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Learning Academic Vocabulary Through Lunchtime Chats, Hands-On Activities, and Complex Texts

By Jami Witherell
 | Sep 09, 2021
Students at lunch

I started sharing lunch outside on the playground with my students when we returned to in-person learning last spring. We had the best conversations. It was an unexpected gift of the pandemic. One day one of my second graders asked me to share some important words. “You know, big ones, like esophagus or large intestine,” he said.

“Hmm,” I wondered loudly, making a point to show I was really thinking. “Like maybe bolus or villi?” I answered, smiling.

“Yeah, but like ones we don’t know,” he replied grinning.

Practicing Academic Vocabulary and Building Knowledge

The reason esophagus and large intestine came up in our lunch conversation was because of a unit in our English language arts curriculum focused on the driving question, “How does food nourish us?” Students began their study of food by building knowledge about digestion.

The student who asked me to introduce some big words over lunch is learning multiple languages and was acquiring some seriously scientific language and background knowledge through our texts and writing tasks. These are words that students don’t use daily: esophagus, nutrients, digestive system. By the end of this unit, I wanted every student, including the multilingual students who needed extra support with academic vocabulary, to feel successful in their understanding of the digestive system and in reading complex texts.

It’s a challenging task for students who may not already know a lot about the digestive system. And it is even more challenging for students learning English and acquiring the vocabulary to accurately describe what happens in the digestion process, a process they cannot actually see.

Education researcher Susan B. Neuman wrote in her article “Comprehension in Disguise: The Role of Knowledge in Children’s Learning“ that comprehension of a text requires that students bring what they already know, or background knowledge, to what they want to learn.

As a classroom teacher, I wanted to provide a hands-on experience to my students to help solidify the knowledge they were building in class.

Hands-on Learning through a room transformation

The solution I came up with was to transform the classroom for a day and allow students to experience the inside of the digestive system to deepen their understanding of how it works. I collaborated with my grade-level team to create four stations that students could visit: the mouth, the esophagus, the stomach, and the small intestine. I loved that it provided all learners an opportunity to apply new and more technical vocabulary(esophagus,digest) with words they already knew (mouth, stomach).

At each station, students learned essential vocabulary, such as system, digest, absorb, and saliva. They would need to know these words for conversations at each station and for their writing. Then, students used specialized topic-specific words—like the word bolus at the esophagus station and villi at the stomach—necessary to complete the different tasks and activities at each station.

At the esophagus station, for example, students labeled the parts of the digestive system on a diagram. After students created food in the first station, they delivered their food to the esophagus station. Here students took the food and rolled it into a bolus or a ball that would fit down the esophagus (a cardboard tube).

The third station took students to the stomach, where they experimented with a piece of bread and a plastic bag of vinegar to represent how the stomach breaks down food. The students acted as the stomach muscles to break down the bread. Finally, students used a marble run to create a physical representation of the small intestine. They designed the interlocking pieces and then ran a piece of food, represented by a marble, through the system.

On the day we transformed the room, I spent my time at the mouth and esophagus stations, helping the modeling clay food travel from one station to the next, engaging in conversations, supporting students with vocabulary when needed, but most important, listening. I discovered students used academic language during deep and meaningful discussions about the workings of each station.

As you might imagine, this hands-on learning was a lot of fun for the students. But what did it have to do with English?

Rooting it all in literacy

For one, my students had to expertly capture the steps of the digestive system’s process—both in speaking and in writing. All students ended the lesson by talking about their experiences at each station and what they would write in their final piece. All students completed the writing, and all learners were able to participate and feel successful in the experience and in their writing. They also had plenty of time to improve their reading skills at each station.

And at every step, they added to their base of knowledge. Students were not only more prepared to answer the question “How can food nourish our body?” but also able to explain the steps in a process, which set them up for success later when we studied the way certain foods travel from farms to our dining rooms.

Room transformations are a great reminder that students can have fun while building essential knowledge. Adding vocabulary practice ensured that the words and the experiences won’t soon be forgotten and are transferable to their writing.

Remember where we started, out at that picnic table? We ended up making “Lunch With Language” a regular thing, and it’s something I hope to bring back this coming school year. Mixing casual conversation with emerging vocabulary is fun for students, and that should be an important goal in its own right for every school coming out of the pandemic.

ILA member Jami Witherell is a second-grade teacher at Newton School, a public elementary school in Greenfield, MA. She is also a Massachusetts Teacher of the Year 2022 semi-finalist and a seasonal associate with Wit & Wisdom, published by Great Minds. In that role, Witherell provides professional development to teachers using the ELA curriculum. Her room transformation was brought to life with the support of and was named one of the top 5 wackiest requests of the 2020–21 school year by the organization. Follow her on Twitter at@ms_witherell.

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