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September 16, 2016

Content Area Literacy: Focusing on Vocabulary

By John DePasquale
Grades 3–5, 6–8

    I remember being a student and starting every new chapter of my seventh grade science textbook by copying into my notebook a long list of mostly unknown vocabulary words that seemed to me as if they were written in a foreign language. My teacher expected me to know and understand these words simply by writing them multiple times and memorizing their definitions. I was able to commit some to memory, but it eventually got to the point when the number of words I was required to know became completely overwhelming. It’s possible that I learned a few of these words in the short-term, but I’m fairly certain I forgot them once I moved on to the next chapter in my textbook. I realized, even then, that merely copying and memorizing these content-specific vocabulary words didn’t work for me.

    My experience as a student was decades ago, but it shapes how I think today about teaching content-specific vocabulary as a middle school teacher. I now know students are more likely to learn, apply, and transfer their understanding of these important words if they interact with and use them in a variety of ways. 

     

    Comprehension and Content-Specific Vocabulary

    Words are powerful and words have meaning.

    I usually say this to my students to remind them to be kind and to say the right thing, but this same maxim helps to explain the value of vocabulary instruction. Since the meaning of written language is built on the words used, there is a direct correlation between vocabulary instruction and reading comprehension. I encourage my students to think of the vocabulary words we study as keys they can use to unlock the meaning of a complicated text. This key analogy is especially true for the domain-specific vocabulary found in the complex nonfiction texts middle school students encounter in their social studies, science, and math classes.  

    My school, like many middle schools, is departmentalized into academic subjects, but that doesn't prevent teachers from working together to share strategies and ideas that promote literacy practices across academic disciplines. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share my experiences teaching vocabulary as a reading teacher with the other teachers at my school and with you here. 

     

    Selecting The ‘Right’ Words

    After identifying a content specific text for my students to read, I make a list of the different words my students will need to know to fully comprehend what they read. It’s important my students have the appropriate tools they need as they read, but selecting the "right" words to teach can be a daunting task because it’s not always clear to know which words to choose. To demystify this process, Elfrieda Hiebert, a researcher, describes three criteria to determine the best words to select for vocabulary instruction:

    • words students need to completely comprehend a text

    • words students will probably come across in other texts and in other disciplines

    • words that include common roots or other word parts that students will likely encounter in other words

    Additionally, in Bringing Words to Life, Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan use a three-tiered framework to identify words students should be taught. According to the authors, these three tiers include:

    • Tier 1: high-frequency basic vocabulary words that are familiar to most students (happy, sound, ran)

    • Tier 2: high-utility academic vocabulary words that are found across content areas (consecutive, depict, procedure)

    • Tier 3: low-frequency domain specific words (photosynthesis, prime number, onomatopoeia)

    Since students typically recognize tier 1 words when they are used in a text, there is little value in explicitly teaching these words. It’s worth noting, however, that tier 1 words are not the same for all students in a class. They can differ because of learning differences and the various levels of English language proficiency that may exist in a class. As a result, teachers should tailor the instruction of tier 1 words to meet the particular needs of their students when they encounter these words in texts. 

    Although some content area teachers may feel inclined to focus their vocabulary instruction solely on tier 3 words, tier 2 words should also be taught across content areas to maximize the exposure students have to these highly useful and transferable words. 

    I recommend Academic Word Finder as a tool to identify the tier 2 words that are used in a particular content-specific text. Simply select a grade level and paste the text into the online tool to generate a list of tier 2 words and definitions in the text.     

    Selecting a mix of the most appropriate tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary words for a content-specific text does take additional planning time, but I think this time is well spent because these are the words that will help my students better comprehend what they read. 

     

    The Frayer Model

    I use the Frayer Model as a strategy to develop my students’ understanding of content specific vocabulary. The Frayer Model is a graphic organizer that encourages students to analyze and apply key vocabulary and terms in a variety of ways. The Frayer Model includes four basic sections that are used for each vocabulary word:

    • definition

    • characteristics

    • examples

    • non-examples

    Through the Frayer Model, students analyze new vocabulary by considering a word’s definition and characteristics. Students then apply this understanding by determining examples and non-examples of a word from their own lives and experiences. 

    For a lesson plan and template for the Frayer Model, just head over to Scholastic Printables.       

    I modified this basic structure by adding a section to the graphic organizer for my students to write a contextual sentence that includes the word. I also provide my students with the option to draw an illustration or symbol that represents the word. 

    I’m sharing a link to this modified Frayer Model that you can download and edit to include the vocabulary words for your class.

       

    For additional information and to see content-specific examples of the Frayer Model, I recommend visiting this Prezi developed by Carolyn Michaelis Berard.

     

    Additional Vocabulary Resources

    From blog posts to professional books, here are additional resources for you to explore: 

    Vocabulary Development: Everything You Need

    Blog Posts

    "Fun and Easy Vocabulary Activities" by Rhonda Stewart

    "The Vocabulary Parade: A Better Reason to Dress Up" by Alycia Zimmerman

    Professional Books

    Vocabulary Games for Any Word List

    Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math by Laura Robb

    The Next Step in Vocabulary Instruction by Karen Bromley

     


    As a reminder, Scholastic News is still accepting applications for new kid reporters to join Scholastic Kids Press Corps. Time, however, is running out for students interested in applying because Scholastic Kids Press Corps Applications must be postmarked by September 23, 2016.

     

     

    You can follow me on Twitter @johndepasquale_.

