Double duty: vocabulary tools that both teach and assess

6. Assessment: The teacher uses multiple data elements (both formative and summative) to plan, inform and adjust instruction and evaluate student learning.

As an ELL tutor, I particularly need effective methods for evaluating  my students’ vocabulary acquisition and use. I must gather information about which words my students know, which words they need to learn in order to read and understand the texts they will encounter in their high school classrooms, which words they are familiar with but do not fully comprehend the meaning of, and which words they understand but do not use according to the rules of standard English.

Much of this information gathering constitutes formative assessment, assessment for (future) learning. It enables me to target key words for direct vocabulary instruction. It helps me modify my own vocabulary and define unfamiliar words so my students understand me. And it informs future decisions about which texts will be “just right” for my students and which grammar conventions will require further explanation and practice. Much formative vocabulary assessment occurs informally, as I note students’ ability to use words correctly during discussion, question them about the texts we’re reading, and listen carefully to see whether their fluency reflects comprehension in the form of accurate expression and phrasing while reading aloud.

But some of this information gathering around vocabulary constitutes summative assessment, assessment of (past) learning. I and my students need to know whether they are retaining learned vocabulary, whether they fully understand connotated and denotated meanings, and whether they can use new words accurately. In short, we need to know whether their increased “word banks” are truly increasing their power with the English Language.

This year I am tutoring a small group of 10th-grade English Language Learners who are very recent immigrants to the United States. Our work together centers around the theme, The Power of Reading, and one focus of our first unit is vocabulary building, in alignment with the following Common Core standard:

Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression. (Common Core State Standards Initiative, 2016)

One way in which I will assess students’ vocabulary throughout the unit is through careful listening and observation. In order to make sure that what I hear and observe informs lesson planning throughout the unit, I need to keep track of what I notice. The following image records my teaching notes from the first unit lesson.


Notes from Just Juice, Day 1

I have recorded observations on students’ vocabulary knowledge (all students able to come up with the word “famous” in response to a hint). I also comment on their ownership of the vocabulary (all 3 students could apply the vocabulary to themselves, by listing qualities they were known for) and some remaining confusion around the vocabulary (unclear about the difference between being famous vs. being famous for something). Holistic vocabulary assessments should include information about students’ personal and conceptual relationship to language, as well as their ability to define and use a word. I record assessment notes on my lesson plan for the day, which allows me to correlate what I observe about student learning to a specific learning activity, and helps me revise future lesson plans in accordance with what students need to review and practice.


Notes from Just Juice, Day 2

As you can see from my second day’s teaching notes, students were able to apply the learned vocabulary (applied “famous” vocab.) in response to our warm-up activity, “share one thing that made you feel successful yesterday.” The notes at the top of the page record my observations about how well students understood the word summary, both conceptually (what summary is) and practically (what a good summary does).

Another way in which I will assess vocabulary acquisition throughout the unit is with vocabulary boxes. These boxes are a powerful instructional tool, a way to reinforce new words through repetition, application, categorization, and visual representation. Each week, my students create five “vocab boxes” according to the following instructions:


Ms. Ellen’s vocab box assignment…and assessment tool!

Because they require students to use the word in a sentence, vocabulary boxes enable me to assess students’ syntactical skill. Because the boxes require students to draw a picture of the word, I can assess how fully they understand it and whether they can visualize it for themselves. And because the boxes require students to identify the word as a verb, noun, or adjective, I am also able to assess my students’ understanding of English grammar in relation to the word. Since students work on these in class, I am able to correct early misconceptions, to evaluate whether I have chosen useful and important words, and to revise instruction or assignments accordingly. Because students turn in five vocabulary boxes each week, I have a concrete measure of their progress throughout the unit.

Students choose their words from a list of key words I have compiled while reading the text. A list for for this unit can be seen below.


Vocabulary Word List for Just Juice

I chose words that are important for understanding the story (such as “weld,” “truant,” and “diabetes”), words with broad application across disciplines because they have multiple meanings (“bitter”), words that require nuanced conceptual understanding (“might” and “pretend”), and words that provide opportunity for syntax discussion and learning because they can function in multiple roles (such as “growl” and “fiddle” which can be both nouns and verbs). At the end of the unit we will take a comprehensive vocabulary test, probably in the form of writing ten complete sentences using ten (randomly chosen) words from the list. For summative vocabulary assessments, I always require students to use (apply) the vocabulary, sometimes in the form of a sentence, sometimes in the form of a round-robin, additive “story quiz,” sometimes in the form of a graded academic discussion that incorporates new vocabulary, and sometimes in the form of a game such as pictionary or charades. When a student can use a new word correctly in a sentence (or story or discussion or game) I know that student has truly mastered it, and will be able to apply their expanded vocabulary to future learning.


Common Core State Standards Initiative (2016). College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.L.6). Retrieved from on October 16, 2016

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