> Mrs. O'Neill's Blog: October 2008

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


I am generally happier with teaching vocabulary in context, but sometimes I find it necessary to give students a list of words that they will be encountering in our next book or poem. That is especially the case when we are looking at older texts where familiar words are used differently. It is also helpful when giving students the correct critical terminology for language features.

I'm not sure how I came across quizlet.com. However I find it enormously helpful as a teacher. It's a site which allows you to make up vocabulary sets and share them with other users.

The story of its origins is also rather inspiring. Its founder, Andrew Sutherland, from Albany, California was fifteen years old when he decided that the easiest way to learn his French vocabulary was to make it digital. He began developing the website after school and at weekends. Andrew graduated from high school this summer and headed off to college (MIT) with the best wishes of his 200,000 users. Read about it here on his blog.

As a teacher, I think the two features which I like best are: the ability to create a group where all my vocabulary sets are accessible; and the games testing option to help you memorize. I also like the fact that Quizlet will make up tests for you, which can be customized to include questions that genuinely test a student’s understanding of the word, not just their ability to match words from a word bank.

It’s simple for my students to sign up at home, and all they need to view my vocabulary sets is a password I give them. Some of my pupils have told me they are beginning to make up their own sets for other subjects too.

If I had any suggestions for improvement, it would be a request for a feature that allowed you to hear the pronunciation of a word when you moused over it. That way the website would be playing to all the learning styles at once, visual, kinesthetic and auditory. On the other hand that would mean I would no longer have the fun of hearing my students pronounce new words as I do, unconsciously following my Scots accent. They can always go to dictionary.com to hear it in American.

Have a look at quizlet and see what you think.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Unteachable Moments

Do you recognize this student profile? Terry is a bright student who can do fairly well without trying. As you get to know them in class they impress you with their quick answers and pleasant nature. They submit most work on time and a superficial read of their work suggests that they are a competent writer navigating the questions with ease. Take their first big assignment, a critical essay on a poem. No obvious spelling or grammar mistakes to pounce on. No comma splices or misplaced modifiers. Plenty of nicely placed quotes. A varied vocabulary. MLA rules applied.

Dig deeper and you quite quickly hit the bottom. Their arguments are weak and you find yourself disappointed by the consistent failure to follow through on any promising lines of enquiry. They repeat themselves throughout their paper.

So… you speak to this student who comes to you angry that they have not achieved full marks. They look at you blankly when you try to point out the weaknesses in their work. They don’t understand. They did everything they usually do with other teachers. They haven’t made any errors have they?

You try to explain about the lack of depth. Eventually they admit what you have known all along. They haven’t thought about the question much at all. They didn’t know that you 'wanted them to come up with their own ideas'. But now they are mad at you. This is your fault. You are not very clear. You didn’t explain what was required. You hadn’t told them all of the things they were supposed to put in this paper. They reference the paper of another student who made ‘tons more mistakes’ in his grammar, but got the same grade. You don’t like them, they hint strongly. All their previous English teachers gave them higher marks. You try to explain that it is not to do with ‘liking them’. For what it’s worth you do like them but you want them to do better. They are slightly mollified. They promise to try harder on their next paper.

They hand the new paper in with a smile. They expect it to be an A they say confidently. Later you read over their paper and your heart sinks. It is no different than the paper they previously submitted.

When you return the paper, you include a detailed explanation of what they did well and how they could improve. They view it with a cold disdain. As they leave your classroom you hear their comment to another student. ‘She hates me.’

In the five minutes before your next class you ponder this remark. You know you don’t hate this student. Nothing would make you happier than to see them improve.

So what do you do next?