It’s no secret that vocabulary (basic and academic) is a major predictor for student success. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m at a Title One school, or if it’s common everywhere, but academic vocabulary has always been one of my students’ greatest challenges. Academic vocabulary words are the words that are traditionally used in academic text, which are words that are not necessarily common in traditional literature. These words help students comprehend text across different content areas, especially social studies and science.
Fortunately, I’ve found a few resources that have completely transformed my vocabulary instruction. One resource is Bringing Words to Live, which focuses on all areas of vocabulary instruction, and the other is Marzano’s Building Academic Vocabulary, which focuses on content area vocabulary. One of the biggest takeaways from the book is that vocabulary instruction must be intentional, purposeful, and planned. Both books strongly emphasized that vocabulary instruction is NOT copying words from a dictionary or glossary. I won’t go into all of the details, but I do highly recommend both books.
Despite what I’d read and learned about academic vocabulary, I still felt that my students struggled with content area reading comprehension. I’ve experimented with a few different techniques and began reading about frontloading or preteaching vocabulary, which was highly recommended for ESL or ELL students. Frontloading vocabulary is a before-reading instructional strategy that allows students to improve their content area comprehension. Pre-teaching vocabulary doesn’t mean having kids look up definitions or other boring practices. Instead, introduce the words to students through photos, analogies, metaphors, and symbols. When you introduce the words give students time to discuss the words with partners (think/pair/share), small group, whole group. My teaching instinct said this was exactly what my students needed.
This leads me to my first step of social studies and science instruction-frontload vocabulary. Vocabulary instruction is the first step in each of my mini units. I am teaching essential vocabulary BEFORE we dive into truly learning the concepts and reading various texts.
Through the years, I’ve learned that I have to plan my vocabulary instruction and absolutely cannot wing it, or squeeze it in to my schedule. The first step in planning this academic vocabulary instruction is to use my mini units to create a list of academic vocabulary to be taught in social studies and science. Below you can see an example of my social studies and science vocabulary terms. You can click here for a PowerPoint version or here for a PDF version. Since our standards and students are so varied, you’ll have to find a way to plan that works for you. I like keeping everything in the same mini unit format, because it helps me as I plan my lessons.
I don’t think I can even count how many different approaches I’ve used to introducing, practicing, and reviewing vocabulary. One thing I’ve learned is to keep it simple. Whenever I try something elaborate or time consuming, I end up quitting by Halloween. My approach to teaching academic vocabulary is very basic and consists of three steps.
Step 1-Introduce vocabulary. During this time, it’s essential to keep students’ interest. I keep this portion of the lesson VERY brief, otherwise I lose my students’ attention. I present the word in an engaging way as possible, and then I give examples, pictures, symbols, synonyms, or examples of the word. I also allow my students to briefly discuss the word with a partner or a small group (who they sit with at their table). My favorite strategy is think, share, pair, because it’s so quick, easy, and effective. I also like The Science Penguin’s resource for introducing science vocabulary.
Step 2-Add the word to students’ interactive notebooks. I used to have a separate vocabulary folder and social studies/science interactive notebook, but that just confused my students. It’s much easier to just keep everything together in one place, so now I have my students add their vocabulary words to their interactive notebook. Since I’m limited on time, copies, and paper, I don’t print anything out for the vocabulary. I simply have students draw a version of the Frayer Model in their notebooks. We fit two boxes on one page, and we almost always add a definition, example, and picture. In the fourth block we may use synonym, antonym, non example, or sentence.
Step 3-Review with games. The first two steps should be short and sweet, and Step 3 is when the fun begins! Anyone who has taught more than a week or two knows that review is essential for students to be able to store and retrieve information from their short term and long term memory. Review shouldn’t be boring. It should be a part of the day or week students look forward to, rather than dread. I would like to insert a quickly disclaimer that this vocabulary review is all basic knowledge and vocabulary. This is not diving deep into curriculum and social studies and science concepts. However, it is giving students a basic knowledge base that will allow students to soon develop a deep understanding of those concepts.
I would suggest cycling through four games of your choice. Any more than that is hard to manage and create. Four is enough to keep games novel for students, and if the games lose their novelty, they lose their effectiveness. As you begin to plan your games and the terms reviewed in each game, you will need to decide if you only want to review the words in the particular unit you are studying or if you want your review to be a cumulative review. I personally like cumulative reviews, because I feel like it prevents students from forgetting some of the more difficult terms. At the beginning of the year, I usually incorporate some second grade grade vocabulary words into our games, because each of the games need 20-30 words.
I also like to display all of my essential science and social studies vocabulary on a work wall. I consolidate math, social studies, and science word walls into one large word wall. I’ve printed large letters that I display across the top of my word wall, and I hang brightly colored ribbon underneath each letter.
I’ve made a a version with a white background or a chalkboard background. I love the chalkboard version, but I definitely don’t like how much ink it uses!
I know it’s a lot, but this first step will make a tremendous impact in your science and social studies instruction. The next blog post will discuss how to actually present the content your students need to learn.