Choosing the Right Academic Vocabulary to Teach
Have you ever wondered how to select the right academic vocabulary to teach? While most teachers may agree that teaching academic vocabulary is very important to improve student’s academic success (Marzano & Pickering, 2006), they may also agree with the fact that choosing the right academic vocabulary to teach is a challenge. However, it is possible and here is how. Analyze the language used to describe the learning skill and pull the vocabulary words from this description (Backet et al. 2014), sort these words into categories (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002), and select the teaching strategies and activities that best facilitate learning the chosen words (Marzano, 2004).
The right academic vocabulary to teach comes from a learning standard
Each learning standard has a specific set of vocabulary that students must master to acquire the expected knowledge. The description of the learning standard displays these terms. As an example, we will review the Texas Education Knowledge Standard (TEKS) 5.7 (B). Changes in Landforms from Weathering and Erosion:
(5.7) Earth and space. The student knows Earth’s surface is constantly changing and consists of useful resources. The student is expected to: (B) recognize how landforms such as deltas, canyons, and sand dunes are the result of changes to Earth’s surface by wind, water, or ice.
The vocabulary words described in this standard are:
Landforms, deltas, canyons, sand, dunes, change, Earth, surface, wind, water, and ice.
The implicit, or not stated, language in the description of the standard may include the following words:
Rock, process, weathering, transportation, sedimentation, gravity, and erosion.
Sorting vocabulary into categories
Classifying the words into particular categories or tiers is helpful to target student’s specific needs. In the book Bringing Words to Life, Beck, McKeown, & Kucan classified the academic vocabulary in three tiers. Tier 1 words are common to the oral language. We often learn them at an early age. While Tier 1 words may be easy for native English students, they are not so easy for newcomer students. Tier 2 words are terms that may have multiple meanings depending on the content area in which we use them. We find them in high-frequency or sight words lists, books and textbooks across content areas.
These are the words our students need to access the curriculum; thus, the words to teach. Tier 3 words are specific to a discipline or a particular content area (Staehr & Sneider, 2017). We listed the vocabulary words above. Now we will sort the words into tiers or categories:
Tier 1: wind, water, ice, sand, Earth
Tier 2: landforms, deltas, canyons, dunes, transportation, sedimentation, gravity, erosion
Tier 3: weathering
Once we have these words categorized, we need to identify good strategies to teach them. We also need to keep in mind that newcomer students and English learners may need support with Tier 1 and Tier 2 words as well.
Choosing an effective vocabulary-teaching strategy
In determining the right tools to teach vocabulary it is good to have one thing clear, strategies alone do not produce success. It is the teacher’s consistency and a structured routine that makes any plan produce results. While seasoned teachers may have the experience and ability to integrate a broad variety of strategies to enhance their vocabulary lessons, new teachers may have better results if they commit to a simple routine. With this in mind, a simple method like the six-steps process introduced by Marzano (2004) combined with a few strategies may be sufficient for a novice teacher to succeed.
The Six-Steps Process for Direct Vocabulary Instruction:
1. The teacher describes the vocabulary words.
2. The students use their own words to write a simplified description of the meaning of the term.
3. The students represent vocabulary using non-linguistic representations including pictures, models or symbols.
4. As part of classroom activities and homework, the students review and use the words to produce sentences and convey meaning.
5. The students interact with the words in the classroom trough conversations and various activities. The teacher provides sentence stems and other resources to foster discussions.
6. The student applies vocabulary terms in word games.
Steps 2, 3 and 4 include writing activities. These are some examples of effective strategies teachers may want to consider:
1. Frayer model
Steps 5 and 6 include oral activities. These are some examples of activities to consider:
1. Word games
Students who have many opportunities to interact and produce knowledge with the words they are learning in class will store these words in their long-term memory. For this reason, once these words are part of the student’s long-term memory, these words may be retrieved and used at any time (Auer & Hartill, 2014). All in all, choosing the right vocabulary and providing children with meaningful, structured, and frequent opportunities to interact with academic language improves the student’s ability to achieve academic success. Provided that, keep this idea in mind when choosing your future training sessions and workshops.