Active Word Learning Using Web 2.0 Tools

A post from Jill

Jim Baumann (University of Missouri) and Ed Kame’enui (University of Oregon) are editing a second edition of Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (forthcoming, Guilford Press) to be published in 2011. Bridget, Dana, and I were invited to submit a piece that addressed special topics in vocabulary instruction.

In our chapter, Using Multimedia to Support Students’ Generative Vocabulary Learning (Castek, Dalton, & Grisham, in process) we suggest that the use of digital media in vocabulary learning should not only be receptive (e.g., viewing vocabulary graphics), but also generative (actively engaging students in using language and media to express themselves and to create products that represent their new knowledge). We assert that the act of creation supports ownership, introduces authentic reasons for learning, and tangibly links reading, writing, and communication in ways that mirror learning outside of school. This post draws ideas from the chapter and suggests ways to promote students’ active word learning using Web 2.0 tools.

Create Vocabulary Videos:Today’s students have grown up with YouTube as part of daily life. As a way of extending word learning, consider having students’ produce their own vocabulary videos — 60-90 second videos that situate word learning in a specific context.  The varied student-created examples found at VocabAhead (e.g., the entry for amble, for headstrong, and fecund) illustrate how video creation and multimodal expression make the word learning experience more memorable for both the video producers as well as the viewing audience. For tips and tools for creating videos, see the VocabAhead Teacher Page.  Suggestions for video creation include incorporating visual cues and adding humor, dramatization, or emotions to help learners remember the word and its meaning more easily. There are plenty of free web tools available which can be used to create vocabulary videos such as Xtranormal (if you can type, you can make movies) and GoAnimate (make your own cartoons and animations using free tools that you don’t need to learn Flash to use).

Simulate Twitter to Promote Target Word Usage: Today’s widespread twitter phenomenon tells us something important about language use and engagement. In 140 characters or less, information about “what’s happening now” can be shared instantly with an online community. The defining characteristics of a ‘tweet’ are brevity, timeliness, and the ability to instantly respond to others. Educators can bring twitter-like experiences into the classroom to expand vocabulary learning, without actually creating twitter accounts. To simulate twitter, try Wallwisher. Once the topic themed-wall is set up, this free online application does not require individuals to login and everyone can post together in a shared space. Like tweets, comment space is limited (Wallwisher allows 160 characters).

To model a vocabulary related twitter, provide a target word or concept and challenge students to keep a related stream of tweets going as long as they can. Set the expectation that both target words and related words must be used in each post. Provide a context such as a breaking news event, a topic you’re studying in class, or a book you are reading.

The following interchange may serve as a tangible example. Imagine reading and watching online news reports about an oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. Students could then create a twitter- like stream to express reactions and questions, using the target words pollution and disaster. Before beginning, discuss the words’ meanings. Then talk through a few examples, as follows.

Twitter-like stream

Student 1: Bad news. An oil rig blew up in the Gulf of Mexico. Pollution is going to be a problem.

Student 2: Oil will pollute the beaches. What a disaster!

Student 3: You can’t swim in polluted water.

Student 4: The seagulls and pelicans will be hurt by the oil. It gets on their feathers.

Twitter-like stream (examining the news event from the perspective of different stakeholders)

Shrimper: Major disaster. Oil rig blew and oil gushing in Gulf of Mexico. Pollution might wipe us out.

Oysterman: What about oyster beds? I have to fish. Polluted oyster beds mean no oysters. What a disaster for me and my customers.

Beach lover: Gulf Shores beach has black oil washing up. Seagulls coated. Can’t swim in polluted water.

Clean up crew: Dish detergent is the best thing to clean oil pollution from birds. Who knew?!

Oil company: The faster we cap the oil rig, the faster the pollution stops. 

Have Fun with New Slang: The dynamic and inventive nature of language is dramatically evident in the torrent of new words we manage to create each year. While we all may feel the need to chillax (calm down and relax) in the face of students’ often unconventional vocabulary use, seize the opportunity to build word curiosity and playfulness. Two excellent Internet resources for learning about words and language are the Visual Thesaurus and the Oxford Dictionary of English. The latter posts a list each year of new words added to the dictionary. Another excellent resource is the Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary.  Also, at Wordspy, Paul McFedries tracks published neologisms (new word creations, many of which are slang and/or linguistic blends).

