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Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook

  Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook

Words are not just words. They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought.  When we read, it is through words that we build, refine, and modify our knowledge. What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford.

–Marilyn Jager Adams

A couple of years ago, I read a post about vocabulary on Jen Jones’s blog Hello Literacy.  It’s a great post on a fabulous blog.  Jen mentions that in her district, every classroom is required to use vocabulary journals:

Vocabulary Notebooks are also in practice in all K-5 classrooms and is an academic accountability component of our School Improvement Plan (SIP).

Using “tights and looses” language, vocabulary notebooks are a tight, the physical way they look and kept are classroom looses…teachers and grade levels decide this piece.

When I first read this, I was swamped with a huge wave of teacher guilt/panic.  Jen’s district feels vocabulary journals are important enough to mandate their use.  I don’t use vocabulary journals.  I HAVE RUINED ALL THE CHILDREN!!

I stewed a bit in the teacher guilt/panic and then I got to work.

I thought about what I needed as a teacher and what would be most helpful for students.  I knew, if I didn’t want vocabulary journals to become more well-intentioned clutter, whatever I used had to be an on-going program.  I don’t know if you’re like me, but every year there seems to be at least one (usually two or three) good ideas I plan to implement and by the time we’re to Thanksgiving it’s a once-in-a-while thing and by the time Valentine’s rolls around, no one remembers ever doing it.   I have a little teacher cemetery of good ideas that died that way.   I felt vocabulary was too important to suffer that fate, so I needed a way to keep it in the weekly routine and not leave it up to “when I think of it.”

I was also starting Daily 5 at this time, so I had to coordinate with that program as well.   Plus, I wanted our vocabulary program to tie into a book.  Let’s give these new words as much context as we can, right?  Also, I just love books!  I was sad that I didn’t have time for many of my favorite holiday-themed books, so I picked something festive for our weekly focus.   I scanned each book and selected four Tier 2 words that I thought would be useful for the kids.  (For more about Tier 2 words, check out our post on vocabulary.)  I tried to choose words with definitions with which the children would have some familiarity.  For example, the word lug would be good to teach because kids already understand the word drag.

For each child, I bought a spiral-bound notebook (a composition notebook would work too, but I’m cheap and we’re not allowed to ask parents for supplies).  This is our Jargon Journal.  I added a label to the front and used packing tape to stick an envelope to the inside of the front cover.  The first year I laminated the envelopes first, but with the packing tape I found that was unnecessary.  [Note: The photo below shows the style of flap we used to use but we are including it here for an example of student work.]

Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook
The first pages of the notebook are used for a  word bank.  This is a place for students to collect interesting words they come across in their reading.  My original plan for this word bank required the teacher to personally mark and label each page for each journal.  Pretty unfeasible!  To save you some grief, we came up with some glue-ins.  The kids can do most of the work, but you’ll want to supervise that each paper gets glued onto the right page (the kids skip pages so easily!) and you’re good to go for the year!  You can get the printables for the Word Bank in our Tools for Vocabulary Instruction pack.

Because our spelling program is a little intense, we only do Daily 5 four days a week.  That gave me a perfect chunk of time on Fridays (last year it was on Mondays), for some vocabulary work.  Friday morning, when we would normally do our first Daily 5 station, I gather the class.  On the board I post our fist-to-five posters.  Then I put up the first of the vocabulary words.  Each student ranked his/her familiarity with the word by showing a fist (0 fingers) meaning: I’ve never heard this word before.  At the other end was the 5 (showing all 5 fingers) poster: I can tell you everything about this word and use it in my writing.

We had to talk—a lot—about what it means to “know” a word.  Second graders often think, “Well, I’ve heard this word so I must know it!”  But being able to recognize a word or even tell what it means isn’t the same as knowing that word.  Unless you can use it correctly in various contexts, you don’t really know a word.  Knowing a Tier 2 word at that deep of level is really hard for 2nd graders!

After the kids rate the word, I share a kid friendly definition (or have one of the kids who showed 5 fingers share what they think).  We discuss examples and usage.  Then I show the book and we predict how that word will be used in the story.  These steps are repeated for the remaining 3 words.  (You can read more about assessment with the Fist-to-Five activity  in this post about vocabulary assessment and pick up your own copies in our Tools for Vocabulary Instruction pack.)

The kids gather on the rug for the story.  I read aloud the book and if they hear one of our 4 words, they make a soft, “Ding!”  If you didn’t know, that’s the sound a light bulb makes when it turns on in your brain!  I pause in the story and we compare our earlier predictions with the way the word was used in our story.  Then I continue reading till we’ve finished the book.  This whole process takes from 20-40 minutes (depending on how much I talk!).

Later in the afternoon, I distribute a foldable vocabulary page.  The paper is folded vertically into a gatefold and cut horizontally and a bottom strip cut off (so the page will fit in the notebook).  Four little lines are snipped on each fold, which is why my students refer to these as “Vocabulary Flaps”.  There is one flap for each word and another flap next to it for the definition.

