Everyone has a geeky teaching passion, right?
Vocabulary is definitely one of mine, and lately, I’ve been doing a lot of work on vocabulary with middle school science and social studies teachers. Word sorts, described in depth in Words Their Way, have long been a staple of many elementary word study programs, but haven’t always made their way up to middle school. I’ve been asking groups of middle school content area teachers, groups of students, and really, groups of anyone I can find, to try out some content area word sorts, using a set of words pulled from the Colonial America era.
The idea of a word sort is in the name – you’re sorting a collection of words! In an “open” word sort, groups of kids (or teachers!) categorize the words into groups – any groups at all that the group works out. In a “closed” sort, you’d provide some labels for categories for the words to be sorted into.
Time after time, groups laid out their words and begin sorting, but quickly I became aware of what a lot of the groups weren’t doing – talking.
In one group of teachers, I watched teachers conduct a lively, impassioned argument over where a word should go, just by moving the card, back and forth, back and forth – without a word spoken.
In groups of kids, I often saw one or two kids emerge as leaders, and the others defer to them, sometimes without a word. Again, the existence of the physical cards stood in for conversation and although I could often guess at why someone moved a card into a specific pile, or imagine what their thinking probably was, I didn’t hear it and I wasn’t sure I was right.
I realized a few things, watching this. First, that this is a harder task than it seems. It’s hard to name categories for concepts, and it’s hard to describe in words how things fit together, when sometimes it feels like they just DO. Second, when we see kids go silent (or go unproductive – “Yes it is!” “No it isn’t!” “Yes it is!”), that doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re shy, or quiet, or not sure of what to say, or not sure of the answer. The teachers doing this, for example, were all literate, thoughtful, eloquent adults, some of whom had extensive knowledge of Colonial America – and even they had trouble narrating their thinking. Third, I realized that the talking aspect of this task makes it much more challenging than if I had asked individuals to sort the cards – but also far more productive. The value of the task isn’t in getting the “right” sort, but in remembering or learning what the concepts mean and figuring out which other concepts are linked in different ways. This almost always requires some debate, or discussion. It may not require disagreement, but at the very least it requires a little noise.
This third realization is the biggest one, to me. Talk can be a way of processing information, revising thinking, deepening comprehension. Talk is a way to make thinking visible so that you can coach into kids’ thinking, not just their final answers. And talk is a way to make good instructional activities great. As teachers we spend so much time developing powerful opportunities for kids to engage with rich, vibrant materials and ideas – but kids’ silence can thwart even the best-laid plans.
This “silent play” is a pretty common occurrence in the classroom…so now what do we do about it? I’ll be honest – I don’t have seven color-coded fancy strategies to try out. Often, in my experience, just saying, “Hey, can you guys talk out loud about what you’re thinking?” has been enough. But for groups that need a bit more, one tip is simply to observe – are they talking? What’s the talk like? You could share these notes with the kids, too, asking if they see the same patterns you do and inviting them to brainstorm and set goals to change those patterns. A second tip is to try fishbowling a group doing a word sort, and talking, so that the other kids see how that talk might sound and have a vision of what you’re looking for. (For more on fishbowl activities, check out this post!)
So, the upshot? I think it makes sense to continue to nudge and push kids toward doing the talking in this kind of activity, even if it’s hard, and even if kids could perhaps make better (and certainly faster!) sorts independently. I think talking about words, using words, and talking about how to use words builds vocabulary and builds the webs that kids will use to keep track of and grow concepts in their content area studies. And I think that, like so many other facets of our school days, talk can be the bridge between our initial thoughts and the powerful webs of new thinking that school can help us grow.