Technology and media can play an important role in developing students’ vocabulary through generative, multimodal expression. Giving students experience with the digital technologies required in the 21st century will be motivational as well as academically beneficial. 


Castek, J., Dalton, B., & Grisham, D. (in process). Using multimedia to support students’ generative vocabulary learning. In J. Baumann and E. Kame’enui (Eds.) Vocabulary Instruction: Research to Practice (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Podcasting to Teach Content Literacy

Posted by Dana L. Grisham

This week’s post is targeted to teacher educators as well as teachers.

If you have ever taught secondary teacher candidates the required course in content literacy (secondary reading), you are probably aware of what a “hard sell” it can be. Teacher candidates who will be teaching their content area or discipline in middle and high schools tend to be, first and foremost, experts in that content or discipline.  They care deeply about art, music, mathematics, science, social science, world languages and English. They believe that by communicating their love of content to Grade 6-12 students, said students will develop a similar love.

Often, they are doomed to disappointment because they may not understand that teacher passion and expertise does not guarantee student learning in a subject area. Certainly, love for and knowledge about one’s discipline is necessary, but the ability to teach one’s discipline often relies on knowledge of what the student needs in order to learn. This student-centered stance toward teaching is often difficult to convey.

One of the important aspects of disciplinary teaching is the development of vocabulary and academic language.  Zwiers (2008) argues that all secondary teachers, regardless of content area, need to develop their students’ academic language.  For example, when trying to explain why academic language was not necessary in physical education, a teacher candidate in my content literacy course stated, “After all, I’m in kinesiology!” Upon encountering a sardonic look from me as he used the term “kinesiology,” he looked sheepish and muttered “Oh, now I get it.”

At the same time, we are in the midst of such rapid technological change that we must also prepare “tech savvy” teachers who are flexible risk takers ready to challenge their grades 6-12 students. Thus, teachers need to consider the teaching and learning of their content areas, but they are not always aware of the intersections of content learning and literacy processes. And in today’s world of rapidly changing technologies, composing is not wholly a writing task. While teachers and students typically conceptualize composing processes in terms of words on a page, composition also involves the manipulation of new or complex ideas that are also possible with multimedia tools including the audio file known popularly as a podcast.

To assist secondary teacher candidates to recognize the important of literacy processes to teaching their content area and to differentiate instruction for the varied content area teachers represented in the course, I asked them to create audio podcasts according to criteria as noted below.


Sample Podcasting Instructions

Literacy Strategy: Based upon the requirements of your subject area choose a reading/literacy strategy from your textbook. Read two additional published scholarly articles that indicate the usefulness of the strategy for students in your content area.

Write a Script: Your podcast script should sound much like a radio broadcast when recorded and should include the following components:

• Name, the date of your broadcast, content area, and the school level (middle, high school) where you would use the strategy

• Your concern about students being able to read complex text in your subject area; why they may have a problem (use the textbooks in this course to support your concern)

• The textbook from which you took an appropriate strategy to support the students’ reading of text in your content area

• The strategy and your rationale for choosing it (what will it do to support student learning in your content area and how will it address the need you identified)

• Identify sources, authors, dates published and then summarize the additional research that supports the use of the strategy. Connect this back to the reading problem identified

• A brief explanation of how you will introduce this strategy in your own class.

Record the Podcast:  Using an MP3 recording device, record your podcast. The podcast should sound much like a radio broadcast when recorded. Be sure to practice so that it doesn’t seem like you are merely reading the script you have written.

Post your script: After you have emailed the audio file to the Instructor, go to the Blackboard assignment (in the Course Materials section of this class) and post your podcast and written script there.


Secondary teacher candidates submitted some truly wonderful audio podcasts—what I like to call “generative” in the sense that teacher candidates had choice in what they featured in the podcasts, they had general parameters to meet, but could also create their audio podcasts in diverse ways, and, most importantly, they learned new ways to communicate their content! A post-course survey indicated that 90% of the 48 teacher candidates felt positive about the experience and felt they had learned something useful.

I believe that what made the difference between failure and success was the degree of collaboration between participants. They helped each other extensively, from the recording to the posting, to making scripts more interesting, and adding creative touches, such as music and sound effects. Lieberman and Mace (2009) suggest that such collegial action around new learning provides the teacher with the most meaningful professional development in a learning community.

