Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

To the Dictionary and Beyond!

Lindsay Hawkins, Lindsay Williams | Published: April 16th, 2024 by K20 Center


The authentic teaching of academic vocabulary encompasses many components, such as incorporating students' prior knowledge, using engaging strategies, and promoting student ownership and understanding. In this session, participants will explore and evaluate strategies that increase the authentic teaching of vocabulary, explain the benefits of authentic vocabulary instruction, and identify a strategy that they can use in their own classrooms.

Essential Question

What are the benefits of authentic academic vocabulary instruction?

Learning Goals

  • Participants will explore and evaluate new strategies to increase the authentic teaching of academic vocabulary.

  • Participants will explain the benefits of authentic academic vocabulary instruction.

  • Participants will identify one strategy to implement in their own classrooms.

Materials List

  • Vocabulary Beyond the Dictionary! Presentation Slides (attached)

  • Agenda (attached)

  • Instructional Strategy Note Sheet (attached)

  • Strategy Harvest Note Sheet (attached)

  • Vocabulary Strategies List (attached)

  • SCORE Reflection handout (attached)

  • Authenticity Learning and Teaching Rubric (attached)

  • Video clip "Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock" from "The Big Bang Theory"

  • Vocabulary Activity Index Cards, 4x6 cut and printed on color card stock (green is mentioned in text below)

  • Blank 4x6 note cards (blue is mentioned in text below)


Welcome participants to the session using slide 2 of the attached Presentation Slides. Briefly highlight the Agenda, specifically noting how it is in the 5E format.

Transition to slide 3 by asking, "Is anyone familiar with 'Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock'? If you are, please understand this is independent work, and you are not to help your neighbors."

Click through the slide, noting that the definitions are also on the back of the agenda for participants to reference as notes. Explain that these are important definitions and should be known when playing the game "Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock."

After going over the definitions, move to slide 4. Tell participants: "Listen as Sheldon from "The Big Bang Theory" explains to Barry how to play Rock, Paper, Scissors, Lizard, Spock."

Play the video: (Note: The video is hyperlinked to the image on slide 4 and will open in your browser when you click the image.)

After the video, go to slide 5. Ask, "Are you ready to play the game, or can you teach someone else now?"

Tell participants: "Sheldon explained it twice for you. What else might have benefited your learning experience?" Let participants share out a few ideas.

Change to slide 6 and quickly click through the images and text that appear.

"I heard some of you say... a chart to keep you organized; more context or meaning behind the game (who was Spock?); a chance to play the game (friendly competition); more time to talk about it and ask questions; or a visual to see the hand representations."


Transition to slide 7 and mention how it is important to remember that "sometimes our students need these extra things, too, and we need to allow more time for them to build and apply their vocabulary skills. This session will provide protected time for us to explore new vocabulary strategies and connect how authentic components benefit student learning."

Change to slide 8. "You already use great strategies for authentically teaching vocabulary, so use these next two minutes to briefly discuss those strategies with an elbow partner." (Note: A timer can be used to help the presenter keep time, but if participants are done discussing after a minute, move on. Don't use the whole two minutes if they don't need it.)

Change to slide 9 and address the blue index cards at the center of the table. Click through the slide, highlighting the four key items that should be written on the card. Allow three minutes for participants to record a strategy they shared with their partner. Inform participants that these will be collected in a few minutes. Stack them on the edge of the table, making them easier to collect.

Change to slide 10. Introduce the attached Vocabulary Strategies List resource that will be used for the upcoming activity. Participants can scan a QR Code to access digital material once they begin working on the activity. Mention that there will not be enough time to explore all 12 strategies, but participants should keep this document as a resource for later exploration of possible strategies.

Transition into the activity grouping with slide 11. Click through the following instructions. Then, transition to slide 12.

Use slide 12 to highlight the Strategy Harvest Note Sheet. Identify where groups/pairs will record the strategy they decide to explore and what will be recorded next to each bullet point. The Heads Up strategy, printed on the paper, will provide a clear, concrete example for participants to follow. Mention that the attached Authenticity Learning and Teaching Rubric can be used as a resource for the third bullet point.