If you’re having students make these, have them cut the bottom strip off.  Then stress FOLDING BEFORE CUTTING.  It will save you a lot of headaches if the word flaps are all folded first.  Also, point out the little octagon on each line.  That’s the STOP CUTTING! mark.

Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook

As a class, we generate a very simple, student friendly (2-3 word) definition of each word.  I write these on the board and the kids write it on the right side of their vocabulary flap.

On the inside is a place to mark the part of speech (noun, verb, adjective or adverb).

Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook
They also include a personal connection, “What meaning does this word have in your life?”  They may use the word in this connection, but I don’t mandate it.  And I don’t require that they use the word in a sentence.  That’s because these activities are just an introduction.  It takes a lot of experiences before children know these words well enough to use them in context.

Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook
Think about the word thaw.  If a student understands the meaning to be, “something frozen melting”  They may write this sentence:  My ice cream is thawing.  It’s technically right, but it lacks an understanding of nuance—an understanding that only comes with time and repeated exposure to the word.  A more mature learner would understand that thaw often connotes something returning to its normal state after being very cold; therefore, melt would be a more appropriate word to use in the context of ice cream becoming soup.  (This is the same reason why, in the Morning Work, I provide a sentence stem before asking children to use the word in context.)

Anyway, continuing on with the Vocab Flaps…

On the right is a place to draw a picture of the word or connection.  Visual representations provide vital support for helping kids internalize words.  Of course, at the beginning we go through all of this together.  We brainstorm ideas for an appropriate picture and talk about why a simple sketch—just to help your brain remember—is more important than a detailed drawing that will take 45 minutes to finish!

Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook
[If you are looking for a simpler flap style, we like this one from the awesome Laura Candler. In fact, I used it for a couple years with my kids and it worked great!]

After they’ve finished their Vocab Flaps, and shown me!, I give them a sheet of word cards.  These are practice activities for the 4 words we’re focusing on for the week.

Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook

The students cut the cards apart and store them in the envelope taped to the inside cover. [Note: The photo below shows the style of flap we used to use but we are including it here for an example of student work.]

Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook

I used to hand out the word cards and Vocab Flaps at the same time, but I found the kids were just copying the pictures on the card instead of thinking of their own.  So now they don’t see the cards until their drawing is finished.

The Jargon Journal is then put away for the day.  Once they’re used to the routine, some kids will have everything cut, glued, and filled out in 5 minutes.  Some kids will drag their feet for 20 minutes.  You know how it goes!  I had one kid who was the slowest cutter ON THE PLANET!  I pre-cut his to save me some weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.

The next day, the journal comes back out during our Daily 5 time.  When students get to the Work on Writing station, they must do a vocabulary card first.  They select one of their 4 cards and glue it to the top of the next page in their journal.  We practice drawing a line more-or-less through the middle of the page (teaching them to start at the middle hole of the page is a good guideline).   They’ll need room to write on the page as well, so teaching the students to glue the first card near the top of the page and the second card near the mid-line is important.

Each card has a definition, picture, and sentence using the word in context.  Then the children answer some simple questions about the word.  Last, there is a prompt for the children to respond to in their journals.  The answers may be simple, but enforcing a “use complete sentences” rule is important to their development as writers.

Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook

During the course of the week, the kids do one word card each day, although they might have to double up if it’s a short week.  At the end of the week, we do a review activity.

Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook

The review is designed to include LOTS of active participation.  Acquiring word knowledge is a hands-on sort of thing.  Kids have to make meaning for themselves.

After the review, I give them a short (5 question) quiz on this week’s words.  This is just a quick way for me to see who gets it.

I also hang a laminated page on the wall showing this week’s words.  The poster stays on the wall all year.  That way, when we come across one of our vocabulary words, we can add a tally mark.  Later we can see which of our vocabulary words are used most often.  It’s a lot of fun to be reading aloud and hear a chorus of little, “dings” as mental light bulbs are lit.  The kids remember the words better than I do!

It can be a lot of work to teach this way, but it’s been so useful for my kiddos. When a student brings me their silent reading book to show me one of our vocabulary words from 3 months ago that she recognized in her reading, it just makes my day.  And when they use one of our words in their writing, I feel like I might be doing okay at this teaching thing after all!


Phew!  That’s a lot to take in!  Let me break this down a bit.

Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook

That’s doable, right?

What’s included in each Jargon Journal unit:

Vocabulary Words (for posting on the board during discussions)

Word cards that coordinate with the picture book

Review activity that incorporates a lot of active participation


Poster for displaying the words year round

Foldable Vocabulary Flaps

Click here to see what units are available in our shop and to download a FREE unit.

Acquiring Vocabulary with an Interactive Vocabulary Notebook

You might also be interested in our companion resource pack: Tools for Vocabulary Instruction

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After a combined 14 years in 2nd grade, sisters Heidi & Emily are passionate about helping simplify life for other teachers!

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