Build Students’ Ability to Access More Complex Texts across the Content Areas

In my November blog entry Using Text Evidence to Support Responses I address instructional Shift 4: Text Based Answers. This shift is one area we will need to address in order to deal with the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and attend to college and career readiness. I’ll continue that conversation by moving to Shift 5: Academic Vocabulary. The shift requires teachers to provide opportunity for students to build their vocabulary in order to access grade level complex texts in and out of the ELA classroom.

janetWhy teach vocabulary? Janet Allen, in her book “Inside Words: Tools for Teaching Academic Vocabulary Grades 4-12”, remarks:

“People’s knowledge of any topic is encapsulated in the terms they know that are relevant to the topic. The more students understand these terms, the easier it is for them to understand information they may read or hear from the topic. The more terms a person knows about a given subject, the easier it is to understand-and learn-new information related to that subject.”

As part of EngageNY’s video series around instructional shifts resulting from the CCSS, Senior Fellow for Educator Engagement & The Common Core Kate Gersen, New York State Commissioner of Education John B. King, Jr. and Common Core Contributing Author David Coleman discuss what this shift means at the classroom level:

SHIFT 6: Academic Vocabulary from EngageNY on Vimeo.

Instructional Shift 5: Academic Vocabulary

tiersReferenced in this video are Isabel Beck’s tiers of vocabulary. Tier 1 words are primary vocabulary words that usually have one meaning (e.g. apple, kitchen, turtle). Tier 2 words are high frequency words that have multiple meanings and are used across contents. These are words that will aid students with reading comprehension and in conversational and written language skills (e.g. democracy, industrious, fortuitous). Tier 3 words are less frequent and are more specific to a content, trade, occupation, hobby, etc. Examples of these words include isotope, filibuster, and arabesque.

How do you decide which words to teach? Let’s practice. Select a body of informational or literary text you and your students will be reading in an upcoming unit. Next, follow these directions:

• List all the words that are likely to be unfamiliar to students.

  • Analyze the word list. Which words should be categorized as Tier Two words? Which of the Tier Two words are most necessary for comprehension? Are there other words not explicitly embedded but needed for comprehension? Which ones?

• On the basis of your analysis, which words will you teach?
• Which will need only brief attention?
• To which will you give more elaborate attention?

We want students to be able to “interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific words choices shape meaning or tone” on their own. How can we build this capacity in our students? What strategies do we know help students develop these vocabulary skills?

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