Using Journals to Reinforce Academic Vocabulary

If MSL/Common Exams did anything, they reminded us that for students to demonstrate understanding of a subject, they must be able to communicate about that subject. They must master its concepts, its processes, and its academic vocabulary. But learning to communicate about the effects technology has on war, or the relationships of angles, or the structure of DNA means students need to practice communicating about those subjects.

Enter the Journal
Ok, “enter the journal” is a bit dramatic, especially since journals entered instructional practice long ago. Sometimes they are tools for reflection and expression; other times they are used for research and recording. Students in English classes use them to practice writing or to generate ideas. But it is rare to see journals used in math classes.

In Mike Swinson and intern Ryne Cooper’s pre-calculus classes, students have been starting class with journal assignments since January. They are still doing math, but the problems tend to require application of learning, not just mimicry of a process they’ve already learned. The problems require multiple steps and always challenge students to make mathematical decisions.

Most of all, the students have to explain their answers using the academic vocabulary of the discipline. They must speak in math. Of course, they are still calculating and reasoning mathematically, but with the added expectation of processing the complex concepts through its native tongue.

In the example above, Mr. Cooper’s student must generate a rule based on a pattern she observes with functions. She writes, “These functions all have x-coefficient of 1 and y-intercepts at zero and exponents on the x value,” demonstrating to her teacher that she understands the mathematical concepts at hand and that she knows and can use the academic language of the course.

I, on the other hand, cannot.

Across the Curriculum
Certainly, this idea of using journals as a tool for engaging students in critical thinking and use of academic language is not restricted to mathematics, or just to arcane topics like calculus. They make sense in civics and world history, in art and cooking, in Latin and Spanish and English and chemistry. They provide students with a consistent place for processing thoughts, practicing with academic language and applying their learning, while giving teachers a consistent tool for formative assessment. See…

Art: Color the image below; then, justify your color scheme using at least three of the following terms: complementary, analogous, hue, tint, shade.

English: The following sentence is mechanically flawed. Explain the error and write a mechanically acceptable revision of the sentence.
Frequently, Poe’s sentence structure is not intended for clarity, he wants to lose readers in the complexity of his long, abundantly punctuated sentences.

Ultimately, we want our students to talk like scientists and artists and writers and linguists and chefs and mechanics and mathematicians and politicians. Ok, not politicians. But we do want them to talk the talk, and that means they need time to apply the academic vocabulary they learn to new situations. They should hear the terms and read the terms. More importantly, they should speak them and write them, and the journal is a great place to start.

One Response to “Using Journals to Reinforce Academic Vocabulary”

  1. Karen Minton says:

    LOVE IT! Thanks for the info – will definitely use it.