By Pam Koutrakos
Looking to counteract the current level of stress in the classroom? Wondering about ways to reinvigorate spelling and vocabulary learning? Try extending an invitation… specifically, an invitation for students to actively explore and investigate words! Teachers can use open-ended questions to invite students to discover more about featured sounds, letters, patterns, parts, and words! The playfulness inherent in student-directed exploration acts as “learning mise en place,” setting the conditions for word learning that sticks. These joyful opportunities are not only beneficial for young word learners. Playful, exploratory learning makes sense and matters for humans of all ages! Through this stance, teachers are able to use inquiry-rich invitations to:
- spark curiosity
- jumpstart engagement
- build momentum
- nurture creativity and critical thinking
These practices are substantiated by researchers and practitioners. Zaretta Hammond’s work teaches that the brain craves and needs students to be active constructors of learning. Peter Gray’s researched insights highlight the vast cognitive and socio-emotional benefits of play. Ellin Keene’s work around engagement echoes the importance of open-ended and student-initiated learning experiences. Kristi Mraz and Stephanie Parsons remind us of how we open access when we build the structure and framework for learning through discovery.
What follows are actionable ideas for infusing inquiry-rich invitations into word study. Each creates opportunities for students to feel invested in learning more about sounds, letters, patterns, parts, and words themselves!
Emerging Word Learners
Emerging word learners are often found in preschools and primary-grade classrooms. They are naturally curious and need little encouragement to wonder and explore. Creating inquiry-rich invitations for these learners usually involves curating open-ended materials (loose parts) and providing opportunities to manipulate, tinker, contemplate, and create. Common examples of open-ended materials include readily-available resources found outside: sticks, pebbles, acorns, and shells. Additionally, other “loose part” options can be found in most early childhood and elementary classrooms: beads, buttons, counters, blocks, and more. For certain word-themed invitations, teachers might also set out images, letter manipulatives, word cards, etc. Prompts and questions (like those listed below) invite students to contemplate ideas and construct learning by purposefully and creatively using the materials that have been set out. Follow-up instruction and feedback then builds upon and enhances all that was initially learned. Balancing opportunities for discovery with explicit teaching results in deeper and more nuanced understanding.
These inquiry-fueled questions encourage learners to explore sounds, letters, names, and resource tools.
- What do you notice about the sounds you hear?
- What can you discover about these letters?
- What can you make with these letters?
- How could you sort these… (letters, sounds, words)?
- What’s the same? What’s different? (letters, sounds, words)
- When do we see these words? Where could we use them?
- Why, how, and when would these tools be useful?
In this classroom, content-aligned Reggio-styled provocations are set out to spark discovery. Students are welcome to explore materials independently or with peers.
Tip: There’s no need to purchase anything new. Utilize and repurpose readily available loose parts and/or natural materials. These are perfect for word-themed invitations. This Reggio Routines mini-chart (Koutrakos, 2019) is a student-facing tool that can be shared after introducing this kind of learning to students.
Developing Word Learners
Very often, students in mid and upper elementary grades are actively developing their word knowledge. Since student-initiated discovery builds interest, motivation, and investment, it makes sense that teachers in these settings would also incorporate inquiry-rich invitations into word study. For example, instead of handing students a list of vocabulary words or directing them to look up definitions, students can instead jumpstart meaningful learning by investigating words/word parts and then sharing their findings with classmates. In as little as ten to fifteen minutes, students can explore sounds, recognize patterns, and begin to develop theories. Additionally, these efficient experiences offer the chance to delve into multiple meanings of words, synonyms, antonyms, cognates, and more. In the days that follow, teachers can then capitalize on this momentum by following-up with explicit instruction, guidance, and opportunities for additional practice.
These thought-provoking prompts intend to help students actively investigate prioritized vocabulary, words, spelling patterns, and processes for learning:
- How will you explore these (letters, patterns, parts, words)?
- What similarities and differences do you see? What could this mean?
- What theories can you create (and support) about the letters, sounds, and parts of these words?
- What words “go” with this topic? How are they connected? Which are most important?
- Are there any more interesting and precise words with very similar meanings? Which words have very different meanings?
- How could these discoveries help you as you read? Write?
- How could you share what you discovered?
This remote-classroom artifact was created as part of a mini-inquiry that intended to jumpstart initial ideas around inflected endings. First, students had the opportunity to explore ideas and share knowledge. Then, the teacher guided the class as they delved further into learning about these affixes.
