Academic Vocabulary: Powerful Planning for Embedding Words and Language Into Content-Area Instruction
By Sue Larson, Judson University
The Common Core State Standards have brought about a renewed emphasis on integrating literacy instruction--reading, writing, listening, speaking, and language--particularly in the content areas (NGA, 2010). Thanks to the Next Generation Science Standards, teachers are additionally asked to engage students in the scientific practices of obtaining, evaluating, and communicating information; asking questions; engaging in argument from evidence; analyzing and interpreting data; carrying out investigations; using computer technology; and constructing explanations (Achieve, 2013).
All of these practices require the use of specialized vocabulary and academic language to learn content in the classroom. This is called a disciplinary literacy approach, in which the reading, writing, language, and practices that are distinct to a subject area are emphasized to facilitate learning.
Vygotsky (1978) said that language is a tool for thought. I never fully understood this until I read the work of Gee (2004), who explained that academic language use is key for understanding relationships among ideas; in fact, academic language is even more problematic for students than decoding! Gee also explained that students learn better and even enhance their identities as science students through immersion in the words and ways of scientists.
How can teachers infuse academic vocabulary and language into their content-area instruction in a way that engages and motivates students to deeply think about and understand concepts?
In my work with teachers in grades two through nine, we set out to answer this question in classrooms. We decided rather than apply generic content-area strategies, we would take a disciplinary literacy approach in which students would engage in the norms of science--the ways scientists read, think, investigate, and communicate with one another. To do this, we prepared units in grade-level and departmental teams and planned for student immersion in the words, language, and practices of science.
First, we turned curricular goals into big idea questions; organized engaging activities to trigger and sustain interest; assembled informational text sets; determined opportunities for choice and personal inquiry; and designed a scenario-based performance assessment using the RAFTs format (Role, Audience, Format, Topic + Strong verb (Vandervantner, 1982; see also Groenke & Puckett, 2006).
Next we targeted the words that we wanted students to use so that they could make meaning for themselves with their classmates. We adapted the tiers of words classifications (Beck et al., 1987) to generate several categories of terms relevant to our unit. The planner below displays a vocabulary selection sample.
Teachers chose words from the curriculum and informational texts. Note that the words are relative to the zone of proximal development for the grade level.
We decided that these words would NOT be taught in advance, but rather embedded into instruction and spotlighted at the point of relevance.
Finally, we posted a few blank language charts to capture academic language and word choice in the midst of learning, reading, and talking. Teachers also cleared a prominent wall space where students could collect and meaningfully organize domain-specific words on sticky notes on what we called a Generative Vocabulary Matrix (Larson, 2011).
Easy Techniques: Learning Through Meaning-Making Discourse
Teachers were surprised to discover that embedding academic language and vocabulary into instruction--using words to think and learn--was easy and took minimal preparation. Here are a few techniques that our teachers used:
- Meaning-Making Talk. After creating situational interest through an engaging activity such as an inquiry-provoking experiment or demonstration, teachers may ask students to turn to a partner and explain what happened and draw a conclusion. Early in the unit, students should be encouraged to use any scientific and everyday words that they already know. Teachers may write a few of their conclusions on the board to spark a discussion and expand knowledge with additional information and vocabulary.
- Spotlighting. This is the practice of drawing attention to vocabulary at the precise moment it is needed during instruction, discussion, or teacher read alouds. Teachers may spotlight vocabulary and language to help students construct meaning, expand insight, generate knowledge, and sustain further learning engagement (Larson, 2011). Spotlighted words may be written on sticky notes and organized relationally.
- Focused Interactive Reading and Annotating. Using a document camera or overhead projector, teachers may model thinking as they read aloud, think through, and mark up an interesting article. Rather than annotate every single thought, an alternative is to mark with a single focus, such as highlighting important concepts and annotating thinking in the margins, or circling claims and underlining evidence. The activity is interactive because after a paragraph or so of modeling, students are invited to participate with the teacher (shared reading). After a few more sections, teachers may give a hard copy to student partners to continue the Annotation Conversation.
