What should content-area teachers know about vocabulary instruction?
Page 3: Selecting Essential Words
Teachers know that there is much more vocabulary than they have time to cover in class. Curricular materials, state standards, and local guidelines include lists of words thought to be crucial to understanding a given subject area. Even as they teach these recommended words, teachers might also need to add vocabulary terms that are unfamiliar to students because of their level of language proficiency or background knowledge in that area. These vocabulary lists can be overwhelming, and it might be necessary for teachers to decide which words in those lists are the most-essential to explicitly teach. Before they do so, however, it might be helpful for teachers to understand the information outlined in the table below.
|Vocabulary from content areas often contains||What this means||Examples|
|Uncommon words||Words that do not typically occur in a student’s vocabulary, though they may be important to a particular lesson or unit of instruction|
|Words with multiple meanings||Words that might be the same as those used every day but that have an entirely different and unfamiliar meaning when associated with particular content|
|Instructional or academic words||Terms commonly used at school and work (e.g., giving directions or asking questions)|
|Sophisticated synonyms||Words used in instruction that have more-common terms|
For Your Information
There is a shared vocabulary of instructional words (e.g., rate, process, analyze) that are not specific to any one content area. These words are often overlooked because no one teacher takes responsibility for teaching them. Teachers should be aware of these shared vocabulary words and make sure that students understand their meaning as they relate to a given content area.
What Can Teachers Do?
Once teachers understand the common types of vocabulary found in academic lessons (e.g., uncommon words, instructional words, words with multiple meanings), they can be selective and teach a manageable number of them. They can be more efficient by teaching only those words that are unfamiliar to their students or that are inadequately defined in the materials. Teachers should choose words that are critical to understanding the main ideas and information of the unit or lesson. To do that, they can preview the content material and identify vocabulary words that are:
- Relevant to what students need to learn
- Used often within a unit or across two or more units of instruction
- Linked to content standards
- Abstract or not easily pictured (often derived words ending with -tion, -ment, -ity, etc.)
- Difficult to understand without sufficient background knowledge or contextual support
- Naturally related or have logical relationships to other words in the content
Elfrieda Hiebert, PhD
University of California, Santa Cruz
Deborah K. Reed, PhD
College of Education, University of Iowa
Director, Iowa Reading Research Center