Tip: Strategically design prompts: ideally, these invitations are flexible enough to be used — and reused— with a variety of patterns and words. Open-ended questions (like those listed above) encourage students to investigate and discover more about words and word parts. Over time, these often become “habit of mind” questions students ask themselves. These two mini-charts: Sort It! Alike or Different and Question Craze (Koutrakos, 2019) are student-facing tools that can be shared after an introductory lesson on mini-inquiries. They remind students of their role in activating their own learning and supporting peers’ understandings.
Extending Word Learners
Although time is always a consideration, perhaps the creative use of each minute is most essential when working with middle schoolers and high schoolers. When teachers have one period to integrate all aspects of literacy, high-impact efficiency matters! Content area teachers are also often looking for ways to support understanding and use of domain-specific vocabulary. Authentically embedding word work into all that’s already being done is an effective solution. One example of how to do this is turning “regular” learning stations into conver-stations. For example, in many classrooms, teachers set up different learning experiences, AKA-stations. As students rotate from station to station, small groups actively investigate content area topics by viewing, listening, reading, writing, discussing, building, problem-solving, or creating. With minimal effort, teachers can easily turn these “regular” stations into conver-stations. By doing so, students have repeated and authentic opportunities to infuse domain-specific lingo as they discuss prioritized content— and related wonders, ideas, and takeaways. As an alternative, one station may also simply be presenting an inquiry-rich invitation with some accompanying words to investigate. Less is more: embedding joyful opportunities to explore words never needs to be an extra or add on!
HELPFUL HINT: If the station-rotation model of learning is new for you, check out Dr. Catlin Tucker’s work. Her researched suggestions are incredibly smart and especially helpful during times of remote, hybrid, and blended learning.
Extending word learners also benefit from delving into word-themed inquiries. Often, these center around affixes, roots, tone, mood, and content-area vocabulary.
- How many ways could you strategically sort and categorize these… (patterns, affixes, parts, words)?
- What theories can you create about the patterns and parts within these words? How might you clarify, substantiate, or extend these theories?
- What other “related” words can you discover? How are they connected? What similarities and differences do you notice?
- Where and when will you use what you discovered?
- What feelings did you get as you read this piece? What words helped to create that feeling?
- What words are closely connected to this topic? What words keep coming up in your conversation/reading/writing? Why?
- How do you want your reader to react? How could you create this tone? What words will you choose?
- How could your discoveries contribute to the learning of your classmates?
“Which One Doesn’t Belong” is a playful critical thinking routine where students choose which option they believe does not fit – and explain why. It’s important to note that each option represents a correct answer because there are reasons why each could be the outlier. This reading-themed “Which One Doesn’t Belong” conver-station was used to help students collaboratively explore different genres and formats of texts… and the academic language aligned to each.
Tip: Use ongoing, embedded collaborative inquiry to build community and collective capacity. This Talkin The Talk mini-chart (Koutrakos, 2019) provides a basic understanding of what students do at conver-stations. This Show Off mini-chart (Koutrakos, 2019) is a student-facing tool that can be shared with students after introducing different ways for classmates to teach others what they have learned.
Essential Follow-up for All Word Learners
Student-driven discovery changes the tone of a classroom. The engagement, excitement, and investment that result from this kind of word play are hard to replicate. Gained insights are vital contributors to overall success. However, please know that these inquiry-rich invitations don’t stand on their own. Teachers also need to strategically nurture, nudge, and deepen initial discoveries. This happens through modeling, direct instruction, and loads of along-the-way feedback. It is the combination of discovery, explicit teaching, and guided learning that yield a deep understanding of the why, what, and how of words and the know-how in how to apply and transfer word knowledge. A commitment to shared ownership recognizes that all members of a class community have the right and responsibility to contribute to collective learning.
A Final Note
Celebrate the synergy and spirit created through inquiry-rich, collaborative classroom experiences. Widen your lens and reimagine the possibilities for word study. When teachers highlight joy and center students as activators of learning, they simultaneously bolster understanding and create more long lasting success.
Pam Koutrakos is an educational consultant with Gravity Goldberg, LLC where she works with students, teachers, and administrators PreK- grade 12. She authored Word Study That Sticks: Best Practices K-6 and The Word Study That Sticks Companion: Classroom-Ready Tools for Teachers and Students, K-6. Both include ideas, lessons, resources, and tools for teachers of all subjects. Her third professional text is slated to be released in the coming months. Connect with Pam on Twitter @PamKou and on LinkedIn.