Change to slide 13. Explain that the Vocabulary Strategy Index Cards (green) being handed out will be modeled by groups to conclude this activity, but, before that happens, groups need to learn more about one of these strategies provided.

Tell participants: “As a group, briefly read the cards received and select one strategy to explore further. The strategy selected should be recorded on the Strategy Harvest Note Sheet as described previously from slide 12.” (Briefly review this information if needed.)

After a strategy has been selected, ask participants to turn the other strategy cards that were not selected face down and move them to the edge of the table to be collected.

Display slide 14 (for six to 10 minutes), so that participants can easily see the requirements to record on their note sheet. As groups explore their strategy, they will also plan how to model or demonstrate their strategy for the whole group. The two academic vocabulary words they already chose and recorded on the Strategy Harvest Note Sheet will be the words used when modeling. (NOTE: If they need more words to use when demonstrating, they can create more as they plan.)

Remind participants to consult the Authenticity Learning and Teaching Rubric as they address the third bullet point.


Ask the whole group to finish up and get ready to demonstrate their strategy using the two vocabulary words they had selected. Transition to slide 15 and detail what each group will be expected to share as they model (act out) their vocabulary strategy.

Identify the two remaining spaces on the Strategy Harvest Note Sheet, and explain that this space will be used to record the information shared by each presenting group. (NOTE: There is only enough space to record two other strategies, but in a 45-minute session, that might be all you have time for. If your session allows, have more groups model and participants can record the strategies that they prefer.)

As groups model, display slide 16 (for 15 minutes). Pay close attention that groups highlight each bullet from the note sheet. To ensure that each group explains an authentic component and how that component benefits student learning, keep a Strategy Harvest Note Sheet and an Authenticity Learning and Teaching Rubric visible during presentations.


After the last group models, transition to slide 17 and instruct participants to select one strategy that was explored today that they will implement with their students before the next meeting. Have them write that vocabulary strategy down on the bottom of the Strategy Harvest Note Sheet.

Click the slide and instruct participants to share the one strategy that they will implement in their class before the reflection.


Depending on the evaluation tool available, change to slide 18 or slide 19.

Ask participants to think about the most significant point of the session. You can do this by starting with a review of the topic and then posing a question like, “What point made during today’s session helped you understand the importance of promoting authentic instruction for academic vocabulary?”

Have participants either share this point aloud or write it down. If written, collect participants' responses. Analyze responses and use them as necessary during the follow-up reflection session.

Research Rationale

Vocabulary instruction is a continual process. Just when you think all students know the required academic vocabulary, they surprise you by asking the meaning of a word you've recently taught. Teachers need to understand how to build relationships between new vocabulary and a student's existing background knowledge, thus providing a student with a meaningful context and connection to support the new vocabulary (Marzano, 2003). Marzano (2003) explains that theory and research show strong evidence supporting how vocabulary instruction is closely associated with building on one's background knowledge.

Working memory is limited, and learning new vocabulary requires the working space in our brain, so it is important to provide students more times to engage and experience vocabulary through background knowledge or connect it to something already in permanent memory. When students are allowed various opportunities to interact and make personal connections to vocabulary, new knowledge will deepen, strengthen, and move towards permanent memory through the re-occurrence and firing of synapses (Marzano, 2003; Jensen, 2005; Boaler, 2016). Brain research shows that synapses fire when students engage in game play, build or draw, participate in meaningful conversations, explain or describe learning, and do something new with the information presented (Boaler, 2016; Jensen, 2005; Knight, 2013). Using information in a repetitive manner does not ensure that it will be transitioned into a student's permanent memory, but opportunities for students to elaborate and make varied connections highly increase the possibility of this happening (Boaler, 2016; Marzano, 2003). Vocabulary should be personal and meaningful, not just memorized to be used in non-contextualized ways at a later date.