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Developing academic vocabulary

New York Teacher
Text book with bird photo

One research-based strategy is to ask students to summarize the definition of each new word and provide a related image in a reading log.

Research has confirmed the value of systematic vocabulary instruction for building comprehension. Knowledge of advanced academic vocabulary makes it possible for students to engage with, produce and talk about texts valued in the classroom. But how do we develop our students’ academic language in meaningful ways?

District 30 in Queens launched an advanced academic vocabulary initiative in 2017, when data from our district showed that our students needed to build content and conceptual skills, critical interpretation skills and argumentative skills.

Here are some research-based strategies I’ve been developing and implementing since 2017 in my 7th-grade English Language Arts classes as part of that initiative:

  • Advanced academic vocabulary word bank: The 7th-grade teachers in my school created a word bank of 30-plus advanced academic vocabulary words for each module of the Expeditionary Learning curriculum. We referred to Jennifer Wells Greene and Averil Coxhead’s work, “Academic Vocabulary for Middle School Students: Research-Based Lists & Strategies for Key Content Areas,” to select words. The words we chose align with the central ideas and themes of each text for every module.
  • Words of the Week: The 7th-grade teachers choose five to seven words from each curriculum’s word bank to align with the informational text, excerpts and chapters we are reading for the week. When we teach five to seven words each week — rather than the traditional method of having students memorize 20 words per week — students have the chance to use the words more effectively in their speech and writing throughout the week.
  • “Drive-by vocabulary instruction”: The teachers begin their lesson by reading the words of the week aloud. Throughout the week, students improve their knowledge of the words by using them in their speech and writing during classroom activities. When I introduce the words of the week, I use the call-and-response method, where I say the word and students repeat the word in order to hear and practice their fluency and pronunciation. The words of the week are displayed on the whiteboard for students to refer to and be reminded to use.
  • Weekly vocabulary challenges: To encourage students to use the words of the week, I conduct weekly vocabulary challenges. During instruction, students who use one of the words of the week during class discussions receive a point on our weekly vocabulary challenge chart. At the end of the week, students receive raffle tickets corresponding to the number of points they earned. I conduct a vocabulary raffle at the end of each marking period. The raffle winners receive a homework pass as their reward.
  • Vocabulary logs to make personal connections: The vocabulary logs give students the definitions and synonyms of each word of the week. Students are instructed to complete their vocabulary logs by summarizing the definition of each word and providing an image of each advanced academic vocabulary word. Both the word summaries and images help students to make personal connections with the words.

Students need advanced academic vocabulary to understand and communicate effectively in classroom discussions. Having this vocabulary also helps students develop the reading, writing and speaking skills they will need for college.

Tina Macchio is a 7th-grade English teacher and peer collaborative teacher at IS 141 in Long Island City, Queens.

Related Topics: Pedagogy