Vocabulary “Field Trips”

If you’re a teacher, you’ve probably experienced the “look.” You’ve set the stage for reading by tapping into prior knowledge, attempting to make connections, and introducing new vocabulary. Your students have dutifully read the book, and now you’re discussing it. At some point you ask, “Who can tell me what…means?” and you get the “look”―that perplexed expression which tells you, “I have no idea what you are talking about.” In my school where 90% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch and 65% of the students are English learners, I am ever watchful for this blank response.

As educators know and researchers (e.g., William Nagy, Judith Scott) have shown, a large part of comprehension depends upon vocabulary. But how do we help students develop a deep knowledge of words if they have limited experiences and exposure to the English language? One activity that seems to work in my teaching situation is the vocabulary “field trip.”

P. Blue with studentMy husband is accustomed to me walking around our house gathering materials I need for school. I might go to the spice cabinet for ginger or even to his closet for an old baseball bat.  Realia is the term educators use for such things, props are what my family calls them, but for my students, these items are visual and experiential keys to unlocking the meaning of new words.

Recently, my fifth graders were reading, Girl with a Vision by Julie Winterbottom. In this leveled reader the main character is blind.  We read how she used Braille to read.  The book does a nice job explaining Braille.  But I got the “look.” I had lost them. Alex, clever young man that he is, reminded us that there is a student who is blind at our school. I said, “Field trip!”  (favorite words to many students), and we took off down the hall.  Fortunately, both teacher and student had time to explain Braille; they gave us the opportunity to use the Braille writer, look at Braille textbooks, and even try reading with our fingers. To this day these students can tell you how our special student reads and writes and confidently explain what Braille is.

So did we take another field trip when we read, The Tiger and the Persimmon Retold by Anne Sibley O’Brien?  Certainly.  We had to check out the persimmon tree near the playground.  One student even reported seeing adults with grocery bags at the tree during after-school hours. “Oh, now I get it,” he said, “They were collecting persimmons!”

Another vocabulary trip involved maple syrup.  We walked over to the cabinet for a handful of spoons and syrup jars. Using information from Please Pass the Maple Syrup by Susan Ring, my students were able to understand the implications of the colors and grades of syrup.

Before we read All About Honeybees by Jerry Albert, I discovered that my second graders had never tasted honey. The next day we took a “trip” to my car to get the honey I had purposefully forgotten to bring into the building.  That was a “sweet” tasting lesson!  The jar had a flower on its label, and if you ask my readers, they can tell you why that is significant.

If I ever doubted that my “field trips” and realia worked, I had the answer on the day my fifth graders were doing their homework. As they were reading a social studies assignment, I heard, “Hey! The colonists made maple syrup like we read in that book!”  Now, when I get the “look” it becomes fun for me to change that blank stare into an engaged expression that says, “I get it!”

Have you used “field trips” and realia for word study? If you’d like to know more about virtual vocabulary field trips, check out Camille Blachowicz’s suggestions for Vocabulary Visits. Also read some of Bridget Dalton and Dana Grisham’s ideas for digital vocabulary trips.


Patsy Blue is a Reading Intervention teacher at Robbins Elementary in the Moore County Schools and is nationally board certified in Literacy: Reading – Language Arts.  She is also president of the Moore County Reading Association.