Content vocabulary - classroom strategies
Here are some general suggestions for teaching content vocabulary in core classes. The link gives a printable 'Word' version of this information.

Strategies for Teaching Content Vocabulary

‘Vocabulary is the most important influence on reading comprehension.’

‘It takes 10 exposures to a word to learn it.’

‘The average child enters school knowing 5,000 – 6,000 words. Children learn 2,500 – 3,000 new words per year.’

These quotes from an article on vocabulary instruction by Marlene Asselin (2002) highlight the importance of vocabulary to our students’ learning. We don’t have to be convinced. In the Minneapolis Public Schools, we see the academic language comprehension and expression deficits that result from lack of knowledge of vocabulary every day. So, we teach vocabulary. Traditional middle school vocabulary instruction includes distribution of vocabulary lists, student assignments to look up and copy dictionary definitions, and to generate a sentence for each word on the list. However, both experience and research show that sole reliance on these methods does a poor job of teaching vocabulary. This is especially true for students with language challenges who cannot understand the dictionary definitions. In order for words to be truly learned (in long-term memory), there must be many meaningful exposures, and students must use the words in meaningful ways.

Here are suggestions to support vocabulary learning for all students, but especially for students with language challenges, based on educational research and practical experience.

1. Choose words for instruction carefully, focusing on words that are critical for understanding core content. Also consider the needs of the students; students with weak vocabulary may need instruction and support in words that they will encounter frequently.

2. Access students’ prior knowledge through discussion, comparing/contrasting, examples and non-examples. Helping students to make connections between a new word and related knowledge fosters in depth word learning.

3. Include frequent exposure to and vocabulary reinforcement routines that require the students to use the words in many ways. Use the words frequently and in different ways as you teach. Provide incentives for students to use the words and reinforce them when they do. Multiple exposures are required before a word enters long-term memory. Multiple exposures also increase depth and breadth of word knowledge.

4. Model and teach students word learning strategies that they can use independently.

* Teach students to evaluate their understanding of words they read and hear, and to ask questions.

* Teach and model dictionary use using ‘think-alouds’ and discussion of how to choose the most appropriate definition. Provide an alternate dictionary with simplified definitions such as ‘Longman Dictionary of American English’ (developed for ELL students; definitions are based on the 2000 most common words of English) or the online ‘Wordsmyth Dictionary’ (the Children’s Wordsmyth Dictionary gives the simplest definitions) at

* Teach use of contextual cues to predict word meanings.

* Teach students that some common word parts are important to word meanings. Vocabulary in content subjects is dense in words with Greek or Latin roots, prefixes and suffixes. For example, understanding the meaning of prefixes like pre-, post-, pro-, anti-, bio- can contribute to understanding the large number of words that are built from these prefixes. Many dictionaries, including the ‘Longman Dictionary of American English’, include lists of prefixes and suffixes and their meanings.

Five Suggested Classroom Vocabulary Routines

1. Students write definitions based on dictionaries or other sources/formats in words they understand. They then generate a sentence using the word. Word maps (a graphic representation that includes ‘What is it?, What is it like?, What are some examples?’) are an alternative or supplement to traditional dictionary definitions. Alternatives like this encourage students to connect new vocabulary knowledge with prior knowledge.

2. Students complete exercises that require them to use contextual information to write the appropriate vocabulary word in a blank in a sentence or paragraph. This exercise can be even more powerful if students create and exchange the test sentences with the blanks, which their partners must fill in. Students can be asked to write an alternate word or synonym that would preserves the same meaning in each context. This provides additional focus on meaning.

3. Teacher uses and highlights vocabulary often, and students are required to identify and use vocabulary in reading, writing or class discussion.

4. Teacher selects one or two words from each vocabulary list to lead the class in creating a word web. The word is placed in the center and boxes for two or three categories (e.g. synonyms, types, attributes) are placed around it. Students then join in to contribute and discuss category examples. Students can then be assigned to work in small groups to create a web with another vocabulary word.

5. Teacher selects one or two words from each vocabulary list to teach about word parts and their meanings. For example, when 7th grade classes study economics of countries, words with the Latin root ‘port-‘ (transport, import, export, deport) occur often. If students understand that the meaning of the root is ‘to carry’, they can use this information to understand and infer relationships between other words with this root. Another example occurs during 8th grade study of the Vietnam War and anti- and pro-war responses in the United States. The teacher may lead the class in a discussion of the meanings of the prefixes ‘anti-‘ and ‘pro’ and work with the class to develop and discuss a web or list of related words that include these prefixes and their meanings.