Practices in Pedagogy

"To Teach is to Learn Twice Over"

Reinventing Vocabulary Instruction (Bloggary #5)

Vocabulary Instruction Article (Harry Potter)

After reading the article above, I cannot help but express my sincere agreement and conviction for original, engaging vocabulary instruction—such as in the case of utilizing the “Harry Potter” series as an opportunity to explore Latin word roots. As an actual product of such instruction, I can firmly, unequivocally defend the assertion that unique vocabulary instruction does wonders for the growing mind.


Far too often, vocabulary instruction is dry, tedious, and just simply boring. Teachers fall back on rudimentary techniques—lecture, repetition, and more repetition—in order to “teach” vocabulary to their students. I remember one specific teacher from my days in the public school system who attempted, and failed, to teach me vocabulary. Ms. J. (for the purposes of this response, I shall just use an initial) was my fourth grade teacher. Early on in the year, she made it abundantly clear that we were going to leave her class with a much more expansive vocabulary than when we arrived. In order to keep with this bold statement, Ms. J. handed us twenty five long words every Monday morning, encouraged us to study those words every night, and tested us on Friday morning. Yes, Ms. J. did force these words into our minds by posing the threat of failing a test—usually totaling one hundred points—each week. But what Ms. J. failed to do was actually teach us the words. We were never once taught how to learn these words; we were never once given class time to work on our words; we were never once offered an interesting manner by which we could engage with the material; we were not even offered help when we drastically needed it. I tried and tried to teach myself these words, but was mostly unsuccessful. Without any in-class instruction or engaging methods of learning, I was left to fail. I lost confidence in myself as a student, and as a competent person in general. When a student is left without the words to express their feelings or thoughts, he is left with little hope.


However, the following year I was offered a saving grace. Her name was Mrs. D., and because of her unique idea to use Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets in the classroom, my vocabulary (and academic confidence) was redeemed! After a few weeks into the year, Mrs. D. handed us a pre-test on a list of vocabulary words that all fifth graders should know. The next day she came back to report that many of us had not done as well as she expected. She asked us about our previous instruction, and how we felt about our personal ability to use more academic, longer words. Noticing that many of us were embarrassed to even talk about it, Mrs. D. came up with a plan. For the next three weeks, she took time out of the day to read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets aloud in class. During this time, we often stopped when we came to a difficult word (especially the Latin words, which are commonly used as spells in the story), and had a lengthy conversation about how we could go about trying to understand the word’s meaning—including searching the context of the words, deciphering the root of the word, and many other strategies. After we all got to a place of understanding, we would continue onto our reading. Most of us students just thought Mrs. D. was being really nice and letting us slack off and read a really popular book that we all wanted to read anyway. Little did we know that through this extended, guiding reading, we learned more in three weeks than we did in the previous year. We were having fun, engaged in learning new vocabulary, and being taught how to teach ourselves in the future. Mrs. D. truly led us all on a path of success and hope.


Alleen and Don Nilsen’s “Latin revived: Source-based vocabulary lessons courtesy of Harry Potter” agrees wholeheartedly with Mrs. D.’s plan. The authors’ article describes how teachers can, and should, utilize the overwhelming popularity of the Harry Potter series in order to instigate unique vocabulary instruction opportunities.  They point to the fact that students are interested in the text, and therefore will pay that much more attention to instruction when it uses the text itself. They declare, “We have all been taught that students learn words best when they see them in context. Using a source-based approach is one way to provide a portable context—one that learners can carry with them” (129). Clearly by my own experience discussed in the previous paragraph, the authors’ idea is completely correct. In order for proper learning to occur, students must be interested. In order for students to be interested, teachers must use material that students find engaging and fun. The lesson plans included in the article are a wonderful example of such instruction. The authors use the Latin words found in Harry Potter as the basis for deciphering word roots and practicing techniques to better understand unknown, confusing words by breaking them down.


I strongly feel this strategy could greatly help with the present literacy crisis in our public school system. Instead of dull, test-based vocabulary instruction, teachers could utilize popular literature to provide engaging, constructive teaching opportunities. And as students continue to be given fun, unique opportunities to learn new words, they will be better able to express their thoughts and ideas in all disciplines of study. Not only that, but students will feel more confident in themselves and more willing to take educational risks in order to improve their future learning.


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One thought on “Reinventing Vocabulary Instruction (Bloggary #5)

  1. You bring up an excellent point, that in learning new vocabulary, teachers must do more than just expose kids to new words. As your story about Ms. J suggests, she got the entire idea wrong. While I admire her ambition she totally failed in the practice. A teacher who loves literacy and vocabulary must realize that it needs to remain exciting. If this teacher truly took pride in vocabulary and believed in the power words hold, she would have developed a better method for teaching them, rather than high stakes and heavily weighed tests. The true question, as you suggest is HOW do we teach vocabulary, not DO we or WHAT should we teach. Great blog, you have a lot of evidence to support your theories.

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