Vol. 13, Issue 1, October 2012

The Vocabulary BEE: Engaging ELLs Beyond Listing Words in a Notebook
Carla Miller

          Build vocabulary at all levels with a multi-skill method that engages ELLs more deeply than listing and defining words in a notebook. When students study words cumulatively, from a growing list of words, vocabulary building becomes an ongoing process, instead of a series of one-time skills forgotten after word mastery. Students need opportunities to pronounce, define, write, read, and review words regularly.

          Modeled after the traditional spelling bee, the Vocabulary BEE integrates the use of index cards, a growing word list, and an authentic challenge component. During a spelling bee, students spell. With the Vocabulary BEE, students recognize, pronounce, and define vocabulary words drawn from course content. Confusing, in-class discussion words and commonly-found roots, stems, or prefixes can also appear on an evolving word list. Even testing terms students encounter such as: define, summarize, or illustrate, can be placed on students’ Vocabulary BEE list.

          Beginning with a word list, each vocabulary word gets its own index card. Using markers, students write each vocabulary word and its part of speech on the front of an index card. The definition is written on the reverse. Word aids, like a native language translation, phonetic pronunciation, picture, word association, or synonym, may be added to cards. Assign words in sets of five or ten. Then, number each word list. By writing the number 1 in the top right corner of each card from the word list 1, sets can be accessed easily for activities. A working stack of numbered index card sets makes it easy to practice words during and outside of class.

          Even allotting five minutes for pair or self-study at the beginning or close of a class, makes a difference. Students work with index cards in pairs, groups, or individually for regular reinforcement. Working independently means flexibility for the ELL teacher. Students who are reluctant, behind, or ahead can work at their own pace. Pair quizzing starts with one student showing a word to another student who must pronounce the word and state the meaning. Incorrectly-guessed cards go into a separate pile to practice further. As students master words, cards can be removed from the main pile and reintroduced later for a cumulative review.

          Held periodically in class or as a culminating activity, Vocabulary Bees are fun! As few as twenty or more than a hundred words can be used in the event. During the BEE, students line up and the teacher uses a master set of flash cards. A bell can signify a wrong answer, and students should note any wrong words needing more practice. A large-scale Vocabulary BEE can be held on a stage or in a gym. Inviting audience members to cheer and crowning a winner can add to the excitement. Students take pride in preparing for the event. Participants end up not only creating a habit of mastering new words, but walk away with a deep sense of accomplishment in the process.

Carla Miller is a graduate writing support instructor for international students at Drexel University. Holding an M.Ed in ESOL Literacy, Carla is on a quest to research, write, and develop engaging teaching methodologies. Follow @Carla_Miller on Twitter for classroom writing tips.