By Brenda Overturf
Assessment for learning is part of any solid classroom design. But there is no doubt about it—planning for classroom vocabulary assessment can be tricky. Books and articles about vocabulary development often conclude with a “need for research” when it comes to assessment. However, vocabulary instruction would just be a collection of activities if we didn’t pay close attention to how our students are progressing and adjust accordingly.
So how can we assess vocabulary learning? Formal published vocabulary tests are prohibitively expensive. They are usually reserved for higher stakes assessment, and don’t test your students’ classroom learning. Commercial reading programs often lack vocabulary assessments or are based on words that are not right for your students. When it comes to formative and summative assessments to evaluate word learning, you may find yourself designing your own.
I have had the immense privilege of spending a lot of time in vocabulary-focused K-8 classrooms and thought I would share four tips for planning vocabulary assessment some great teachers have shared with me.
1. Plan formative and summative assessments that build from instruction.
Instead of teaching students words from a generic vocabulary list, Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2013) suggest reviewing materials to decide how to plan for instruction. These researchers talk about Tier One words (words that students already know), Tier Two words (more challenging words that students will encounter across texts), and Tier Three words (words that are part of content instruction). Their recommendation for elementary students is to select Tier Two words that students will see in in a particular text or hear in a read-aloud, and introduce Tier Three words when engaging students in content area instruction.
Margot and Leslie are intermediate teachers in a high-poverty school. When planning for instruction, they review possible vocabulary words in their reading program and content area lessons. They then select five to seven Tier Two and Tier Three words (total) to emphasize, choosing words they think will be helpful to students for comprehension and that students will see in other texts in the future—what they call “bang for your buck” words. They introduce these words in context and add two synonyms and two antonyms for each word to help students build semantic networks. They then engage students in a number of active and fun activities with vocabulary.
Leslie and Margot use formative assessment techniques to gauge their students’ word learning during vocabulary activities as a natural part of instruction. Formative assessment can take the form of posing questions and inviting students to indicate “thumbs up” or “thumbs down,” asking students to write answers on white boards and hold them up in the air, or leading students to create their own questions for other students and then observing how they use the words. On a summative assessment that will be used for a grade, Margot and Leslie usually create a multiple-choice format that mimics the standardized assessment that students will take. In addition to expecting students to select definitions, they also include questions in which students choose synonyms or antonyms associated with the word. They intentionally add questions about vocabulary words from earlier in the year so learning will stay active.
Heather, a first-grade teacher, created a scaled-down version of this plan for her students. In her class, children learn one synonym and one antonym for a few Tier Two words she has selected from the shared reading text. Her students practice the words, the definitions, and their synonyms and antonyms in whole group games and literacy center activities. One section of Heather’s first-grade reading assessment is always devoted to vocabulary. Early in the year, students indicate definitions through pictures and simple sentences. Later in the year, students choose definitions or synonyms and antonyms that match the vocabulary words.
2. Teach students to use word-learning strategies, and then expect students to use those strategies on assessments.
There are three word-learning strategies we want to teach students so they will be able to figure out the meaning of an unfamiliar word: use of context, meanings of common word parts (affixes and roots), and use of reference materials (Graves, 2016).
Leslie and Margot intentionally teach their intermediate students to use these three word-learning strategies as part of their classroom vocabulary plan. When designing vocabulary assessments, they emphasize use of context. This makes sense, since their state reading assessment often requires a student to select the definition of a word in context. These teachers design part of their vocabulary assessment using a one-page multiparagraph format with blanks where the vocabulary words should go. They write the paragraphs about something that has happened in school so all students are familiar with the background of the text. The vocabulary words (five to seven for each two-week period) are listed in a word bank at the top of the assessment. This format requires the students to use context to decide which word goes into each blank. They also ask students to indicate context clues that provided evidence for their choices. As Margot tells her students, “Test makers try to trip you up. You really have to use your context clues to figure out the right word.”
3. Teach students words they are likely to see in more formal assessment situations.
All the teachers I have worked with, including middle school ELA teachers and interdisciplinary teams, understand the need for teaching students to interpret words that will be used on more formal high-stakes assessments.
Beth and Deshay’s kindergarten students don’t take the state assessment but they are required to participate in the progress-monitoring tool their district uses and they want their students to feel confident when answering the questions. Although the computer-based assessment has a read-aloud feature so that young students can hear the directions, Deshay and Beth have realized there are a number of words their students don’t know or understand. If children can’t comprehend the directions, they can’t follow the directions! These teachers make sure to embed words into their daily instruction that students may hear on progress-monitoring assessments, such as label, information, and word parts. Then Beth and Deshay use informal assessment techniques, such as observation and notes, to judge whether students understand these words and can follow directions using the words.
4. Work with other teachers to share vocabulary assessment ideas.
The vocabulary-focused teachers I know try to collaborate with other educators to create an effective vocabulary plan. Sometimes the team includes all the teachers in a particular grade, sometimes it is an interdisciplinary or small group team, and sometimes it is made up of an individual teacher with a literacy coach. Teams work together to select words, plan instruction and active practice, and design and analyze assessments to make professional decisions about further instruction. Participating in collaborative discussions can be a gold mine of ideas about assessment and student learning.
And Now for The Test!
Performance-based assessment, a method used extensively in the 1990’s, is making a comeback (Hilliard, 2015). In performance-based assessment, the assessor expects students to perform a real-life task. We know students have really learned vocabulary when we observe them using new words in speaking and writing.
Yes, assessment can be tricky, but it is an essential part of a well-designed vocabulary plan. So here is a performance-based assessment task for you: How can you assess vocabulary learning in your own school or classroom?
Beck, I., McKeown, M., and Kucan, L. (2013). Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, Second Edition. New York: Guilford Press.
Graves, M. (2016). The Vocabulary Book: Learning and Instruction, Second Edition. New York: Teachers College Press.
Hilliard, P. (2015). Performance-based assessment: Reviewing the basics.
Dr. Brenda Overturf is currently a full-time author, speaker, and consultant. She is a career educator as a former teacher, district administrator for reading curriculum and assessment, and chair of the literacy program at the University of Louisville. Brenda’s books on vocabulary include Word Nerds: Teaching All Students to Learn and Love Vocabulary and Vocabularians: Integrated Word Study in the Middle Grades. She is currently working on a new book about K-1 vocabulary. When Brenda is not writing or speaking, she loves to read, create art, travel, and listen to her husband’s 60’s band.