When I was a teenager, I attended a boarding school in Denmark. I did not speak Danish, and I vividly recall the confusion and isolation I felt as a result. I had no idea what people were saying and was unable to decipher the written language around me. It was frustrating not having the words necessary to communicate with others. In time, as I began to develop Danish vocabulary, I was able to string words together in grammatically incorrect sentences. As I gradually became more comfortable with the language, I became an active member of the school community and culture.
I often remember my experience in Denmark when I notice students who appear to feel just as isolated in their classrooms, as if they don’t know the language. Learning, using, and remembering vocabulary is critical in all content areas so that students become more comfortable and open to learning. Vocabulary helps us comprehend what we are reading, helps us write to learn and demonstrate learning, and provides us with language to engage in conversation with teachers and peers. Vocabulary work helps students build background knowledge in all content areas.
Students in middle and high school are positively overloaded with vocabulary. As text books get bigger and college preparatory requirements increase, the amount of content-specific language that students have to manage is immense. Of course, the arts disciplines are no exception. Students often feel overwhelmed in the arts and humanities classrooms because the vocabulary is a mixed bag of words derived from other languages that seem simple but have substantial weight when considered in context or words that cross disciplines with similar, but nuanced meanings in each content area.
It’s worth noting that the Lexile© readability index for the content-specific reading that students are required to do in the arts disciplines has a similar scope and difficulty rating as science and social studies. The challenge with this subdomain comes in engaging students with the impressive list of content terms and providing systems for managing them. How do we feasibly integrate vocabulary routines when we barely have time to teach content and still get supplies back in place before the next group of students file in?