Educators and friends have frequently asked me, “What was your inspiration for Vocabulary Magic? How did you discover the 6-step process?” When asked those questions, I always like to think, “It wasn’t what; it was who inspired me. Then I would to share the story of a young man I met in 2009. His name was Jorge, and I worked with him for three days in an attempt to prepare him for his semester biology exam. These three days forever changed my thinking about how to teach new vocabulary to students.  

Jorge was 18 years old when we met, attending a “last-chance” charter school for high school dropouts. Like many of his classmates, Jorge had plenty of obstacles on his way to success. He had children of his own, a criminal record, a part-time job, and a long list of learning deficiencies.  

On our first day together, I was charged with helping Jorge review key biology vocabulary.  We sat at the table side-by-side, and I asked him what his usual strategy was for learning new words in science. He quickly reached into his backpack and proudly pulled out a large stack of index cards with a taut rubber band stretched around them. When I say large stack, I mean a huge stack! On the face of every card, he had carefully written each new biology term. On the reverse side, a glossary definition was written. In some instances, Jorge had even sketched a small picture. I was optimistic when I saw all the hard work and effort he had put into making his vocabulary flashcards. Even more encouraging was the condition of the cards. The corners of the cards were curled, and the paper was soft from repeated handling. My optimism, however, quickly faded. 

As I began to quiz Jorge about the vocabulary, it became apparent that he could not read many of the definitions and knew little about the words he had so dutifully written on the index cards. His pride soon turned to embarrassment and then frustration. I remember thinking, “My gosh, these words might just as well be written in a foreign language.”  I knew I needed to search for a better strategy to help him learn. To encourage him, I said, “OK, Jorge, I think I just discovered something really important about you. Your brain is wired a lot like mine. It doesn’t care much for words, but instead, it has a strong preference for pictures. So tomorrow we are going to try something different.”

That evening I created my first Card Sort; nine words, nine pictures, and nine simple definitions. The next day, Jorge and I met, and we began our lesson by saying the new words out loud. Then, we quickly picked up the picture cards. First, I asked him to use details to describe each picture. He was encouraged to think and talk about the picture, asking himself, “does this picture remind me of anything I’ve learned or experienced.” Next, I asked him to make a guess about which vocabulary word might match each picture. There was no penalty for being wrong, but he had to attempt to explain his matches. After he matched all the pictures and words, he read the definition cards (not glossary definitions but student-friendly definitions), one at a time. This time, I asked him attempt to match the definition with a picture and vocabulary term. At one point, we laughed aloud. He had three pictures under one word, and he declared, “I’m guessing two of those are wrong…right?”  

Working until all the cards had been placed on the table, it was time to provide Jorge with some resources…a textbook and a laptop…to let him check his matches. Then he could make any corrections he thought appropriate. To conclude our lesson, I reviewed the matches with him. This gave him feedback and a final opportunity for questions and/or corrections.

I recognized the power of the strategy we were using when I administered his first assessment. I would say one of the new words from the Card Sort, and Jorge was to close his eyes and try to picture the word. Next, I listened as he described the “picture in his mind” that matched each word. The detailed descriptions he provided absolutely astonished me. But, what was even more amazing was how those images could lead him to the specific information we had discussed earlier in our lesson. Even Jorge was amazed at how much he could remember. He kept saying, “Wow, how is it that I can remember these details. I don’t really feel like I have been studying these words. We just described them and talked about them.” I joked with him saying, “I’m not entirely sure, but let’s keep doing it because it seems to work like magic!” For Jorge, it felt like magic, and it was inspiring to see how his success created such a sense of pride for him. 

That is how it started…sitting side-by-side with a young man named Jorge…both of us desperate to find a way to learn new vocabulary. After two years of arduous field-testing, and repeated “tweaking,” Vocabulary Magic – 6 Steps to Building Academic Vocabulary emerged as a powerful tool for teaching difficult-to-learn academic words. It is my gift to all the teachers and students who struggle to stay on grade level by mastering the mountain of new words they encounter year after year. I hope you and your students enjoy using the Vocabulary Magic 6 step process, and I hope you too experience a, “Jorge …this is like magic moment.”

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