Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Teaching Academic Vocabulary

In my last post, I wrote about the master word list that I recently finished. It's been great to hear from everyone and send the word lists out!

For my own purposes, it has been useful to have an alphabetized and searchable list of frequently used academic words. In an intervention group, I've been experimenting with making Powerpoints to teach academic words. I like to think of Powerpoints as an expandable memory port for myself. I can come up with kid-friendly definitions, pictures, and questions ahead of time. Then, during the hectic 25 minutes of the intervention time, we can all focus on the words together. I get extra mileage out of the Powerpoints by working through them three times with the students.

This sequence worked especially well with my students:
1. Explain the word and its use beyond the context of the text. Have students use the word in sentences that they tell to one another.
2. Have students find the word in the text and read the sentence with the word.
3. Have students use the word to explain the text, going beyond what is "right there" in the text.

Consider this sentence from an article that I wrote about one of the first authors of wildflower field guides:

The only way to identify your flower, then, would be to consult a flower book.

When I introduced this word, we talked about how students can consult resources in and out of the classroom. Students talked with their partners to answer these questions. What resource would you consult to find the spelling of a word? Have you ever consulted the phone book? This moves quickly, with all of the students sharing with their partners at once.

One key is to accept only sentences in which students use the target word. And they are remarkably resistant to do so! "I looked in the phone book to find the number of a pizza place," one girl said. Notice how she was using the meaning of the word, but had replaced it with synonyms. I always counter back--"Can you say that again, using our word?" As a last resort, I'll restate what the student said--"You said that you consulted the phone book to find the number of a pizza place. Can you say the whole thing for me?"

After we've talked about the words in a real-life context, we go into the text to find the word and discuss its use. Visualizing is helpful here. Many academic words are somewhat abstract and difficult to visualize. So what would consulting a flower book look like? While it's obvious to the adult reader, it's a thinking task for kids.

Finally, we use the target words to extend the meaning of the text. Kids with reading problems often have trouble paraphrasing ideas. Teaching them how to use these academic words to paraphrase and extend helps them to "unfreeze" ideas and put them into their own words. In the case of consult, this word can be used to sum up the entire point of the article: "People used to have to consult difficult flower books, but now they can use field guides to identify flowers." Now, my students didn't just come up with this sentence on their own. Instead, I said, "Can you explain the main problem in the article, using the word consult?" Again, everyone does this, and everyone shares with partners.

Did it work? Well, I started to hear some of the words creeping into their talk. Sometimes it was tongue-in-cheek, like when one kid said to his partner, "Wait, wait, wait! I need to consult with Mrs. Kissner about something." But sometimes the use was for academic purposes, such as when a student used the word complex, from a previous article, to make a prediction for the next one.

I'm working on putting the articles and the Powerpoints together into a teacher-friendly (and research-based, and inexpensive) intervention.   For now, I'm still sending copies of the Excel master word list. Feel free to write if you'd like one!


  1. Hello,
    I would love your master list. Academic vocabulary is something I want to take to the next level this next year.

  2. Thanks for writing! I've sent you the list.

  3. I would absolutely love a copy of your master list. I've been engrossed in your blog for nearly 90 minutes now! Thanks for sharing so much!

  4. I would love a copy of the academic vocabulary. I have been loving your website! Thank you for sharing

  5. I would love a list please. My email is