Common Core State Standards and the “Third” Language: The Importance of Building Students’ Academic Vocabulary Across Content

I have so many thoughts on academic vocabulary across the content commonly referred to as Content Area Literacy but I will try to offer some focused ideas and resources here today especially in light of the new Common Core State Standards conversion. For many students “academic” language is a second or even third language that they must learn in order to be successful readers and writers of content. Students need to not only remember and understand key concepts but also have a working understanding of what to do with the content. We often ask students to summarize or analyze but rarely do we spend time explicitly teaching them the moves of scholarship.

Teach Both Content and Academic Skill Words

Some of the big ideas here are that content area teachers (including us English folks) need to teach not just the tried and true vocabulary from the content often highlighted in the textbooks and lectures, but also on the words students need to know to work with (talk about, write about, take tests about, etc.) the content. These words are commonly known as academic skill words. Blooms taxonomy emphasizes these “skill” based words as essential to teaching and learning and Coxhead’s academic word list organizes many of these words for us by their frequency (see Resources). Expert Isabel Beck in her book, Bringing Words to Life even uses tiers to illustrate this concept. Basically you have the words that kids know, and the words they don’t know. From the words they don’t know we look at Content Words – graph, triangle, photosynthesis, metaphor, etc. and Academic Skill Words – summarize, describe, identify, explain, etc. See the t-chart that I often use with my students and at in-services with teachers below that further illustrates this point.

Students also need to not just memorize the definition of academic skill words but be provided models of what an analysis or summary looks like. The more we explicitly teach students the how, in context with the what, the more they will be successful with our content. This constant connection between reading and writing is cornerstone to academic language development.

We Can’t Teach Them All: Utilizing Criteria for Selecting What Vocabulary to Explicitly Teach

Another big idea is that teachers have little guidance about what words to teach outside of what the textbook offers or perhaps anticipating which words students won’t know. This is often a good start, but we have to be strategic especially when working with students who are below grade and/or are English learners. And when I say teach, I mean spending instructional minutes with students to help them understand a word. I usually brainstorm with teachers about how they go about choosing words to teach. Often they say “words students don’t know” or “words bolded in the textbook” or “I just teach words as I go and then put them on the test”. I use criteria for choosing words that keeps me focused and purposeful. I choose words that are key to comprehending the material, that are high utility words students will encounter and that will insure that students are successful with my assessment. Sometimes the words I need to teach are not in the text but essential conceptually to understanding or are those academic skill words I discussed earlier. A coherent focus on root words and affixes also really prepare students for content area learning and help students “chunk” words so they have a plan when tackling difficult words as the read more complex texts.

High Leverage Instructional Strategies

I usually recommend that teachers use lots of graphic organizers (vocab rating, concept diagram and knowledge charts that are included in my Strategy Toolkit). Students need multiple opportunities to visualize, write, and discuss key vocabulary. I also encourage teachers to have students sort, categorize and match vocabulary as much as possible. From my experience, having students engage in activities that develop their ability to categorize, make connections and comparisons independently really aids retention of essential vocabulary. I recently did a demo lesson using a word sort with very positive assessment results (even after a 3 day weekend). It really is powerful stuff.

Cultural Relevance

Using a personal dictionary and thesaurus where students have an opportunity to record and think about vocabulary in their own way on their own terms is also highly effective. It is essential to validate home language and culture by inviting students’ voices into the classroom and legitimizing this work through providing consistent academic routines that include their personal connection to the words they are learning while developing a strong awareness of the words they already know. Utilizing personal understandings and connections to home language and culture is an under-used valuable resource. I have done it successfully for years with my students and work closely with teachers to help them develop tools to help students create personal bridges to academic vocabulary. Through these personal bridges students can learn strategies to tackle new words independently when they encounter them.

Onwards and sideways.

Until next time.


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