Vocabulary Tableau: Making Meaning Through Pictures



One of my goals as an English teacher is to develop a variety of ways for students to learn, understand, and study vocabulary.  Teaching vocabulary can be a mundane task that for many students and teachers is seen as important, but is can also seem tortuous.  Of course, this may be a bit extreme….  I actually like teaching vocabulary (and I’m sure there are others like me).  I love thinking of ways to make vocabulary fun and interesting for students so the don’t fear it, hate it, or shut down when we start to learn words from a vocabulary list or academic vocabulary.  There are several activities that I like to use when teaching vocabulary.  The activity I am going to describe in this post is a modified activity from my days as a drama teacher and director.  The name of the activity is Vocabulary Tableau.  The purpose of this activity is to activate the brain by using physical movement, recall vocabulary definitions through application, and internalizing vocabulary physically to help recall definitions in the future.

In order to understand the activity, it is important to understand the definition of the word tableau.  In fact, I often go through the origins and the definition of the word before I explain the activity with my students.  For the purposes of this post, I consulted Dictionary.com, which defines a tableau as:

1.  a picture, as of a scene

2.  a picturesque grouping of persons or objects; a striking scene
3.  a representation of a picture, statue, scene, etc., by one or more persons suitably costumed and posed
Once students understand the definition of tableau, they start to predict what the activity will be about, which begins to build anticipation.  I provide students with the opportunity to guess what the activity will be about based on this definition and the title of the activity.  The next part of the activity will vary depending on what type of vocabulary words students will be using.  If I am using a standard vocabulary word list, then I might organize the students in groups of three and tell them to pick a word from the list that they are going to analyze, or I might assign groups a specific word from the list.  Once students have either chosen a word or have been assigned a word, they are informed to look word parts, word origins, and all definitions of the words.  I usually have students read them aloud to each other.  Students are then instructed to think of a group picture (a frozen image or statue) that they can create based on the definition of the word.  I minimize the time to create a higher sense of need to accomplish the task, thus motivating each member to listen and work effectively with each other.  Depending on the difficulty level of the words, I limit the time to 1-3 minutes.  When time expires, I count down from 10.  When I reach zero, all groups will be frozen in their positions.  At this point, the activity can take many directions.  Sometimes, I have each group show the other groups its position while the other groups guess which vocabulary word is represented in the group’s tableau.  The group then has a chance to explain why it chose each person’s position and the relationship of the position to the definition of the word.  Sometimes, I assign multiple groups the same word and we compare the different tableaus.  Sometimes, as a quick review, I have students work alone.  I shout out a word, give students 30 seconds to think of a position, and then have the entire class freeze in the different positions.  The 30 seconds allows for processing time and assigning everyone the same word allows students to borrow someone else’s tableau.  During this variation, I make sure I have students explain their positions.
Check a newer post for additional variations at:  https://teachingthroughmovement.wordpress.com/2016/01/19/vocabulary-tableau-part-two/

6 thoughts on “Vocabulary Tableau: Making Meaning Through Pictures

  1. Fantastic! Great to see LA teachers using theatre techniques, and tableau is one of the simplest and most powerful. I’ve seen it engage students from kindergarten all the way through college students! It’s wonderful that you keep the processing time short b/c that forces the students (or any of us) to short-circuit the “intellectual” response. You might also consider a variation I saw demonstrated at a conference this summer, where your tableau has to be created without speaking to each other, so even the collaboration is visual communication! Check out http://bit.ly/1dgk8WT for more on Quest Visual Theatre in Washington DC which is doing amazing educational work with this!

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