VOCABu: Boost Vocabulary Knowledge with Haiku

As a poet, I notice words.

I’m always on the lookout for new words or new ways to use the words that I already know. As a teacher, I want to nurture that same word consciousness in my students. Research shows that vocabulary knowledge is strongly related to reading comprehension. When it comes to vocabulary’s effect on writing, I think poet Hart Crane said it best:

When I first started teaching, I tried drenching my students in words with weekly vocabulary lists and quizzes. My students may have been soaked in words, but they dried off pretty quickly. They weren’t using the words in their conversations or writing. They didn’t absorb them.

Expert Advice:

It’s no wonder. Language and literacy expert Dr. Louisa Moats says that children need 10-12 encounters with a word in context before their truly learn the word. Dr. Catherine Snow of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education puts the number even higher at 15-20 encounters. In short, students need to return to words, reading, writing, and using them in conversation, again and again and again before they soak in.

On top of that the standards require that students demonstrate understanding of the nuances in word meanings. A nuance is a very subtle difference. Words have shades of meanings, and students won’t understand those shades unless they practice using words in many different ways.

How do I get students to practice using vocabulary words again and again?

To start, I no longer give them weekly word lists to memorize. Students are challenged to locate their own stellar words in their reading, writing, and conversations. We vote on these words each week and add the best ones to our class list, which displayed where everyone can see it. Then I give the students short writing challenges that require them to use the words in context. Poetry is a perfect venue for these challenges. It’s short but requires students to think about words visually and metaphorically. To get at those nuances.

Enter Haiku.

One writing challenge I love is VOCABu, or vocabulary haiku. I either assign or have students choose a vocabulary word from the student-generated class list. Then I challenge them to write a haiku that shows the vocabulary word in a specific, visual context. This versatile activity can be completed individually, in pairs, or in small groups. (For a highly structured introductory lesson and template click here.)(For a more advanced lesson click here.)

Here is a sample VOCABu I wrote for the word “impromptu:"

And here’s a sample VOCABu written by third-grade Lola for her vocabulary word BARTER:
With only 3 lines and 17 syllables total, haiku is brief. Students can write a VOCABu in just a few minutes, so it’s a nice assignment when you are short on time. Haiku is great for boosting vocabulary because it requires students to wrestle with word choice and think about how to quickly but clearly present a snapshot of a word in context. After students finish writing their VOCABu, you can display them for others to enjoy, which provides yet another vocabulary encounter.

Challenge your students to write VOCABu whenever you have a few extra minutes in your schedule. Slowly, you’ll soak your students with words until they absorb them as their own.

Other Haiku Boosts:

Look for a follow-up post sharing a list of haiku mentor text.
Learn to use haiku to boost summary skills by clicking here.

About Michelle Schaub

Michelle Schaub is a language arts teacher and award-winning children's poet. She is the author of the picture book poetry collections Fresh-Picked Poetry: A Day at the Farmers’ Market, (which won the 2018 Growing Good Kids Award and 2019 Northern Lights Book Award,) and Finding Treasure: A Collection of Collections. She also wrote the bedtime STEM book in verse, Dream Big, Little Scientists. Her poems appear in several anthologies, including The Poetry Anthology for Celebrations and Great Morning! Poems for School Leaders to Read Aloud.  Michelle speaks at conferences on the power of poetry to boost literacy.