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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?

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20 Responses to CCSS: When Vocabulary Alone Isn’t Enough

  1. Erin says:

    I still encounter these issues in my university writing and rhetoric classes. While college students are native visual and textual rhetoric users, they often miss opportunities to incorporate rhetorical vocabulary in written analyses. It seems some of these teaching strategies could be carried through into higher education.

    • Tyler Rice says:


      You make a good point. Higher education can benefit from pedagogical improvement too. We have all had terrible college classes where professors did noting but lecture, test, repeat.

      There has been much talk recently of increasing college dropout rates as more diverse populations of students enter college. Lessons were are learning now in K-12 can certainly benefit higher education.

      All grade levels K-16 can do a better job of supporting students in building background knowledge and increasing students’s foundation of academic vocabulary.

  2. Tyler Rice says:


    I think “regular” education classes have much to learn from dual language and ELL teachers. These teachers are certainly ahead of the curve in methods of increasing background knowledge and using that background knowledge to scaffold vocabulary building.

    I have made an effort to teach academic vocabulary in my science classes when applicable. One thing I like to do with my students is to teach Latin and Greek roots of words that we encounter regularly. For many of my students who are native Spanish speakers or come from homes where Spanish is commonly spoken, they can see the connections between Latin and Spanish.

    For example, I do this when teaching the word manipulate (which is both a science term and a form of general academic vocabulary). I explain that the Latin root of manipulate is “man-,” which means “hand.” I then connect this to the Spanish noun for hand, mano. After a quick discussion about how this reflects the meaning of manipulate, students usually remember this word.

  3. Heather Byington says:

    Tyler, it sounds like your teaching of the root word in manipulate and pointing out the similarity to Spanish is highly effective with your population of students. I try to point out cognates, words that are similar in English and Spanish, as often as possible. I wonder, do you use a gesture that relates to “hand” when you teach the root word mano? I frequently use gesturing when teaching my students vocabulary and have them mimic the gestures anytime we encounter the words in class. This is a multimodal way of helping students retain new words. Thank you for your valuable comments!

    • Tyler says:

      You know, I do tend to gesture (hold up my hand and point to it) when I teach this but I don’t know that I thought of it as a strategy. I just tend to talk with my hands a lot!

      My current population of students is approximately 85% Latino and a large portion (maybe even a majority) of these kids come from homes where Spanish is spoken at least part of the time. I’m definitely on the lookout for more strategies to support my student population effectively!

      Ironically, we just talked about cognates in our teacher professional development today!

    • Andrea Brixey says:

      Heather–in your district, have you found that the time you spend on vocabulary affects the performance of your ELL students? Do you all have data that suggests it helps to close the achievement gap? We are starting to really focus on that at my school and looking for every “magic bullet” we can find to slay that gap. Thanks for the excellent instructional reference.

      • Heather Byington says:

        A resounding YES to your question about whether time spent on developing academic vocabulary impacts student achievement. I have several anecdotal examples as well as evidence from classroom based and Benchmark assessments. One brief example- currently, one of the math standards for fourth grade states that students will find the median, mode, and range for a set of numbers. The 4th grade teachers taught our students an engaging song for each of the terms that included instructions on what to do for each math application. We sang the songs during our warm up everyday. Our students, a high poverty and ELL population, aced that portion of the test, while on other portions, they didn’t do as well. I’ve seen this over and over with my students in all of the subject areas.

      • Judy Serrano says:

        Heathe and Andrea,
        I found this article relating to the importance of vocabulary. Here is the link:


  4. deb gribskov says:

    I have watched this teacher development video many times, and am constantly amazed at the skill this teacher uses in reviewing the key vocabulary her students need to be successful in this science unit. Showing my teachers this video when we are working on vocabulary development lets them not just “see” but almost “feel” how to engage students in this earning. The video teacher is energetic, focused and draws her students (and her viewers) into the learning. A great “moment” in learning made accessible, and fun!

  5. Marianella says:

    Heather, I just want to thank you for sharing classroom experiences through comments or videos. I am using Tier 1, Tier 2 and tier 3 in my daily lessons taking into account my students’ language acquisition levels as well.Definately , I agree with you that we need to use basic words that are necessary for all our students to comprehend the objective of the lesson but teaching tier 2 and tier 3 is a challenge for our students. We as teachers need to be very intentional and stratigic, focusing more on teaching them.These two levels help our students to process the content through engaged group discussions or writing activities.I think Chris video was fantastic. It clearly explained how she integrated Content objective and language objective in a lesson.I learned from this video….The more they see, repeat and use the words, the more they will understand and think about it.

    • Heather Byington says:

      Absolutely! Repeated practice of vocabulary by using words in speaking or writing is essential for students to “own” the words. What tools do you use to strategically plan which tier 1, 2, and 3 words you’ll teach?

      • Tim Rector says:

        I like to use the 4 square dictionary to teach Tier 1 words because they can use different domains. They can visualize it with a picture, they write the word and a sentence. Then, they read them to a partner or visaversa. I also use the CCD (Cognitive Content Dictionary)to teach Tier 2 and 3 words. Later , I incorporate those words in songs, chants, Input and narrative charts, so they can reapeat the words and apply them in different ways.

  6. Tim Rector says:

    This is a very good example of how important is teaching academic terms to our students. This will help them to improve their reading scores and their understanding in reading texts books. This will also prepare them in their college carreer.


  7. I have found that a good vocabulary plan as pointed to already is consistency, repetition, and exposure. My Book Nook was always filled with vocabulary rich no fiction books and the story time, grade curriculum, and library time was geared toward fantasy and fiction. Most students will end up reading, in the functional world, way more nonfiction so they need to understand these terms, especially how interdisciplinary science terms are with other genres and areas they currently excel in.

  8. Heather Byington says:

    Interesting point, Jessica, about making sure there is a solid representation of various non-fiction books in the classroom library. Are there certain books from different publishers that you felt drew students to them more effectively? To which NF books do your students seem to gravitate most? Does it seem to depend more on their personal interests or on what they’ve been studying in the classroom?

  9. Deb Gribskov says:

    I, too, believe vocabulary is very important, because ultimately UNDERSTANDING is very important. As a math teacher, I kept a huge dictionary at the front and back of my room (courtesy my school library). The first days of school students always thought that was “funny”, a math teacher with a dictionary. But they was in constant use, a resource for understanding what a word meant, where it came from, and similar words. Finding all those “hooks” helped students make meaning rather than just memorize the definition. Communication – written and oral – is so important. Watch any of the teacher development videos and see how those teachers guide their students to understand and make meaning of their learning.

    • Heather Byington says:

      I love the idea of a math teacher with a dictionary in class. Thank you for pointing out that meaning making is the key and oral and written communication is essential for that to happen. So true!

  10. Hallie F. says:

    I loved your idea of using backward planning to plan lessons. That’s exactly what I heard at WABE this weekend from the keynote speakers. Looking ahead and addressing the students’ needs beforehand is a powerful tool. I found the sheet from Isis very helpful as well. That is a wonderful tool that I will share with colleagues. I also like to plan vocabulary instruction according to the Tiers. Doing this also helps with planning.

  11. Karen Berg says:

    Thanks for the unit template. You and Isis are amazing. We are lucky to have you at Evergreen:)

  12. Jeanne Korver says:

    Heather, thanks for the article to remind us to intentionally plan for vocabulary teaching from all the tiers. In my setting, with so many children needing lots of practice in tier 1 vocabulary, I need to remember to to carefully plan to introduce the higher level words in ways the children can grasp.

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