So, 48 audio podcasts on literacy topics are available in my library with permission to use them from my students. For this post, I am making 12 of these available. Remember that there is a written script for each podcast!  I have posted the script of one of the podcasts below, so you can see what a script looks like. But remember! They need to be HEARD to get the full impact.

Beyond the use of audio podcasts to teach the importance of literacy processes to teacher candidates, the use of audio (and video) podcasts can be extended to the K-12 classroom.  Some uses are offered by the secondary teacher candidates themselves (such as podcasts of student performances). A colleague and I used audio podcasts with PPt. slides for authentic responses to literature for special day class students and found students’ vocabulary growth and engagement positively affected.

Where can you post podcasts?  Well, if you have a website or your school does, podcasts can be posted there. You can also use a couple of websites that are freely available. One is Podbean ( and with a bit of effort, a Google site (as I have used). If you are interested in more on this, just search “podcasting” on Google Scholar. Now that you’ve heard the teacher candidate podcasts, I’d like to throw out the following question:   How can you use audio podcasts in your classroom?


Lieberman, A., & Pointer-Mace, D. (2009). Making Practice Public: Teacher Learning in the 21st Century. Journal of Teacher Education, 0022487109347319. doi: 10.1177/0022487109347319

Zwiers, J. (2008). Building academic language: Essential practices for content classrooms. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


A Sample Podcast Script by John for Mathematics

You have just tuned into John’s Podcast for Thursday, July 31st, 2008. On this podcast, I’ll be talking about a strategy that I would consider using in my future high school mathematics class to teach my students how to read a mathematics textbook.

Now, I understand what you may be thinking. “Why would you want to teach students how to read in a math course?” or “What does reading and language development have to do with numbers?” or “Why did John’s voice suddenly get very annoying?” To address those first two questions, I invite you to think back to your wonderful times in a mathematics course when you were a high-schooler. Do you remember how every new section in the chapter would involve a number of bolded new terms, and they were generally built on previous chapters’ bolded terms? I am a mathematics major, and I can attest that learning these new terms was not a walk in the park. My main concern about my future students is that they will pick up the textbook, read through the examples, follow it like a cookbook when doing the homework, and then close the book. They would either not find a point to learning the new terms, or find it to be difficult to remember. But I suppose there isn’t a great harm in that. I mean, when would you really use the words “numerator” and “denominator” in any other context than mathematics, or perhaps the floweriest of the flowery essays? It would be so much more convenient to say, “You gotta make the bottom numbers the same on each number thingy, then times that number to make it the same number to the top number for both thingies before you can add the top numbers, but you gotta keep the bottom number the same.” Archimedes would roll over and over in his grave hearing this obscenely basic monologue describing adding fractions. I would not want my students to be viewed by society as being ignorant to the long history of mathematics, nor sound so ineloquent as to destroy the meaning of their statements because they are judged by how they say, as opposed to what they say.

So as a preventive measure, I’ve enlisted the help of Martha Rapp Ruddell. Okay, so I just perused her book, but I did see a literacy strategy to help students with the learning of those academic mathematical terms. Ruddell discussed an instructional procedure called CSSR. No, this is not the Soviet Union reuniting for another world tour. CSSR stands for: Context, Structure, Sound, Reference. This is a system of vocabulary research that can help students address the issue of not learning the terms because they don’t understand how to figure out the definition of the new term. It works in 4 steps with 3 of them being conditional steps. When a student encounters a new term, say for example, “polynomials,” the student would read the entire sentence and guess the meaning based on the CONTEXT in which it was used. If it makes sense, then great, they move on. If not, then they move to step 2 where they analyze the STRUCTURE of the actual word. In this case, if the student understands the prefix “poly” as meaning “many,” then they are already halfway towards understanding the word. If it still does not make sense to them while putting that into the context, then they try step 3 and SOUND it out and try to associate that word with other words that they have heard before. Step 4 is the most disruptive, yet surest form of definition, which is to look into a REFERENCE location such as the glossary, dictionary, or other people. I can appreciate this system because it is versatile enough to be used in any subject area that has subject-specific terms, which is, umm…all of them, and this self-directed learning will help with retention as they cycle through step after step of repeating the word to themselves with different perspectives on it.

