Playing with Words — Creating Visual Representations of Vocabulary Words

In late December our school district began to create a digital learning environment (1:1). Having more computer access has allowed me to explore lots of different ways for learners to produce/create new stuff, to collaborate with each other, to store and reflect on their learning, and, well, all sorts of things.

One of my teaching colleagues, Heath Kelley (@6kelley)1, and I thought about how these technologies might help children learn new words. Our 43 minutes reading classes did not allow for a lot of direct instruction, yet we knew it is very important for teachers to help students learn increasingly complex words and to build student interest in the power (and beauty) of a rich vocabulary.

We also knew that vocabulary building requires high-level thinking about words and their meanings, as well as multiple exposures to those words to make them “stick.” Yet, we did not have a lot of time during the week to make that happen. What could we use to help build an interest in words and help learners get multiple, rich encounters with them?

After some thought, we settled on some great ideas presented by the terrific literacy team of Burkins and Yaris. From my blog reading — and being doubly fortunate to meet Jan and Kim at the NCTE14 conference in DC in November (Lucky me!) — I knew of some of the work they had done at the website, specifically the wonderful section of that site called “WordEyes.

We loved the visual representations of words, the kid-friendly definitions, the multiple sentences, the whole nine-yards.

So, we decided to experiment with some ways to accomplish this that might be high enough interest that learners would do some of the actual work outside class. Here is a sample of some of the results, the full presentation is linked here:

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During the experiment, Heath and I

  • generated a list of Tier 2 words and created “student friendly” definitions.2
  • explored the WordEyes site with the kids to build interest and ideas for high quality visual representations;
  • assigned a word to each learner and helped them find quality sentences through online dictionaries. The final sentence was their own, though, and would serve as the foundation for the illustration.;
  • shared the Google Presentation with them3
  • stood back and watched, stepping in to help hone sentences using the comment feature on Presentation.

Once the slides were done, we had another protocol to help the children learn the words better. This included the following:

  • Each one teach one (or three!). We broke them into groups of 3-4. Each taught the others the words by looking over the Presentation. They discussed the thinking behind the illustrations. This happened through 2 groups. (5-9 words total for each.)
  • Tableaux. The children continued mixing with other groups and learning new words by creating tableaux digital photos of them “still shot” acting out the words.
  • Quizlet and Kahoot practice. We created links for the kids to practice the words through Kahoot and Quizlet.
  • Assessment. The kids took a final assessment on all of the words for the month.

Like I said, this is still in Beta stage development, but I am encouraged by the results. The visual representations (ala WordEyes) were a huge hit. The kids enjoyed thinking about their word and bringing out the nuances of meaning via the illustration. Several times children told me they had encountered a word from our vocabulary list in their own reading.

Even more interesting was the fact that 1/3 of the class created their own Google Presentations and collected words they encountered in their reading. Many shared these Presentations with a friend in the class so they could make it a community event. And I had no idea that this was happening until, by chance, I happened upon a couple students working on theirs in class. After asking around, I found out that some had worked on their word lists at home, together via Google Drive, the night before, and others had set times for more work in the near future.


  1. Put him in your list of contacts. He’s one smart guy.
  2. We will experiment with this next year. We will probably generate lists from our read aloud, maybe words to use for writing workshop, perhaps other “theme related” words as well.
  3. Each person already had a slide.

8 thoughts on “Playing with Words — Creating Visual Representations of Vocabulary Words

  1. Yeah. That last paragraph is the very best part. You started with a whole class lesson and then the tool went into the students’ digital toolbox to use independently and authentically. Powerful. (I’m totally borrowing this!)

    • What was cool was that the students did not even think to let me in on what they were doing. Part of that (I’m sure) is that I’m an old, gray-haired guy — sort of vaguely square and dad-like in his qualities — but part of it is that they saw this as something that they could make their own, which is kinda what we want, right? 🙂

  2. This is absolutely fabulous and inspiring, Steve. Thank you! I just linked to you from my tiny new site where I am logging cool things I learn about using tech in the writing workshop. Much gratitude and happy summer! Warmly, a.

  3. As a teacher, you know that you have created a venue for authentic learning when your kids go off and extend that learning on their own, and in their very own way. Inspiring stuff, Steve – thanks for sharing! Now…to experiment with YOUR learning for myself 🙂

    • Thank you, Tara! I, also, had a great time trying to figure out how illustrate “my” word, and to write a sentence with enough detail that it conveyed the meaning of the word. For some reason, I’m imagining you on a porch overlooking a field and hills right now! Take care. Enjoy the freedom to write, read, and think.

  4. Steve,
    I so love this because the students have already transferred this learning beyond school into their lives; therefore, already a testament to its authenticity.

    Thanks so much for sharing!

    • Thanks, Fran. I think they liked it so much because it was creative and they became self-paced learners with the technology. I told them a few things that I thought they might need: you can “bring things forward” and “send them back”, but they really had to figure a lot of it out on their own. I suspect that’s what got them hooked, ‘though I also think there was something about the act of translating words into images that also was kind of fun for them. Finally, ’cause it was public, they were able to learn a lot more quickly by seeing and adopting things that others were doing. They also got to gain a certain kind of notoriety for their ideas. Those are powerful things, me thinks.

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