    I remember being a student and starting every new chapter of my seventh grade science textbook by copying into my notebook a long list of mostly unknown vocabulary words that seemed to me as if they were written in a foreign language. My teacher expected me to know and understand these words simply by writing them multiple times and memorizing their definitions. I was able to commit some to memory, but it eventually got to the point when the number of words I was required to know became completely overwhelming. It’s possible that I learned a few of these words in the short-term, but I’m fairly certain I forgot them once I moved on to the next chapter in my textbook. I realized, even then, that merely copying and memorizing these content-specific vocabulary words didn’t work for me.

    My experience as a student was decades ago, but it shapes how I think today about teaching content-specific vocabulary as a middle school teacher. I now know students are more likely to learn, apply, and transfer their understanding of these important words if they interact with and use them in a variety of ways. 

     

    Comprehension and Content-Specific Vocabulary

    Words are powerful and words have meaning.

    I usually say this to my students to remind them to be kind and to say the right thing, but this same maxim helps to explain the value of vocabulary instruction. Since the meaning of written language is built on the words used, there is a direct correlation between vocabulary instruction and reading comprehension. I encourage my students to think of the vocabulary words we study as keys they can use to unlock the meaning of a complicated text. This key analogy is especially true for the domain-specific vocabulary found in the complex nonfiction texts middle school students encounter in their social studies, science, and math classes.  

    My school, like many middle schools, is departmentalized into academic subjects, but that doesn't prevent teachers from working together to share strategies and ideas that promote literacy practices across academic disciplines. I’m grateful to have the opportunity to share my experiences teaching vocabulary as a reading teacher with the other teachers at my school and with you here. 

     

    Selecting The ‘Right’ Words

    After identifying a content specific text for my students to read, I make a list of the different words my students will need to know to fully comprehend what they read. It’s important my students have the appropriate tools they need as they read, but selecting the "right" words to teach can be a daunting task because it’s not always clear to know which words to choose. To demystify this process, Elfrieda Hiebert, a researcher, describes three criteria to determine the best words to select for vocabulary instruction:

    • words students need to completely comprehend a text

    • words students will probably come across in other texts and in other disciplines

    • words that include common roots or other word parts that students will likely encounter in other words

    Additionally, in Bringing Words to Life, Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan use a three-tiered framework to identify words students should be taught. According to the authors, these three tiers include:

    • Tier 1: high-frequency basic vocabulary words that are familiar to most students (happy, sound, ran)

    • Tier 2: high-utility academic vocabulary words that are found across content areas (consecutive, depict, procedure)

    • Tier 3: low-frequency domain specific words (photosynthesis, prime number, onomatopoeia)

    Since students typically recognize tier 1 words when they are used in a text, there is little value in explicitly teaching these words. It’s worth noting, however, that tier 1 words are not the same for all students in a class. They can differ because of learning differences and the various levels of English language proficiency that may exist in a class. As a result, teachers should tailor the instruction of tier 1 words to meet the particular needs of their students when they encounter these words in texts. 

    Although some content area teachers may feel inclined to focus their vocabulary instruction solely on tier 3 words, tier 2 words should also be taught across content areas to maximize the exposure students have to these highly useful and transferable words. 

    I recommend Academic Word Finder as a tool to identify the tier 2 words that are used in a particular content-specific text. Simply select a grade level and paste the text into the online tool to generate a list of tier 2 words and definitions in the text.     

    Selecting a mix of the most appropriate tier 2 and tier 3 vocabulary words for a content-specific text does take additional planning time, but I think this time is well spent because these are the words that will help my students better comprehend what they read. 

     

    The Frayer Model

    I use the Frayer Model as a strategy to develop my students’ understanding of content specific vocabulary. The Frayer Model is a graphic organizer that encourages students to analyze and apply key vocabulary and terms in a variety of ways. The Frayer Model includes four basic sections that are used for each vocabulary word:

    • definition

    • characteristics

    • examples

    • non-examples

    Through the Frayer Model, students analyze new vocabulary by considering a word’s definition and characteristics. Students then apply this understanding by determining examples and non-examples of a word from their own lives and experiences. 

    For a lesson plan and template for the Frayer Model, just head over to Scholastic Printables.       

    I modified this basic structure by adding a section to the graphic organizer for my students to write a contextual sentence that includes the word. I also provide my students with the option to draw an illustration or symbol that represents the word. 

    I’m sharing a link to this modified Frayer Model that you can download and edit to include the vocabulary words for your class.

       

    For additional information and to see content-specific examples of the Frayer Model, I recommend visiting this Prezi developed by Carolyn Michaelis Berard.

     

    Additional Vocabulary Resources

    From blog posts to professional books, here are additional resources for you to explore: 

    Vocabulary Development: Everything You Need

    Blog Posts

    "Fun and Easy Vocabulary Activities" by Rhonda Stewart

    "The Vocabulary Parade: A Better Reason to Dress Up" by Alycia Zimmerman

    Professional Books

    Vocabulary Games for Any Word List

    Teaching Reading in Social Studies, Science, and Math by Laura Robb

    The Next Step in Vocabulary Instruction by Karen Bromley

     


    As a reminder, Scholastic News is still accepting applications for new kid reporters to join Scholastic Kids Press Corps. Time, however, is running out for students interested in applying because Scholastic Kids Press Corps Applications must be postmarked by September 23, 2016.

     

     

    You can follow me on Twitter @johndepasquale_.

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