And to be sure that Ruddell wasn’t just full of it, Jane Harmon asserted in her article, “Constructing word meanings: Strategies and perceptions of four middle school learners,” that the most proficient reader in her study utilized a system similar to this while encountering new terminology. She published her findings in 1998 in the Journal of Literacy Research, Volume 30, Number 4. And specifically, pages 561 through 599. Other supporters of developing in-depth word knowledge, which is promoted by the SS and R parts of CSSR, are E. Sutton Flynt and William G. Brozo. Their article, “Developing Academic Language: Got Words?” was published in the 2008 issue of The Reading Teacher, Volume 61, Number 6, pages 500-502. Both of these articles support what CSSR is trying to accomplish with student readers.

Lastly, how we do educate the students of this system? As Ruddell plainly spells it out, telling the students clearly and drawing a schematic to illustrate the procedure will help cement this system for the visual and auditory learners. After using this system a few times, a quick assessment by discussion would ultimately decide if the system is effective for my students.

And that wraps up this podcast. Thank you for spending time listening to me yap, and good luck to the Future Teachers of America. Team 06!

A post from Bernadette: LEA meets Book Builder

The Language Experience Approach (LEA) (Hall, 1986; Stauffer, 1970) is to my mind an organic approach to the teaching of reading. Organic in three ways: firstly, LEA constructs a reading curriculum based around the lived and shared experiences of children; secondly it welcomes the cultural backgrounds of children; and thirdly LEA affirms the child’s own language diversity and language patterns within the developed reading materials. LEA helps to develop early literacy skills such as, phonological awareness, phonics, concepts of print, word identification strategies, vocabulary, oral language development, reading comprehension and reading fluency.

My students have used the LEA approach successfully with children on Teaching Practice placement in schools. Lately, we have begun to use online ebooks as a way to create, share and publish our LEA stories. This has helped to accommodate the LEA approach within the 21st century classroom.

We have developed ebooks with audio, video and image support. In addition, we have begun to use Book Builder, a free downloadable digital tool, developed by the CAST organisation (

Book Builder offers a “scaffolded digital reading” environment (Dalton & Proctor, 2008) and is underpinned by principles of universal design for learning (UDL) (Rose & Meyer, 2002). In essence, this means that reading is accessible to all through the provision of a myriad of learning supports, multiple means of representation in audio and visual modes, and ways to build engagement and expression. Book builder is easy to use with a comprehensive how to Tips and Resources page.

Katie Murphy and her 1st grade students have been crafting the story of Karl the Teddy and his Adventures. So far in chapter one he has been to the St. Patrick’s Day parade where he took part in festivities (an experience that all of the children can relate to); and in chapter 2 Karl the Teddy has met Lucky Duck and together they are saving Easter from an evil bunny who has stolen all of the chocolate (luckily they succeed!). I visited the classroom today where Karl and Lucky Duck take pride of place on Karl’s adventure table. The children were clearly engaged in writing and illustrating the story and loved the avatar coaches who prompted them to add details to the story; to forge connections between their own lives and those of Karl, to make predictions or to read the story aloud. You will have to wait a while to read the story on the public domain on the CAST website, as the children informed me they are already planning more adventures for Karl in chapter 3!

Lucky Duck took the bad Easter Bunny to jail and splashed water all over him and he was a good Easter Bunny again.

In the meantime, take a look at one of my favourite books on the CAST web site: Play Ball with Me! A Joel and Angel Book written and illustrated by Ann Meyer. The book features Anne’s two dogs in a story of the trials of friendship and is beautifully illustrated by her own digital photographs of her two charming dogs, with audio links, and a helpful illustrated glossary of terms. It features a text-to-speech feature but develops more than just listening comprehension.

copyright Ann Meyer

copyright Ann Meyer

One of the strengths of Book Builder is the presence of avatar coaches. These coaches can be customized, by the teacher, to the learning needs of the child where each coach can help the child to develop response; expand vocabulary, build strategy usage (e.g. making predictions, forging connections, asking questions). (Elmo is the sweetest avatar coach of all!) The children can also craft their own responses to answer teacher provided questions. Therefore, in providing a customized reading environment it affirms the uniqueness of the child as a reader, writer and thinker.

Percie, Emo and Can-do coach avatars

Emo a coach avatar

Shrek and Big Bang Theory: Using Popular Culture to Develop Vocabulary

A post from Bridget

I have been on a vocabulary roll lately. Everywhere I go, I find myself intrigued by vocabulary instruction possibilities inherent in our everyday experiences, enmeshed as they are in technology and media.

