The following is one of fifty engagement tasks in Aaron's newest book Worksheets Don't Work. Each image is hyperlinked to a Google Slide that can be copied and edited as needed. The last section has been added to modify this task for virtual learning. To have upcoming blog posts in this series sent directly to your inbox, add your email address here.
When asking students to write a few sentences to summarize a text or recap a lesson, the ease with which they complete the task varies greatly. Some generate words and thoughts easily, expressing themselves quickly and effectively in written form. Others struggle, not sure of where to begin. Their writing is labored and choppy, stuttering along on life support.
A simple method to help students generate ideas for sentences is creating a word pyramid. Students choose a letter and proceed to stack words that each begin with the same letter. Each word, the first usually beginning with two or three letters, includes one more letter than the one before. Students create as many words as possible until they cannot generate any larger words. These words form the pyramid. Students use each word in the pyramid in a sentence that describes the topic or summarizes their learning.
Why It Works
Word pyramids help students expand their writing vocabularies. Whereas the other worksheet alternatives in the word work section focus on individual words, word pyramids move beyond that. Using the springboard of the pyramid, the true focus of the task is the sentences that the students create. While the words in the pyramid will have little in common beyond their initial letters, it is the related sentences that allow students the chance to demonstrate mastery.
For writers that struggle to form coherent thoughts, the structure of the pyramid gives enough support to begin without strangling their creativity. Instead of being formulaic, the word pyramid simply focuses students on a single word to begin their thoughts. Each sentence they generate must relate to the topic with the single caveat of including the word starting with the associated letter on top of the pyramid.
When teachers first begin teaching their students to read, they provide a structured system of phonics and phonemic awareness to slowly build literacy. Beginning with letter recognition, they build to letter-sound relationships, sight words, short vowel sounds, blends, and so on. Everything progresses systematically with multiple layers of structure for each step in the phase.
Too often, this is not the case for writing. Beyond the mechanics of spelling, students sometimes struggle to string sentences together into coherent thoughts. The word pyramid acts a generative tool without the limitations of sentence stems. Instead of each student beginning every sentence identically, as they would with sentence stems, they have support with a word in the pyramid to structure their sentence around.
Word pyramids are one of the simplest worksheet alternatives available to students. Here are a few tips for getting started.
1. Choose the topic of the word pyramid. It should be known to students and relate to the text or unit of study. Additionally, it must be broad enough that students can easily expand upon it with several sentences.
2. Ensure students have access to examples so they can reference the structure of the pyramid, specifically how each successful word has an additional letter. They should also see how the words are used in each sentence to describe the overall topic.
3. Provide students with suggestions for the letter that directs the formation of their pyramids. Their frustration can be eased if they don’t choose obscure letters such as k or q. The most common letters to start words in the English language are, in order, s, p, c, d, m, and a.
4. Name any thresholds that should be met for the number of words in the pyramid, the length of each sentence, or both. For example, do students need at least four words in their pyramid? Do their sentences need at least six words each? Setting clear expectations beforehand provides additional structure for students who might struggle with open-ended tasks.
5. If grading this task, decide on how it will be evaluated. Will the content of the sentences be judged in any way? Will a pyramid of four words receive half as much credit as a pyramid of eight words? Some students will naturally do the least amount of work to receive the grade they desire, so be crystal clear with any expectations for number of words in the pyramid or the length of sentences.
6. Prepare for grouping decisions and decide if they will factor into any requirements for pyramid length. For example, a teacher might determine that students can complete the task alone or with a partner. If alone, they might need at least four words and four sentences. If with a partner, they might need at least six words and six sentences.
7. Since the word pyramid is open-ended and is limited merely by student creativity, consider making it a competition to stimulate ingenuity. Challenge the groups or classes to see who can create the largest pyramid. The conversations around the submissions and validation of each word and sentence will be extremely rich and instructional.
Mr. Gooch’s high school English class just finished reading the seventh chapter of Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. For each of the first six chapters, his students answered comprehension questions that he pulled from a published book study unit. While the responses to the first few chapters were mostly thorough, the students’ answers were getting progressively shorter and more surface-level. While he knew students needed to process each chapter before moving on, he wanted a new task to mix things up.
“Class, I want to introduce you to a new task called a word pyramid. As you begin reviewing Chapter 7 tonight for the homework assignment, you might like a change of pace. If you want, you can answer the comprehension questions for Chapter 7 that are part of the packet I distributed at the beginning of our novel study. You could, though, skip the review questions and create a word pyramid instead.
“Starting a word pyramid is as simple as choosing a letter. Look at the example I created for you. I chose n because a lot of words in the English language start with that letter. Other common letters to start words are s, p, c, and d, though you can choose any letter you like. There are only two rules for creating a word pyramid. First, each word must start with the main letter and each new word must have one more letter than the word above. Second, the words you use must be used in a sentence to describe the topic.
“The example I made is about what you read last night and discussed today – Chapter 6. As you can see, I found a two-letter word, no, to begin my pyramid. Sometimes the smallest word you can find will have three letters. If you choose to create a word pyramid instead of answering the comprehension questions, you need at least four words in your pyramid. Your task would be to use the pyramid to describe Chapter 7. I was able to create a pyramid of five words. Do any of you think you could create one with six or seven?”
The structure and openness of a word pyramid will appeal to many students as a viable alternative to a traditional worksheet. With that being said, some students will still need support to successfully complete the task. While the form of the pyramid is the backbone of the activity, true comprehension is demonstrated in the creation of the sentences. For those that will struggle in finding words with the correct number of letters to fill each row, provide those for students. They can instead focus on creating a sentence for each line of the pyramid related to the topic.
Additionally, some students might want to create the entirety of the pyramid but have difficulty generating words with the same beginning letter. If their vocabulary knowledge is still developing, the tedium of finding enough words might distract them from the true focus of the task. The requirements might be modified so that each word in the pyramid merely contains a certain letter rather than beginning with it. This opens up the task to a wider variety of responses while still requiring a great deal of student generation.
A different spin on the word pyramid that students can explore is focusing on the number of words in a sentence or phrase rather than the number of letters in a word. Starting with a two- or three-word sentence or phrase, students describe the topic with each successive line containing an additional word. Be sure to point out that each line is a sentence or phrase but don’t get too hung up on punctuation. Shorter sentences are sometimes difficult for students to formulate so giving them an option to make it a sentence or a phrase makes it much less restrictive.
Finally, word pyramids can be expanded to include a mirror pyramid underneath the original pyramid. For example, a pyramid can start with a two-letter word and grow all the way to a five-letter word. Rather than that being the end, however, the mirror pyramid then begins to shrink one letter at a time but with new words. After the five-letter word, a new line is created with a four-letter word, then a three-letter word, until it reaches a two-letter word. The mirror pyramid requires twice the generation and provides ample opportunity for students to showcase their creativity.
Modifying This For Virtual Learning
Word pyramids can be just as easily made Google Slides or Google Docs as they are on paper. My suggestion would be to have students generate the words and sentences first in a Google Doc before transferring them, if desired, to a Google Slide. Students will sometimes spend so much time playing with font types and sizes that they won't finish the task itself.
This is a great collaborative tool but the real meat of the thinking comes from the sentences that students generate with the words in the pyramid. Completing this task digitally opens up the possibility for students to insert images to support the sentences they write.