CCSS: When Vocabulary Alone Isn’t Enough
I teach in a dual language elementary class where students learn in a language that is not their first. Teaching language and literacy—while simultaneously teaching content knowledge—is my daily reality. I know that I need to incorporate listening, speaking, reading, writing, and viewing into every lesson.
A few years ago, while training middle school teachers on highly effective teaching strategies for Language Learners, I stated, “We are all literacy teachers, no matter what subject we teach.” I could see surprise on some of the content teachers’ faces when they considered that idea. Now, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are asking all teachers to be strategic in teaching academic vocabulary across all subject areas.
The way that I understand academic vocabulary, as the CCSS outline, is that there are words that cross subject boundaries and can be applied in a variety of contexts. In my teaching context, I am very intentional when planning an instructional unit and even a lesson, about how I will focus on such words. I use Isabel Beck’s definitions of Tier 1, Tier 2, and Tier 3 words to help me identify which vocabulary I will teach directly, for which terms students can infer meaning based on context clues, and which words the students and I will ignore. This video, featuring CCSS contributing author David Coleman, offers a deeper explanation of the three tiers.
When deciding which I’ll teach, I take into consideration the levels of language acquisition represented in my class and which of the Tier 1, or basic, words are necessary for all students to understand in order to comprehend the main idea, or objective, of the lesson. Then, I identify the Tier 2 words that are necessary for students to process, discuss, or write about their ideas. (For instance, in order to write a text summary, students need to understand the word, “summary.”) Finally, I consider any content-specific words that will be necessary for their understanding during a unit of study. I use a template, created by a National Board Certified Teacher, Isis Albert, to help me categorize the words and plan for how I will teach them.
For example, I recently led a lesson about making inferences. Not only did my students come to understand the definition of the word, but they were also able to identify where in their lives they were making inferences about the world around them.
As I continue to refine my skill at teaching content vocabulary, I’ve found at least one Success at the Core Teacher Development video very helpful. In Using a Warm-Up to Review Content, teacher Chris Blea illustrates techniques that support students in learning academic vocabulary necessary to learn science concepts and communicate their understanding. At the beginning of the lesson, Chris identifies not only the content objective for the day’s lesson, but also the language objective in the form of focus vocabulary words. She then conducts a highly engaging warm up with the students using a fan car to demonstrate force. In their responses to the teacher’s questions, students practice using the new science vocabulary as they communicate their understanding of concepts. To reinforce students’ use of vocabulary, Chris encourages students’ choral calling of vocabulary and uses gesturing, non-example, and repetition. Chris understands that students need repeated practice with terminology in order to “own” new vocabulary words.
As a classroom teacher and instructional coach, I’m so glad that there are high quality examples like this one that show effective teaching of academic vocabulary, which yields higher academic achievement for all students – especially for English Language Learners and struggling learners.
What strategies for teaching academic vocabulary have you found effective? Is teaching academic vocabulary in a content area class a new idea for you, or is it old hat?