Teaching Critical Vocabulary


Middle and high school teachers are embracing deeper reading in their classes, as required by the Common Core State Standards. They accept the literacy premise that students need to build background knowledge in order to comprehend, analyze, and synthesize information. Frustration quickly ensues, however, if students are unprepared to persevere through complex texts, and many teachers are still learning how to help students navigate such tasks.

The old method of listing vocabulary words on the board and having students look up formal definitions might have sufficed when learning expectations ended with a fill in the blank or matching assessment. Deeper thought and application of certain content was once considered something that only a few advanced students needed. Today’s expectations of teaching critical thinking and problem-solving to all students requires a new paradigm of words: Words are not merely words. Words represent concepts, and therefore are inexplicably connected to a student’s ability to comprehend, analyze, and use significant content in a variety of ways.

Savvy teachers help students navigate complex texts by planning vocabulary learning.

Savvy teachers help students navigate complex texts by teaching word solving

Helpful constructs have emerged for teachers who are making the shift into using complex texts to develop their students’ skills. Many are familiar with the tiered system of organizing words, which helps sort words by the degree of familiarity they represent, and by the extent to which they are specific to content or general across all areas.

A similar structure comes from Richard and Jo Ann Vacca, who categorize words either as generalized, specialized, or technical. Similar to the 3 tiers, this system emphasizes that specialized words require the most careful instruction, as they are used in many ways and contain multiple meanings.

Consider the sentence, “Bob returned to the dugout from the mound, resigned to having an ‘off’ night.” Students lacking in awareness of multiple uses of the word resigned might be confused about the particular meaning in this context. Additionally, dugout and mound would be recognized by many as baseball terms, but not everyone would know them. Teachers who know how to identify and plan multiple exposures to general words, and contextual learning with specialized words, are able to help certain students, especially ELL or others who might lack multiple experiences with them.

In their book, In a Reading State of Mind, Fisher, Frey, and Lapp outlined an excellent chapter on planning mindfully for vocabulary learning.  One of their most helpful tips is to consider the three most common mistakes in teaching vocabulary:

  1. Choosing the big words.
  2. Choosing too many words.
  3. Overlooking the little words.

What matters is that students are supported as they tackle texts, grapple with the ideas and details of the issue, concept, or illustration. Teachers must focus students on the purpose for reading, and plan vocabulary instruction in a way that directly supports that purpose and content. As the authors point out, knowledge of “photosynthesis”, a tier 3 word, will hardly be complete if the student does not understand “process”, a tier 2 word.

There are accessible, proven strategies for teaching critical vocabulary. Now we have the context and structures for informing the use of those strategies. Check out Part 2 in a few weeks as we address specific strategies that work.

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