One of the biggest predictors of student achievement is their breadth of vocabulary knowledge! Children entering kindergarten with few literacy experiences such as books in the home or having been read to or talked with know and use many fewer words than their classmates who have enjoyed multiple literacy experiences. This vocabulary gap continues to grow throughout school unless curriculum and instruction explicitly address vocabulary acquisition.
Do you realize that it takes 15-30 encounters with a new word before most of us really internalize the word? What do I mean by internalize?
- Use correctly in written and spoken language.
- Understand its denotations, connotations and how context can change its meaning.
- Comprehend its meaning when we read it or hear it.
- Recognize examples in real life.
Middle grades teams are in the perfect position to provide 15-30 meaningful encounters because teachers can collaborate throughout the day and across the curriculum. Someone is thinking right now—isn’t that the language arts teacher’s job? Yes and No–It’s everyone’s job and here’s why! Reading comprehension in ALL subject areas is affected by a student’s command of “academic words”. Academic words, sometimes called Tier 2 words, are found more in written language than in conversations and are sophisticated synonyms for commonly known words (e.g. leery for suspicious). These words are in textbooks and newspapers, online, and used in the media. Without a broad academic vocabulary, students will have difficulty understanding text even if they have learned content-specific vocabulary. This comprehension issue is a powerful reason to work together as a team to build vocabulary.
Here is a strategy teams can use. Each week during common planning time identify 3 academic words (remember these are not content-specific words like isotope or tetrahedron or butte) that the team will teach in a collaborative manner. Find a list of academic vocabulary at
Or, look through your texts and identify words you anticipate might cause your students some problems. Then decide which of you will explicitly teach the word and how everyone will find ways to use the words in their instruction. Here are some ideas:
- Concept maps like the Frayer Model (http://www.longwood.edu/staff/jonescd/projects/educ530/aboxley/graphicorg/fraym.htm)
- Concept circles (http://4sbccfaculty.sbcc.edu/lessons/success/vocabulary/vocab_r.htm)
- Homeroom contests using words in limericks, short poems, raps, & song lyrics
- Word walls (http://www.educationworld.com/a_lesson/lesson/lesson328.shtml)
- Using the word when teaching; be sure to mention you are using a word of the week or make it a contest for kids to catch you using these words
- Student made posters
- Students using words in their writing
Please notice that nowhere do I suggest you ask the students to look up the word and use it in a sentence. This strategy is probably the least effective way to help students build their vocabulary knowledge.
Last word—be playful with word acquisition. Avoid at all costs of making it tedious and full of drudgery.
Teaming Rocks! Collaborate in Powerful Ways to Ensure Student Success has an entire chapter on ways teams can collaborate to address the vocabulary gap. For additional information about vocabulary instruction, check out the work of Janet Allen, Isabel Beck, Kate Kinsella, & Robert Marzano.