Content Words–Academic Vocabulary

17 Dec

Academic vocabulary is a big buzzword in my district right now.  We have a large population of EL students who remain language learners throughout their academic career.  They come to us in Kindergarten as English learners, and they leave us in twelfth grade as English learners.  It’s a vexing problem.  Vocabulary can feel overwhelming to teach, especially given the research.  Marzano, for example, has found that:

“there is a roughly 6,000-word gap between students at the 25th and 50th percentiles on standardized tests in grades 4–12. Since the 1980s, researchers have estimated the difference to be anywhere between 4,500 and 5,400 words for low versus high-achieving students (for a discussion, see Marzano, 2009). This means we can take the commonsense connection between vocabulary and content one step further and conclude that the size of a student’s vocabulary is directly related to his or her academic achievement.” Carleton, L., & Marzano, R. J. (2010). Vocabulary Games for the Classroom (p. 1). Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Laboratory.

The question is what to do about it.  I made academic vocabulary a focus this year, with some amusing results.  “The sand deposition on the hill,” is an example of a written response that I received on an Earth Science test.  I was initially bummed, until my co-teacher, Jenny, pointed out that it wasn’t that the students didn’t understand the word.  It was that they didn’t know how to fluidly use it and change its form.

How to change its form…that sounds dangerously close to traditional (i.e. boring) grammar instruction and conjugation work.  Should we be diagramming sentences in fourth grade?

I modified what I was doing instead.  Jenny created a four-square graphic organizer that showed students how a word would look as a noun, and then as a present-tense and past-tense verb.  We paired this organizer with sentence frames that showed the word in use.

4-Square vocabulary graphic organizer, with squares for the noun, present tense, past tense, and present participle form.

Sentence frames and 4-square vocabulary graphic organizer, with squares for the noun, present tense, past tense, and present participle form.

A variation of this approach is the Frayer Model, which focuses more on full comprehension of the word rather than the word in use.

Screen Shot 2012-12-16 at 10.36.37 AM

The Frayer Model uses four boxes–definition, characteristics, examples, and non-examples–as a way to build a more thorough understanding of a vocabulary word.

Some important ideas to consider when working with academic vocabulary:

  • Choose high-leverage words (words that students will encounter frequently OR are key to understanding academic content) and use them frequently.
  • Teach them, practice them, refer back to them, make students use them!  It’s more effective to do a few words well than many words haphazardly.
  • Students must use the words themselves to internalize them.
  • Work with your grade level team and school to decide which words you will teach explicitly.  It’s important to have cohesion at a site and grade level so that students aren’t left with holes in their academic language.
  • Consider the forms of words as well as their definition if you want students to be able to use the words fluidly.

If you’re interested in a slideshow from Marzano that shows some alternate ways to work with students on academic vocabulary, view Vocabulary_Sketching.


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