FAQ: How do you teach content-area vocabulary?
ANSWER: Back in the day, vocabulary study used to follow a set pattern–a list of 10-20 words a week that each required a dictionary/glossary definition and a sentence using the term. After a little discussion and maybe some matching games, the teacher would administer a test over the terms at the end of the week.
Unfortunately, with that type of study, many of those words were forgotten over the weekend because students knew that they would inherit a new list of 10-20 words come Monday morning.
This cycle produced little retention. Today, with all the educational research on effective vocabulary study, it makes sense that students didn’t remember the words and their definitions for long.
Understanding the Research
To truly master any term, students require repeated exposure to the word”s meaning over a long period of time. Various research studies (with different grade levels, subject areas, and different vocabulary terms) have made claims of the number of repetitions needed to stick words in memory. Some studies reference as few as four exposures, but most claim it takes about 12 repetitions. This level of vocabulary knowledge is not accomplished in a week or a single unit of study. Rather, it will require getting to know each word deeply over months.
That said, it quickly becomes apparent for the classroom teacher that not all terms can be given the same amount of attention. This is the reason for “core academic vocabulary.”
Teachers need to identify the 30 most essential terms within each academic subject for their grade level. They need to determine which words are worth a dozen or more exposures. These won’t necessarily be the “bold words” in the chapter. Rather these are the terms that come up all year long and give students the best chance of academic success.
Identifying Core Words
To go about identifying your core set of 30 terms utilize these steps:
- Base your process on your grade-level specifics.
- Elementary teachers: Identify ONE content area to start with (e.g. math).
- Secondary teachers: Identify ONE course to start with (e.g. algebra).
- Using standards (and referencing standardized tests, textbooks, curriculum maps, etc.), make a list of essential terms that students will utilize throughout the school year and thus have high-utility.
- It’s likely the list will initially include more than 30 terms. So, look to edit the list by separating the “need-to-know” words from the “nice-to-know” terms.
- Use these Publisher files to help you organize your word lists:
NOTE: It’s not that you would only teach 30 words all year. In fact, you can teach as many words as you want per chapter or unit, but what are the 30 concept words that run the gamut of the school year and are a part of most/all chapters? These are what you will dub your “core words.” The other words would still be taught, but because they wouldn’t get as much depth and attention as the core terms, it’s unlikely that the majority of your students will retain all these words and their meanings.
Once the list is determined, plan to slowly add these words within your classroom environment. Build a categorized word bank (not an alphabetized word wall). The more students see the terms, the more apt they are to reference them in class discussions. Remember, students need numerous experiences with a word before they have “mastered” it.