Not Your Mother’s Vocabulary List

In the previously published blog titled, Teaching Critical Vocabulary, I outlined a simple way of thinking about changing the way teachers traditionally approach vocabulary instruction in all content areas, starting with careful selection of words with which students will work in each class.

There are many excellent online resources offering specific vocabulary strategies that meaningfully engage students once those words are selected. Specific content-related information can be found on professional sites and blogs, while many sources outline Marzano’s six steps for teaching new terms.


For the teacher who has not yet moved beyond isolated strategy implementation, here are some not-so-out-of-the-box questions to consider once you have selected the terms which are most critical to students’ knowledge and application of content. You might notice that vocabulary instruction looks much like regular instruction, except there is time built in for word talk.

  • How can you use multiple types of text, images, videos, audio, scenarios, or movement to engage students in peer discussion about a concept that you are teaching?

Example: In teaching basic energy consumption information, you might ask students to pair and brainstorm ways that they consume energy each day, rating the ones they use the most. Then engage them in watching a video or analyzing a scenario as a group to look for energy sources and consumption they hadn’t thought about, and have them add to their list. You might introduce a layer of knowledge here, such as forms of energy and sources. Put students in charge of the discussion about energy consumption rather than you leading it. Once they are into the subject, ask them to define it in their own words and to complete a list of questions they have about the topic

  • As students work through an engaging question or investigation, how can you facilitate academic dialogue that deepens their content understanding?

Students’ questions will take them into many aspects of the topic, including personal application. They might work through lessons on how reading meters, analyzing energy guides, and measuring effectiveness of heating and cooling systems can impact energy decisions. They might wonder, more globally, how the video game explosion has affected energy consumption. As they work through their questions, have them monitor their vocabulary learning in a simple format by listing related words into “I need to learn more about this word” to “I know what this word means”. Allow them to discuss and help each other move their words into the “I know” column.  Use this information as formative assessment and discuss their thoughts with them.

  •  How can you apply brain research to maximize class time spent on vocabulary?

One way is to have students cluster related words to maximize the brain’s need to make meaning of new learning, and allow common words to mix with more challenging ones. While learning about energy consumption, for example, students will no doubt build on and between the meanings of terms like meter, insulation, electricity, coal, natural gas, ceiling fan, thermostat, and maintenance.

text complexity2Self-created lists of challenging words, as science teacher Sheila Banks demonstrates, motivate students to drive their learning. Pair students so that they can expand their cluster of words and explain their rationale for including certain words in their bundle.

Simply stated, the more teachers view vocabulary learning as an integral part of content learning rather than as an extra, isolated step in instruction, the more effectively their students will be able to use the language of the discipline.

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