Solidifying Academic Vocabulary Through Complex Texts and Hands-On Experiences

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This month, we asked teachers across the country to reflect on how they engage their students in Wit & Wisdom’s® complex texts. Jami Witherell, a Grade 2 teacher and Massachusetts Teacher of the Year 2022 Semi-Finalist, shares her experience with the texts in Grade 2, Module 4: Good Eating

“Ms. Witherell?” 

“Yes?” I responded at the sound of my name. My 2nd graders and I sat across from each other at the picnic table outside. A gift of the pandemic was eating lunch with my class every day outdoors.

“Can you say some important words?” 

“Important words?” I cupped my hands like a visor to make sure I could see his face. He’s earnest, I thought. A real question. 

“Yeah, you know, like, big ones. Like esophagus? Or like the large intestine?” 

“Hmm,” I wondered loudly, making a point to show I was really thinking. “Like maybe bolus or villi?” I answered finally, smiling. 

“Yeah, but like ones we don’t know.” 

The power of language, both spoken and written, has never been more evident than during the year we did not sit in person for 121 days. In the virtual environment, written and conversational language were the most valuable learning tools we had. Imagine, then, the challenges a 2nd grader faces when English is not their first language.

The reason words such as esophagus and large intestine came up in our lunch conversation is because of a series of question arcs from Module 4 of Wit & Wisdom, in which our Essential Question was “How does food nourish us?” Students began their study of food by building knowledge about the digestion of food in the body, which would serve as a foundation for learning how to select and obtain nourishing, healthy food. 

This student, who is learning multiple languages, was acquiring some seriously scientific language and background knowledge about the digestive system through our module texts and writing tasks. These are words that most students don’t use daily: esophagus, nutrients, digestive system. The work in this module was challenging for my 2nd graders—it’s the perfect marriage of a topic my students wanted to learn more about and complex texts that were worth reading. By the end of this module, I wanted every student, including the multilingual students who needed additional support with academic vocabulary, to feel successful in their understanding of the digestive system and in their reading of complex texts.

Early in Module 4, students conduct research on the digestive system, using the texts we read to explain the important jobs of two organs in the digestive system. This is a challenging task for students who may not know much yet about the digestive system. But it is especially challenging for students who are also learning English and acquiring the vocabulary to accurately describe what happens in the digestion process. As Susan B. Neuman shares in her article “Comprehension in Disguise: The Role of Knowledge in Children’s Learning,” comprehension of a text requires that students bring what they already know to what they want to learn. As their teacher, I wanted to provide a hands-on experience to help students solidify the knowledge they built in the first Focusing Question arc. This meant finding a way to bring together new hands-on experiences, introduced vocabulary, and meaningful writing to help my students become stronger readers. 

Enter: Room Transformation—a day for my students to experience the inside of the digestive system to deepen their understanding of how it works. In our work with Wit & Wisdom, my students are gaining access to complex texts, developing rich vocabulary, and engaging in Content Stage work built on great questions. I also wanted students to apply their deep learning to a tangible experience. I worked with my grade-level team to create meaningful stations that students could visit: the mouth, the esophagus, the stomach, and the small intestine. The results were an experience for all learners to apply new and more technical vocabulary (e.g., esophagus, digest), balanced with words they already knew (e.g., mouth, stomach).

My colleagues and I identified essential vocabulary from our texts that students would use to succeed in their writing and speaking tasks throughout the module. These words fell into two categories. First, there was the essential vocabulary from Module 4, such as system, digest, absorb, and saliva, taken from our Deep Dives. Students would need to know these words for conversations at each station and for their writing. Second, students would use specialized domain-specific words—like the word bolus in the esophagus station and villi in the stomach—necessary for station completion.

Next, we designed the four stations: 

  • In the mouth, students used modeling clay to create food that enters the digestive system. Here they had a copy of The Digestive System by Christine Taylor-Butler and were able to use the text for reference. Students had already spent time examining the diagrams provided in the book. I encouraged students to refer to the text to explain what happened to the food in the mouth. 
  • At the esophagus station, students started their work by labeling the parts of the digestive system on a diagram. After students created food in the first station, they delivered their food to the esophagus station. Here students took the food and rolled it into a bolus or a ball that would fit down the esophagus (a cardboard tube). 
  • The third station took students to the stomach, where they experimented with a piece of bread and a plastic bag of vinegar to represent the stomach’s process of breaking down food. The students acted as the stomach muscles to break down the bread. 
  • Finally, students used a marble run to create a physical representation of the small intestine. They designed the interlocking pieces and then ran a piece of food, represented by a marble, through the system.  

On the day of the room transformation, I spent my time at the mouth and esophagus stations helping the modeling clay food travel from one station to the next, engaging in conversations, supporting students with vocabulary when needed, but most importantly: listening. Students used language from our module in deep and complex discussions about the workings of each station. Students worked collectively in teams. They used a core text to support their writing and were able to refer to the glossary for emerging academic vocabulary. 

One outcome, as you might imagine, was a lot of fun for the students. However, another important outcome was the writing task students completed to capture the steps of the digestive system’s process. This rehearsal in writing supported the development of understanding that a system is a series of steps in a process. Since I incorporate the practice of oral writing into Wit & Wisdom instruction, I had all students end this lesson by talking about their experiences at each station, what it was supposed to represent, and what they would write in their final piece. All students completed the writing, and all learners were able to participate and feel successful in both the experience and in their writing. It should come as no surprise that my multilingual learner, in his very best handwriting, finished his piece first—the excitement of sharing his new words fueled his work.

Not only were students more prepared to answer the question, “How can food nourish our body?” but they were also able to explain the steps in a process, which set them up for success later in the module when we studied the way certain foods travel from farms to our dining room tables. Room transformations are an investment of time, to be sure, but they are also a reminder that students can have fun while building essential knowledge. Adding vocabulary practice ensured that the words and the experiences won’t soon be forgotten and are transferable to their writing responses—from the first Focusing Question Task to the End-of-Module Task.

Remember where we started, out at that picnic table? We have now made “Lunch with Language” a thing too! My first conversation with my students about important words reminded me how excited students can be when they become “textperts” (experts on text), that they now look forward to discussing “important words” at lunch with a few sentence stems to encourage casual conversation with their emerging vocabulary. 


This room transformation was brought to life with the support of and was named one of the top 5 wackiest requests of the 2020–21 school year by the organization.  

Topics: Literacy