What can teachers do to help students develop stronger vocabulary knowledge?
Page 3: Vocabulary Knowledge
One of the primary skills that students need for reading and understanding complex content-area texts is a command of the academic vocabulary—terms and expressions that are considered crucial for student comprehension and classroom learning. Whether they are spoken or written, it is important for students to learn general academic vocabulary words (e.g., accumulate, scheme, underlie), as well as discipline-specific terminology (e.g., constitutionality, crustacean, anthology).
Students need strong academic vocabulary skills to master current academic standards, something that requires students to apply appropriate terminology when learning and communicating about subject-area concepts and content. Take for example the following College and Career Readiness (CCR) anchor standard for language from the Common Core State Standards (CCSS):
Did You Know?
Students’ vocabulary knowledge consists of two parts: spoken words and printed words. Sometimes, students are able to use and understand spoken words that they do not recognize in print. For example, nearly all students know what a tongue is and use the word tongue in conversation. However, because of its unusual spelling, many students struggle when they come across the word tongue in print. This is also likely to happen with other words, including those that are longer and multisyllabic.
Standard 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general academic and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when considering a word or phrase important to comprehension or expression.
Notice that the standard suggests that students need to learn a lot of grade-appropriate words and phrases, but also know how to figure out the meaning of unfamiliar terms they might encounter. Given the important relationship between strong academic vocabulary skills and the ability to successfully read and comprehend content-area texts, middle school teachers need to:
- Help students merge their oral and print vocabularies by employing strategies for reading multisyllabic words
- Directly teach the academic vocabulary necessary to read content-area texts and learn important concepts
- Provide multiple opportunities for students to use academic vocabulary in reading, writing, listening, and speaking about the content
- Teach students how to analyze words as they are used in the context of increasingly complex content-area curricular materials
Unfortunately, these instructional techniques are not employed when students are expected to infer the meanings of terms they encounter in texts, or when vocabulary instruction consists only of looking up words in a dictionary or glossary and writing out their definitions.
Paola Uccelli explains why teaching vocabulary words in isolation can be ineffective, while Don Deshler discusses the benefits of using strategies to provide vocabulary instruction.
Paola Uccelli, EdD
Associate Professor of Education
Harvard Graduate School of Education
Don Deshler, PhD
Professor, Special Education
Director, Center for Research on Learning
The University of Kansas
On the next pages, you will learn a vocabulary instructional practice that incorporates all of the above elements and is applicable for a wide range of students.
To learn more about how to identify academic vocabulary and select appropriate terms for instruction, view the following IRIS Module: