Six Word Definitions

Thanks to #TeachWriting, my rockin’ PLN on Twitter, I was apply to apply a new technique in my World History classroom this week. Several ELA teachers were discussing #6wordShakespeare and some of the other six-word story exercises that had been done in their classrooms. Hemingway wrote one of the most famous six word stories: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn. These teachers described the technique as a fast brainstorming tool that gets students writing and playing with language immediately. I thought it could be used in the vocabulary-intensive unit I am currently teaching about the Cold War.

These two definitions from the book and subsequent student simplifications illustrate the concept.  Containment: The U.S. strategy of keeping communism within its existing boundaries and preventing its further expansion (p. 509). Truman Doctrine: United States policy, established in 1947, of trying to contain the spread of communism (p. 491).

6 word CW Vocab

Hyland & Tse (2007) report that many teachers regard helping students develop specialist [content] vocabulary as an important part of their role and many lists of key terms have been assembled. Marzano & Pickering (2005) offer a manual with 7,923 terms so school and district teams can choose the most important vocabulary words to teach their students. The terms were extracted from national standards documents, across eleven subject areas, and organized into grade-span intervals for: K–2, 3–5, 6–8, and 9–12 writers.

Here are examples of online definitions, along with student six-word definitions.  Iron Curtain:  The political, military, and ideological barrier erected by the Soviet Union after World War II to seal off itself and its depended eastern and central European allies from open contact with the West and other noncommunist areas (Encyclopedia Britannica). Capitalism: An economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state (Google). Interestingly this term is not defined in the World History textbook, instead capital is defined as “money or wealth used to invest in business or enterprise” (p. 175).

6 word vocab

The majority of my students mastered this task and defined all seven terms in 15 minutes. I find that quantifying and charting how many terms a student completed within the allotted time helps me get a better picture of their engagement and alerts me to any comprehension problems that may be brewing.

Here some additional examples of student work:
Communism: Form of socialism advocated by Marx; Community has all power in society; All wealth and property owned collectively.
Capitalism: Private owners rather than the state; Prices are based on supply and demand; Individuals make decisions, not the government.
Cold War: Tension and hostility between two nations; Competition between U.S & Soviet states.
Iron Curtain: Prime Minister accuses Soviets of aggression. Soviets create a buffer in Europe.
Containment: Keeping communism within boundaries without spreading; America’s policy toward communist countries.
Truman Doctrine: Tried to prevent spreading of communism; 1947 USA policy stopping Soviet Socialism.

6 word stories

Kinsella (2013) argues that word knowledge is a strong predictor of academic achievement and educators cannot afford to leave vocabulary instruction to chance. She further advises that devoting attention to words that matter most is the first step in responsible lesson planning. I thought these six word definitions demonstrated understanding of Cold War terms and will continue to use it to help students master content vocabulary. It appears that finding activities like creating six-word definitions and re-tweeting favorites enable students to have fun while building their academic vocabulary. What tricks and techniques have been successful in your classroom?

References

Hyland, K., & Tse, P. (2007). Is there an “academic vocabulary”?. TESOL quarterly41(2), 235-253.

Kinsella, K. (2013). Cutting to the Common Core: Making Vocabulary Number One. Language Magazine12(12), 18-23.

Marzano, R. J., & Pickering, D. J. (2005). Building academic vocabulary: Teacher’s manual. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 1703 North Beauregard Street, Alexandria, VA 22311-1714.

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