Vocabalogues (Pre-Reading)

Vocabalogues are a deceptively easy way to introduce important vocabulary for an upcoming unit or subject. The activity fits neatly in a class period and can be modified as you see fit to make it work for your kids in your circumstances. These are the basic steps I use, although they vary a bit with different groups of students at different times. 

One. Choose 6-8 important terms from your next assigned reading or your upcoming unit. This activity works best with words whose application goes beyond the specifics of the upcoming lesson (i.e., they will actually encounter these words elsewhere in the universe), which are likely to be unfamiliar to most students, and which are important to a full understanding of the new material. 

Kids' BrainsI limit the total number of words to 8 or less because, despite those insane vocab assignments we were given in Middle School, most students are simply unable to learn and effectively incorporate more than 5-8 new words in a chunk. It’s not a question of ‘high expectations’; it’s that their lil’ brains just won’t do it. 

By way of example, I’m using vocabulary words chosen from "Chattel Slavery vs. Wage Slavery," by Orestes Brownson (1840). 








Two. Assign partners through whatever method you choose. I like randomly assigned pairs (by handing them playing cards as they walk in – Red 2 w/ Red 2, Black Queen w/ Black Queen, etc.), but that’s just me. If you have an odd number of students (as opposed to just really odd students), choose one group of three. 

Three. At least one person in each pair/group should have access to a dictionary. They should not need their books or other resources, since their work will not be intentionally tied to whatever content you’re covering next. This is all about the words, baby. 

Vocabalogues SlideFour. Make sure the list of words is displayed clearly on the board or screen. In a perfect world, both vocab and basic instructions can remain visible throughout the class period. Ideally. 

Five. Student Instructions:

1. You will be assigned a term from the list on the board. Work with your partner(s) to properly define the word.  If the word has substantially different possible meanings, use the one you think most likely to come up in a historical context.   

2. Create a short dialogue with your partner(s). I don’t care if you write it down or merely talk through it several times, but come up with one. You’ll have about 10 minutes to prepare, so no time to waste!

3. Your dialogue should be 30-45 seconds long and use the word properly at least 5 times.  

4. The word should be used in such a way that someone listening who does NOT know the meaning of the word would be able to discern the meaning from your dialogue.

5. Your dialogue should use as many forms of the word as reasonably possible.  (For example, if your word is ‘pardon’ you can use ‘pardon’, ‘pardoned’, ‘pardoning’, ‘unpardonable’, etc.)

6. Your dialogue should NOT intentionally involve the upcoming reading. 

7. You may NOT bring paper or anything else written to the front of the class with you when you do your dialogue (we don’t want to be read to).

Good Example for “gregarious”:

“Bill is so gregarious, the way he talks to everyone and gets along with just about anybody.”

“Yeah, I wish I could act more gregariously - but I feel so awkward around people. I don’t know what to say.”

“Well, Bill told me once he’s not actually that comfortable with new people, but he pretends he is and no one knows the difference! The more he pretends to be gregarious – talking, smiling, asking them questions – the more comfortable and full of gregariousity he becomes!”

“Are you suggesting that gregariousness can be learned? That I can become more socially adept through practicing deceit on my fellow men?”

“Hey, it’s like Aristotle said – ‘fake it ‘til you make it’. He would know – he was brilliant AND gregarious.”

Gregarious Vocab

Bad Example for “gregarious”:

“Hey, we’re supposed to define ‘gregarious’ for class today!”

“You don’t know the meaning of ‘gregarious’?  I thought everyone knew that!”

“Well, not me—I don’t know the meaning of ‘gregarious’.  Do you?

“Yeah—it’s like Bill.  He’s VERY ‘gregarious’

“Oh, so Bill is like gregariousness. He’s acts gregariously.”

“Yep. Is that five? Can we stop?”

Six. Assign each pair a word from the list. In a class of 30, you may assign the same word 3-4 times, which is fine. 

Seven. Give students about 10 minutes to come up with their dialogues. Circulate to make sure they’re on track. Inevitably there are pairs convinced they’re “done” – in which case I encourage them to practice their vocabalogue quietly several times, so they’ll be fully prepared. Other groups are able to spend most of their time wondering if they should get a dictionary. 

Thinking PeopleYour class is your class, but I’m determined NOT to assist them in preparing, other than to clarify the instructions. The learning happens in the struggle, and if I bail them out of the struggle too soon, I may get a better vocabalogue, but there will be less learning. 

Eight. Prepare the ‘audience’ for each dialogue with expectations for behavior and attentiveness. Even if you don’t feel prepared, you will NOT continue working on YOUR word while other groups are up here laying it all on the line for your learning and edification. Watch, listen, or do a good job pretending you are. If I begin applauding, you applaud – like you mean it. 

Nine. Pick a group and begin. I’m pretty tough on time limit – if they stop before 30 seconds, they must keep going, or at least stand there looking awkward. If they go over 60, I begin applauding wildly and so does the class – indicating time is up. For the first few pairs we’ll talk as a class afterwards about what they did well and what they could do better. 

Ten. I like doing words in ‘clumps’, so if the first group had ‘nabobs’, I find out who else had ‘nabobs’ and they go next. At the end of each clump I ask the rest of the class what it seems like ‘nabobs’ must mean – and take responses. I’m not looking for dictionary definitions – just something workable and close enough that when they encounter it again (in the upcoming unit, soon), they’ll ‘get it’ and know what’s being said. 

This is also the stage at which I can redirect or refine any errors in how one or more groups used their assigned word. I’m all for calling people out for academic awfulness, but sometimes it’s preferable to clarify misunderstandings with a little more grace and subtlety.  

Rinse and repeat as necessary. 

Students often tell me, days or weeks after doing this activity, that they’ve heard or read some of these words in other contexts for the FIRST TIME EVER. It’s probably NOT the first time, but once they’ve used them or listened to their classmates make them functional, they tend to be more aware of them. These strange new words will ‘jump out’ at them more often. Hopefully they’ll be MOST recognizable when next encountered for me. That is, after all, the idea. 

I use this several times a semester, so they get better at it. When I had ELL (or ESL, or whatever you call those just learning English in your district), we'd do these every Friday. You have to admit that "Vocabalogue Friday" just rolls off the tongue with any accent, yes?


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