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Vocabulary Voyage: How a Spontaneous Lesson Became a Favorite Strategy

by Michelle Phillips
 | Nov 26, 2013

ThinkstockPhotos-72542101_x600Every teacher knows that the best-laid lessons can sometimes go awry. Instruction that has been planned to the very last detail, with an impressive array of modeling, differentiation, and gradual release of responsibility can fall apart once it’s presented to students. And sometimes, the very best lessons happen by chance. As a fluke. Unplanned. One of my favorite literacy activities came about that very way two years ago.

It was the fall of my eighth year of teaching 5th grade. At that point in my career, I was confident in my abilities and understanding of curriculum. I knew the district standards like the back of my hand. I was ready to rattle off a list of best practices at work in my classroom if ever I was in the elevator with the superintendent. So it went without saying that I realized the importance of including vocabulary instruction and practice in my reading class. One week in September, I planned to have my students use their new vocabulary words to create sentences. While it wasn’t terrifically exciting, it would allow me to see if my students understood the vocabulary we had been studying or not.

As fate would have it, I found out that morning that one of my administrators would be observing me during vocabulary instruction time. So I started thinking (a dangerous pastime for this overachiever who craves positive feedback). Writing vocabulary sentences isn’t terribly engaging, but I already knew that. The problem I faced was that three of my students were a part of the behavior skills program. Not only was their behavior sometimes unpredictable, not one of the three enjoyed writing. In fact, I had seen each of them shut down on numerous occasions when asked to do so. No teacher wants their administrators to see them struggle with student behavior and compliance. It was clear I was going to have to brainstorm.

I sat down in the dwindling minutes of my plan time and asked myself—what is your goal? Is it to see if my students can write a complete sentence, or is it to see if they understand their vocabulary words? It was an easy answer—I needed to know if my students understood their vocabulary words. Writing sentences was not the only way to accomplish this goal.

And thus, Vocabulary Voyage was born.

I rushed throughout the room, writing questions inside folded pieces of construction paper and posting them. Each question featured at least one of our vocabulary words. The questions were hidden inside the construction paper folders. In keeping with the “voyage” theme (I really enjoy a good theme), each question became either a Harbor (one vocabulary word) or a Port of Call (two or more vocabulary words).

When my students returned from lunch, with our assistant principal in tow, I gave them the good news that we would be going on a trip! They were lucky, they only needed one piece of luggage for this trip—their pencil. I told them we were about to embark upon a Vocabulary Voyage. There were ten locations posted throughout the classroom and in the hallway. Each student needed to visit at least six of the locations. They were to disembark the ship, open the folder, and write their answer to the question inside with their initials.

In order to differentiate my instruction, I told the students that each Port of Call included not one, but two or more vocabulary words. Each student would know how many Ports of Call they needed to visit because I would come up to them and tap them on the shoulder. If I tapped them once, then one of their six stops needed to be a Port of Call. This allowed me to ensure my gifted and talented students were answering the questions that demanded the highest level of thinking. Each gifted student was tapped multiple times and every student was tapped at least once.

We reviewed the expectations. I asked the students to hold up their luggage (pencils into the air!), then I wished them, “Bon voyage!” and they were off! I traveled through the classroom with them, checking on their progress as they set sail. 100% of the students were engaged in the lesson (Yes—all of them!), they were moving, and the best part of it all—they were proving their understanding of the vocabulary! And the three behavior skills students I was so worried about? Not only did they complete the six questions required, they visited ALL 10.

Vocabulary Voyage was such a tremendous success (my assistant principal raved about it), I began using it more often. I continue use it in my classroom. Each time, the students are thrilled to “set sail.” When they come into the classroom and see the harbors and ports posted, their excitement is tangible. They love the novelty of it, and I love the variety of best practices it allows me to include:

  • Engagement: My students are interested and excited to visit as many harbors and ports as they can. The entire class is participating and loving it!
  • Movement: We know that students need to get up and move. This gives their brains and their bodies a break from sitting in their seats.
  • High Level Questioning: The vocabulary questions I ask cannot be answered with one or two word responses. I ask questions that promote high-level thinking and allow my students to connect to their own lives.
  • Differentiation: I give each student individualized expectations based on their classroom performance and ability level.
  • Individual Attention: During the voyage, I connect with every student by tapping them on the shoulder. This small moment of attention helps build classroom community.
  • Classroom Management: The explicit instructions and motivating nature of the activity ensure that students are too busy enjoying their journey to even think about causing a disruption.

An extra bonus of using Vocabulary Voyage in your classroom is that it can be done at no cost and using very little preparation time. You simply construct harbors and ports and write high-level questions to place inside. I make sure to include questions that go beyond surface level responses and really force the students to think about their answers.

Examples of Vocabulary Voyage questions:

  • How could you keep a friend from fretting during a crisis?
  • What would you do to persuade your parents to let you go to a sleepover?
  • What is a situation where you might need to maneuver your bicycle?
  • Describe an algorithm you know.
  • What is something you might hesitate before doing? Why?
  • Name two homophones you might see or hear being used in the month of November.

The best lessons, strategies and activities can sometimes come about by
chance. By luck. Destiny. It is the reflective and successful teacher who sets up her classroom to repeat that happy accident.

Michelle Phillips teaches grade 5 at Dundee Elementary School, an Omaha Public School.


Leave a comment
  1. Sherri Coomes | Jun 20, 2017

    I have the same question as above about writing the answers inside the construction paper folders.  Are their strips with questions they take one, answer, and place back inside folded or is it graffiti style?  I am confused but very interested in this activity!

  2. Janie Wilson | Dec 13, 2016

    I like your idea, but did each person leave his or her answer in the same place? Didn't they just copy the previous student's answer?

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