Hands-on Vocabulary

Last week in the Wonder Studio, I spent four days during recess time sewing with 4th graders.  The thing I learned about 4th graders is that they have definite ideas and want to carry them out quickly.  The Wonder Studio is filled with all kinds of crafting supplies, but the supplies that captured the 4th graders last week was my sewing cabinet.  They wanted to make pillows – all twelve of them – all at once – and not one seasoned sewer among them.  It was a chaotic and happy flow of ribbon, scissors, fabric, and floss.  They soon learned that sewing takes time and patience. 

One industrious student decided she would hot-glue her pillow until I stopped her and had her reflect on her process.  I called the girls over to look at the hot-glued pillow.  We brainstormed ways to make pillows without using up all our hot-glue and make a pillow that would last and could be washed.  I quickly set up some girls with needles and thread, while I showed another group how to make a tootsie roll pillow, which consists of taking a length of fabric, putting some batting in the center, rolling it up and securing each end with ribbons tied in a bow.  The seam can be stitched or secured with bonding tape.  Soon, we had a bright assortment of tootsie roll pillows. 

As they worked, I showed them how to fold fabric.  I taught them new terms: warp, weft, bias. They quickly understood my command for pinking shears and why you do not usually want your fabric to fray.  They learned how to attach buttons, separate floss strands, and embroider their initials with a basic straight stitch. As we worked together, I realized that  in just a few short days they were learning and retaining so much new vocabulary.  They needed to know these words to create an object of their own.  Words like batting, muslin, bonding tape, t-pins became essential for communicating their needs, so they learned them and used them quickly.

I remember learning this way from my mother – learning in the moment.  She was a gifted seamstress and could make a dress without a using a pattern.  I thought that was pure magical genius. I didn’t even realize I was learning new skills and words when I sewed alongside her. It was such an organic process. It was rewarding to work hard at something and have a beautiful end product.  Of course, even if my stitches were uneven and my hem was a bit crooked, it still was beautiful to me. Sewing taught me how to work through problems and learn from my mistakes. My technique got better and better the more I practiced. Sewing was teaching this group of girls that lesson too.  They love to be busy, to use their hands, and to learn new skills to make something useful.

This organic way of introducing vocabulary can be applied to other content areas.  Connecting new words with an activity that results in a product will ensure engagement.  The learning will stick because it is coupled with relevant action.  I saw this recently during a 4th grade reading/writing unit on graphic novels.  The teacher introduced new vocabulary (panel, frame, speech bubbles, gutters, motion lines, narration, etc.) Then the students would look for examples in the books they were reading, and then used those newly-acquired skills to create their own stories.  At the end of the unit, the students were deftly using the graphic story terminology.  It had truly become part of their writing toolbox.

Vocabulary instruction should not be viewed as a weekly list of words tiered, graded, and set aside in a neat little pile.  New words should dance out to students, play with them, engage them, make them think and do:  Where are those pinking shears?  Why are frayed edges not always a good idea?  Where is the selvedge end?  Stated simply, new words that demand action are remembered.