameters, students create their own Mondrian-inspired artwork. Students love this and teachers say, "We used this PBL unit in math, and it's the kids' favorite project all year (and mine!)." Click the picture to view!


This is what you've been looking for because it's the end of the year, and you've run out of steam. You're ready for summer, but you want to reward your students with something meaningful and special. This is a unique resource offers awards with thought-provoking growth mindset statements from various philosophers, artists, scientists, historians, psychologists, writers, and more. There's an award to fit every student!

Last, But Not Least...FREEBIES!


We love our students and our resources, but we love teachers, too. These are our favorite freebies...because we love you!


Looking to settle your ELA classes down as they come into the room? Do you want to reinforce concepts taught in class? These FREE 5 Minute English Warm-ups that come with complete lesson plans, as well as worksheets and a writing prompt will be your new best friend!


This product sample, Raise Your Hand Poster with friendly Dot Dudes will encourage your students to find their own special voices and the confidence to speak out.


Small-group instruction is a powerful teaching tool. It's also a challenging tool to implement. This freebie will help you plan and organize your small group teaching. Click picture to download!

Before we say, "Adios, amigos," we hope you'll visit with us again. You can find us lurking at Starbucks, face-timing in the pedicure chair, and hatching plans to take over the world... or, you could just check out our social media links below. 

Deann of Socrates Lantern


Tracy of Wild Child Designs