Unlock Content-Area Success with Explicit Academic Vocabulary Instruction
by Jane Moore and Georgia Thompson
"Direct instruction on words that are critical to new content produces the most powerful learning."
—Robert Marzano, Classroom Instruction that Works
Why Is Academic Vocabulary So Important?
We know that all students arrive at school with some knowledge of the world outside the school doors. Some come with enough knowledge and vocabulary to succeed in school, but many students, especially those from families with few resources, lack the necessary background knowledge—and vocabulary foundation—to make content learning easily accessible. Without focused instruction, a student’s academic vocabulary gap grows as more concepts and vocabulary are layered on each year.
The depth of a student’s understanding of words and meanings plays an enormous role in his or her ability to comprehend content-area concepts and read academic texts. As we work with students to build academic vocabulary we create routes to comprehension and enable academic success.
Getting Started: Identify Critically Important Vocabulary
We know that background knowledge and accompanying vocabulary are essential aspects of academic content acquisition. But how do we ensure that all students develop essential academic vocabulary? Systematic instruction in key academic terms is one of the most crucial teaching practices that teachers can use to build academic vocabulary. This is particularly important for students who, because of life experiences or because they are second language learners, do not come to school with the essential vocabulary.
When planning explicit, systematic vocabulary instruction, begin by carefully dividing the vocabulary in a given text into three categories:
- Critically important
- Useful but not critical
- Interesting but not very useful
Each academic discipline has its own list of critically important terms. To identify critically important words, consider these questions:
- Is the word important to comprehension?
- Does the word appear again and again in the text?
- Will knowledge of the word help in other content areas?
- Is the word likely to be in the student’s prior knowledge?
- Is the word defined within the body of the text?
After compiling the academic vocabulary lists, begin planning lessons to introduce the critically important vocabulary and scaffold content acquisition.
Develop a Plan for Direct Vocabulary Instruction
Ways to continuously expose and develop academic vocabulary should be explicitly planned. In order to do this, all teachers should engage students in wide reading, provide direct instruction using both verbal and nonlinguistic representations of words, and encourage elaboration and refinement of specific terms. The teacher should then plan activities that build background knowledge, understanding of words, and extend use into additional contexts by using other words.
Vocabulary instruction is the strongest action a teacher can take to ensure that students have the background knowledge they need to understand the content they will encounter in school (Marzano, Pickering, 2005).
Taking It to the Next Level with Marzano’s 6-Step Plan
Marzano and Pickering (2005) offer a 6-Step model for explicitly teaching vocabulary.
Step 1: Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term. Present the term in “student friendly” language: describe the term, explain the term, and give an example of the term.
Step 2: Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words. Students can rely on background knowledge and experience; use descriptions, examples, explanations of their own; and form connections between new terms and those already known.
Step 3: Ask students to create a picture, symbol, or graphic representing the term. This allows students to process information in a new modality and provides another processing of the information to reinforce and deepen meaning.
Step 4: An academic vocabulary notebook encourages students to write their continuing impressions and understandings of the word. Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms they keep in notebooks/journals. Guide students to use terms in other contexts to build a deeper meaning of the word. Ask students to use the new term in their own writing and in conversation to make terms relevant and familiar to the student.
Step 5: Periodically ask students to discuss terms with one another. Discussing the term with peers will add to their understanding of the term. Students can write about their understandings in the academic vocabulary notebook.
Step 6: Involve students periodically in games that allow them to play with the new terms. Vocabulary games will give students more exposure to the word and they will gain a deeper understanding of the word by continuous review. Games may include word sorts, Balderdash, Scattergories, Pictionary, Charades, Boggle, Outburst, Password, Scrabble, Taboo, or Word Yahtzee formats.
Academic Vocabulary Dos and Don’ts
Allen, J. (1999). Words, words, words: Teaching vocabulary in grades 4-12. Portland, ME: Stenhouse Publishers.
Beck, I., McKeown, M.G., Kucan, L. (2002). Bring words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: Guildford Press.
Marzano, R. & Pickering, D. (2005). Building academic vocabulary. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Dr. Jane Moore and Dr. Georgia Thompson serve as instructional coaches in the Dallas Independent School District. Their primary responsibility is to empower teachers through staff development, modeling, and scaffolding instructional practices that enhance student achievement.