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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

1st Grade Interactive Word Walls, Academic Vocabulary and Writing in the Content Areas

I have been making a concerted effort over the past few years to more intentionally integrate writing into content areas. I have observed that given a supportive structure, even the most struggling writers are successful in writing about their learning. It has also been interesting to observe students' desire to use academic language. One tool that I have found to be unparalleled in its effectiveness in achieving this goal is the use of content specific interactive word walls. (Shout out to Professor Julie Jackson for sharing her enthusiasm and expertise in this area! If you ever have the opportunity to hear her speak, she will change how you teach science.)

When I begin a new Science unit, I carefully examine the TEKS to clarify EXACTLY what students need to know and be able to do. In years past, I was guilty of 'scanning' the TEKS, or 'remembering from last year' and often making up my own verbs. I've learned that it is critical for me to be diligent here - the vertical alignment between grade levels depends on it and it is essential for student success. Next, I check the academic vocabulary required for the unit.

I then use the 5E model for planning out the unit. There are always a number of Engage and Explore investigations for any given unit. It is during these lesson pieces that students make connections, draw on experiences, manipulate materials and focus attention on the concept or process being learned. Academic vocabulary is used by the teacher and encouraged in students.

It is during the Explain part of the unit of study that the interactive word wall becomes an essential tool. This is where the rubber meets the road if your goal is teaching academic vocabulary and you wish to facilitate writing in this content area. It is during this time that students have opportunities to first verbalize then read and write using academic vocabulary, giving examples and definitions for more formal terms.

The Elaborate stage of the unit allows students to dig a little deeper, refine skills and perhaps pursue and area of interest. This is where higher levels of Blooms can come into play...with the task, not necessarily the TEKS. As a STEM teacher, this is often where I am able to integrate design challenges that are tied to the content and follow the Engineering Design Process.

The Evaluate stage of the unit is pretty self explanatory...students demonstrate mastery of key concepts and skills.

For the purpose of this blog post, I would like to focus on the Explain phase of the the 5E lesson model with examples of how an interactive word wall supports the use of academic vocabulary and enables students to explain their thinking.

We are closing in on completion of a 1st grade unit on Forms of Energy (1.6).  Following engaging investigations and explorations in each of the areas: heat energy, light energy and sound energy, I presented a circle map where students brainstormed examples of that energy (heat, light or sound). I acted as scribe and wrote their examples on Post-It notes. Each student then chose an example. They were directed to  label, illustrate and write about the form of energy, specifically how the energy is helpful in everyday life. The academic vocabulary for this unit included heat, light, sound and energy. The specific TEKS required students to "Identify and discuss how different forms of energy such as light, heat, and sound are important to everyday life".
I presented a sentence stem to support successful use of vocabulary and an explanation tied to the TEK.
I claim that _____ is a source of _____ energy.
_______ energy helps _________________. 

Below are several examples of student work. Notice how each of these examples - in fact all of my students' work - illustrated understanding of the vocabulary and the TEKS. (This is not an evaluation ...that comes later... this is part of the development of conceptual understanding.) The conventions of writing - for 1st graders - are largely in place. Through the use of the sentence stem, all students were successful. Additionally, I believe that because the writing was scaffolded, it freed up student imagination and allowed them to think deeply and use interesting examples of each of the forms of energy.

 Often, interactive word walls come in the form of a Thinking Map. In this case, a Tree Map was used allowing students to categorize the examples of energy sources while still seeing that they come under the umbrella of 'Forms of Energy'.