- Think-Write-Pair-Share. To make sense of a new concept, teachers may ask students to use specific words meaningfully by writing a sentence or two in their inquiry notebooks. Then students may discuss the writing with a partner and share with the whole class. These sentences may be composed either independently or with a partner.
Teacher: How would microscopic, significant effects, and even
though make sense together in a sentence?
Student: Even though viruses and bacteria are microscopic
they have significant effects on health.
- Exploring a Text Set. Students may choose from a variety of interesting texts and collect academic vocabulary and language for a specific purpose, such as to build background knowledge or to gather evidence to support a position. Words can be discussed in small groups and added to the charts with teacher guidance. Text sets also provide opportunities for synthesizing from multiple sources and offer exemplary models of writing within a discipline.
- Bump It Up: Say It Like a Scientist. Teachers may guide students to make specific comparisons between everyday and domain-specific words and language. Students may explain to a partner how the specialist language refines the meaning.
1: Don't touch anyone!
2: Avoid contact with infected people!
In one classroom, the teacher asked small groups of students to answer a given question and work together to "bump up" the language:
What methods might prevent an epidemic from spreading?
Group written draft 1:
Get vaccinated, keep clean, and stay away from people.
Group "bumped up" revised response 2:
It is recommended that you get inoculations to keep you from contracting a virus. However, effective ways to stop the spread of a virus also include quarantine, washing your hands, keeping good hygiene, treatment of infected people, and covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze.
- Caption This. Teachers may ask students to use specific academic vocabulary and language with a partner to caption an image or graph.
Teacher: Let's interpret the bar graph from yesterday.
Student 1: The amount of people who had the vaccine went up so less people got infected.
: How can we bump up the science language? Let's look on our charts. As the number...
Student 2: As the number of inoculated people increased, the number of people infected with the virus decreased.
Students: This graph shows an exponential decrease of humans infected with the virus as a result of an increase in inoculations throughout the population.
- Take a Stand. To develop voice, teachers may capitalize on students' budding individual interests by asking them to defend a position through activities such as one-on-one oral debate, writing an article to argue a position with scientific evidence, or creating a poster (or digital media) with science facts that persuade.
- Connect Two. Teachers may ask students to justify the relationships among words (see Blachowicz, 1986). Second grade example:
Teacher: Come up with a partner and think about words from our vocabulary matrix that might make sense together about a food chain.
Brandon: Tadpoles and plankton go together.
Cody: And raccoons and carp.
Cody: Because tadpoles feed on plankton.
Brandon: Tadpoles feed on plankton in the wetland food chain; then bigger animals eat the tadpoles, like raccoons and carp.
Research suggests that active use of domain-specific vocabulary and academic language is significantly associated with conceptual understanding of content, enhanced logical thought, motivation, positive emotions, and academic identity (Larson, 2011).
You are invited to email the author and share your classroom ideas for infusing academic vocabulary and language to learn content-area concepts!
Sue Larson, Ed. D., teaches in the Doctor of Education in Literacy and the Master of Education in Literacy programs at Judson University in Elgin, Illinois. She also enjoys working side-by-side with teachers through participatory professional development in schools.
Special thanks to Professor Val Cawley at Judson University for her expert eye!
Achieve, Inc. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards. Retrieved from http://www.nextgenscience.org/
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Blachowicz, C. L. Z. (1986). Making connections: Alternatives to the vocabulary notebook. Journal of Reading 29(7), 643-649.
Gee, J. P. (2004). Language in the science classroom: Academic social languages as the heart of school-based literacy. In E.W. Saul (Ed.), Crossing borders in literacy and science instruction (pp. 13-32). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.
Groenke, S. L., & Puckett, R. (2006). Becoming environmentally literate citizens. The Science Teacher 73(8), 22-27.
Larson, S. C. (2011). The effects of academic literacy instruction on engagement and conceptual understanding of biology of ninth-grade students. Paper presented at the annual conference of the Literacy Research Association, Jacksonville, Florida, December 2, 2011.
National Governors Association Center for Best Practices (2010). Common Core State Standards for English language arts. Retrieved from http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy
Vandervantner, N. (1982). Creating independence through student-owned strategies: A research-based staff development program. (Project CRISS). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.
Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.