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Digging into Academic Vocabulary: The Words We Forget to Teach

t1There is a lot of talk in education about vocabulary and words our students must know, understand, and be able to use in the courses we teach.  We talk in terms of Tier I, Tier II, and Tier III words, but do we really understand the implication of these words, and more importantly, do we really know how to select words to teach explicitly?  Take a look at the slides below to learn more about the three tiers of vocabulary.

Content-area experts have no trouble discerning which Tier III vocabulary words to teach.  We know words like heterozygous, chlorofluorocarbons, commensalism, and eukaryotic are important content-specific (Tier III) vocabulary words that students taking Biology need to understand by the end of the semester.  Although we don’t all teach high school courses, when it comes to your content, you know the vocabulary that students need to master before they take an assessment at the end of the semester or year.

What we often fail to consider are the Tier II vocabulary words that are not part of our curriculum.  These words find their way into question stems and foils (answer choices).  By being more cognizant of Tier II vocabulary and knowing which words to teach explicitly, which to define for students, and which ones need no emphasis, teachers can provide students a better chance of more accurately T2demonstrating their understanding on standardized assessments.

Words outside of our content may confuse students when they encounter them in a question stem or in a foil.  For example, take a look at this question:   What would be the best evidence that being persistent paid off for the British?  This question is full of words that do not necessarily have anything to do with social studies but that are imperative in understanding how to respond correctly.  Words such as evidence and persistent seem commonplace to us as educators, and we may even use them in our conversations with students.  But have we ever asked students to define these words to make sure they truly understand what they mean?  Depending on how the foils, or answer choices, are worded, students may miss this question, not because they did not understand the question but because they did not understand the question itself.

When you read a passage or write questions for your students to answer, consider this activity created by the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.   First, place on the left side of the page any Tier II words you find.  Then, check or highlight the criteria listed that apply to that word.  Finally, use this information to decide if the word is worthy to be taught explicitly, defined for students, or not taught. Your understanding of both your content and of your students’ background, reading abilities, and attitude are important when completing this activity.  Some words may be deemed worthy to teach explicitly for one class and only defined for another. Work with ESL and EC teachers to help you select Tier II words that will help your students be successful.

If you would like to use this form to help identify Tier II words, you can download it by clicking here.

ELA Live Binder Self Study for Academic Vocabulary– Click on Vocabulary Tab for Self-Study
Click on How to Select Words Tab for ELA CCSS Appendix A section with answers to Sample Text

Interested in more great vocabulary resources?  Check these out!


Teaching Channel Video:  Vocabulary Paint Chips

Teaching Channel Video:  College Talk to Improve Vocabulary

Teaching Channel Video:  Kick Me!  Mobile Vocabulary Activity

Click here for the article Doing it Differently: Tips for Teaching Vocabulary from Edutopia
Click here for the article How the Internet Can Help Kids Build Their Vocabulary from Edutopia
Academic Vocabulary Strategies

Marzano’s 6 Steps with Classroom Suggestions
6 Step Organizer

About Heather Mullins

Heather Mullins is the Chief Academic Officer in Newton-Conover City Schools. She is a North Carolina Teaching Fellow who spent 12 years as a high school English Teacher. She received her B.S.Ed. in Secondary English Education from Western Carolina University. Heather completed her National Board Certification in Adolescent Young Adult English Language Arts in 2002. She holds an M.Ed. in Academically and Intellectually Gifted from UNC-Charlotte. Heather has served as a Curriculum Specialist in Hickory City Schools, an adjunct professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University, and a Professional Development Consultant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. She completed her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership through Western Carolina University. Heather is one of the co-founders of #NCed Chat, North Carolina’s first Twitter chat for teachers. She is passionate about innovative practices, instructional technology, student ownership of learning, and supporting teachers. Heather serves on the advisory board for the North Carolina Digital Learning Plan, North Carolina School for the Deaf and Catawba Science Center. She is a recipient of the 2015 NCMLE Central Office Administrator to Watch Award. She also received the 2016 Don Chalker Award for Excellence in Educational Leadership. Heather is the proud mother of one son, Jackson.

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