Idea #1: Driving home listening to an NPR radio show on new words from 2010, I found myself singing “I’m a belieber” to the tune of the Beatles song.  No, that is not a typo —  a belieber is someone who is a fan of Justin Bieber!  It would be fun and productive to have students nominate, advertise, and vote on “new” words or phrases, drawing on popular culture and current events, as well as local words that are part of their school, family, or community scene.

For example, my sisters and I know what it means when we say “donkey”, especially if accompanied by a raised eyebrow and gaze at the person of interest.  We’re referring to the Shrek movie scene where the donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy), is about to lose it and yells, All right, nobody move! I’ve got a dragon and I’m not afraid to use it! I’m a donkey on the edge! “

image of donkey from the movie Shrek

My sisters and I  know to back off and give the “donkey” some space, or to gently offer help (for memorable Shrek quotes, see ).

Students could post their written or multimodal nominations for new words to a class or school-wide vocabulary blog and construct a voting poll using a free tool like Survey Monkey (  1 minute podcasts for the ‘New word of the Week’ could become a regular feature of your class!

Idea #2. While we often bemoan the low level of vocabulary heard on TV, inspiration can be found in unlikely places.   “The Big Bang Theory”, a sitcom about a group of nerdy academics, makes me laugh out loud at the way language is used. The show presents multiple opportunities to engage students in exploring advanced vocabulary in a humorous social context. Students could watch video excerpts (there are a slew of them on ) or read quotes (again, just Google ‘Big Bang Theory’ and you will find lists).  They would work with words in different ways, depending on the quote.

For example, the following Big Bang Theory quote offers a comical contrast of expert and novice:

The guys are playing the Halo video game and Peggy joins in…

Sheldon: This is a complex battle simulation with a steep learning curve. There are a myriad of weapons, vehicles, and strategies to master, and not to mention an extremely intricate back story.
[Explosion on the video screen.]
Penny: Oh, cool! Whose head did I just blow off?
Sheldon: Mine.

Big Bang Theory scene, playing Halo

The youtube scene is 2.49 minutes and includes several great examples of vocabulary and figurative language;

Students could begin by delving into Sheldon’s vocabulary (e.g., complex, myriad, intricate, back story, steep learning curve) and then discuss why Penny’s response and the outcome are both ironic and funny.  Would it be so humorous if Sheldon had merely said “Halo is an awesome video game that I play all the time”?   What if Penny had failed at the game? To extend the activity, have students create their own conversational exchanges contrasting “expert” and “novice” ways of talking so as to poke fun at the expert (or perhaps the reverse).

Sheldon often has difficulty understanding the social nuances of language. Here’s another quote from the show that invites a discussion of the differences between literal and abstract meanings,  and the fun that can be had when we intentionally (or unintentionally) confuse the two.

Leonard: For God’s sake, Sheldon, do I have to hold up a sarcasm sign every time I open my mouth?
Sheldon (intrigued): You have a sarcasm sign?

And, finally, here is an example of Sheldon’s use of hyperbole (i.e.,  exaggerated language that is “used to evoke strong feelings or to create a strong impression, but is not meant to be taken literally, Wikipedia).

Sheldon:  When I try to deceive, I, myself, have more nervous tics than a Lyme Disease research facility.

In addition to interpreting and critiquing “Big Bang Theory” language use, students could be challenged to find examples in current events, TV, songs, billboards,  and overheard conversations.

Here is one from the Simpsons:

“Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve been to Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and I can say without hyperbole that this is a million times worse than all of them put together.”
(Kent Brockman, The Simpsons)

Another way to approach hyperbole is to start with an image as a stimulus. Consider this photo of a fish feeding frenzy.  Figuratively speaking, when do people go after something (other than food) with a voracious appetite – mobbing a celebrity for an autograph? devouring books?

fish feeding frenzy

Check out Worsely Middle School’s website featuring students’ use of hyperbole.

All too often, students think learning vocabulary is boring (especially when it involves looking up definitions and writing sentences).  Media and technology offer a fruitful playground for vocabulary learning, appreciation, and expression.  Try it and see!  And, please post a comment to share your insights and experience.  I can say without hyperbole that I would be over the moon!

NOTE. Photo acknowledgement:  Creative Commons license.  fish feeding frenzy by devan.laney.  Shrek movie image of donkey retreived from Google Image.  Image from Big Bang Theory taken from youtube.

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