UNIT 2: How to teach academic vocabulary across the curriculum?

ETAP 623 Spring 2014 | Introduction | UNIT 1 | UNIT 2 | UNIT 3

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Learning Objectives:

  • Participants will be able to identify and select general academic words to be taught within subject areas.
  • Participants will reflect about utilizing the demonstrated strategies and tools for direct academic vocabulary instruction within their existing lesson plans.

Selecting Words that Matter Most

In most cases, relatively few vocabulary words are taught explicitly within the school year. Therefore, these terms need to be carefully chosen. In school settings, students can be explicitly taught a deep understanding of about 300 words each year (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). It is reasonable to teach thoroughly about eight to ten words per week.

So many words – so little time!

Criteria for Selecting Words to Teach

  1. Importance of the word for understanding the text
    • What does the word choice bring to the meaning of the text? (E.g., precision, specificity?)
  2. General utility of the word
    • Is it a word that students are likely to see often in other texts?
    • Is it likely to appear across subjects at that grade level and beyond?
    • Are there multiple meanings?
    • Will it be of use to students in their own writing?
    • Is it essential for participation in academic discussions?
    • Will it help students express their academic understanding?
  3. Students’ prior knowledge of the word and the concept(s) to which it relates
    • How does the word relate to other words, ideas, or experiences that the students know or have been learning?
    • Are there opportunities for grouping words together to enhance understanding of a concept?
  4. Not typically used by students without explicit instruction.


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Word walls are visual means of exposing and reinforcing concepts and terms in the classroom. Padlet is an Internet app which takes this one step further by allowing students to add content to a virtual wall. Participation is as simple as clicking on the URL provided and double clicking anywhere on the wall to contribute. The image on the right demonstrates this application.

Now it is time to practice identifying and selecting Tier 2 words in informational texts. After reading the passage(s) provided, please choose at least three words that fit the criteria for direct instruction. Add your chosen words to the respective Padlet word wall.

The first exercise is intended for 6th graders. The second exercise is intended for 11th graders. Choose to do one or both.

6th grade Tier 2 Word Selection

Step 1) Read File:High tech bullies.pdf

Step 2) Choose Tier 2 words for instruction and post to this Padlet word wall

11h grade Tier 2 Word Selection

Step 1) Read File:Innumeracy.pdf

Step 2) Choose Tier 2 words for instruction and post to this Padlet word wall

In order to start things off, one of the Tier 2 words was posted to each Padlet wall. If you are having difficulty identifying the selections, then you can check the File:Activity 3 Answer Key.pdf.

Best Practices in Vocabulary Instruction

Once words have been selected, the next step is to determine the most effective methods to teach them. Numerous studies have indicated that direct instruction of critical vocabulary yields the best overall learning outcomes (Feldman & Kinsella, 2005). Robert Marzano devised the widely-used Six-Step Process, as shown in the image on the right.


Click here to view a Prezi presentation about Marzano’s strategy.

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Click here to view a video with more details about Marzano’s strategy.

Several traditional instructional methods are not as effective for long term vocabulary acquisition.


  • Have students look up words in the dictionary
  • Have students memorize definitions
  • Teach too many words at one time
  • Introduce words and promptly forget about them
  • Arbitrarily assign lists of words without connecting them to a context
  • Use “kid” language around students and allow students to speak “kid”

Teachers often simplify language to communicate with students. This “kid” speak can detract from opportunities for engagement with more formal academic terms. See the list of terms on the left compiled by elementary math educators comparing informal and formal vocabulary.


  • Provide multiple exposures to words
  • Connect background knowledge to new vocabulary
  • Support independent reading of a wide variety of texts
  • Read aloud to students and model target vocabulary
  • Teach student independent word learning strategies
  • Integrate word walls and graphic organizers into instruction
  • Utilize digital tools for practice, review, and to connect words to images

Click here for a colorful infographic of the Top Ten DO’s and DON’T’s for teaching vocabulary.

Look for innovative solutions to implement these methods in the Digital Tools section below.

Digital Tools

Now that we have an idea about word selection and specific instructional methods, we must focus on how to engage students in this process. Fortunately, there is a plethora (Tier 2 word?) of digital instruments that can turn vocabulary instruction into a dynamic, interactive, reflective activity. This is a list of recommended Web 2.0 tools that can make static black and white printed words come alive:

Bluearrowbullet.gif Padlet (as seen in Activity 3) is a free and user friendly digital tool that allows users to create a digital wall of multimedia sticky notes which can include text, images, links and videos. Teachers can create a vocabulary word wall and students can contribute by just accessing the site. Click for tutorial video of how to create a word wall.

Bluearrowbullet.gif Flashcard Stash is a free dictionary based website which allows users to create digital flash cards help practice the words and concepts through some games and quizzes. Click for tutorial video.

Bluearrowbullet.gif Visuwords looks up words to find their meanings and associations with other words and concepts and produce a diagram reminiscent of a neural net. Click for tutorial video.

Bluearrowbullet.gif The Visual Dictionary uses photographs of words in the real world to visually explore them.

Bluearrowbullet.gif The Visual Thesaurus is an interactive dictionary and thesaurus which creates word maps that blossom with meanings and branch to related words. Click for tutorial video.

Bluearrowbullet.gif instaGrokis an interactive learning tool which displays content it in the form of a web of related words. In addition to the visual map, content is displayed in the form of text, images, video and web links. Better yet, students can use the handy slider tool to self select the level of difficulty of the results displayed. Click for tutorial video.

Bluearrowbullet.gif Tag Galaxy This is a super cool tool! It creates a 3D orbiting galaxy of words and their associations. Click on any word to move it to the center of the galaxy, then click again and watch the globe populate with images from Flicker. This is a must see. Click for tutorial video.

Bluearrowbullet.gif Lingro turns all the words in any website or digital text into a clickable dictionary and translates text into 12 different languages. Click for tutorial video.

Bluearrowbullet.gif Wordle is a word cloud generator used to identify key vocabulary in digital text. Try pasting more than one related article into Wordle to get the big picture. Click for tutorial video.

Bluearrowbullet.gif Word Sift is a tool that that allows text placed into a box to create a word cloud in which the most frequently used words appear larger in size. The words can be sorted by subject area or by a word list. Click on specific words to access related images and video. Click for tutorial video.

Bluearrowbullet.gif VocabGrabber is a digital tool that makes it easy to generate vocabulary lists from digital text. Paste text into a box and the tool generates a word cloud in which the most frequently used words appear larger in size.Clicking on a word displays a definition, examples from context and a visual word map. Click for tutorial video.

Bluearrowbullet.gif ProProfs is a free online quiz tool, with powerful customizable features, You can not only make your own completely safe online quizzes but can also create surveys or polls to gather feedback from learners. Click for tutorial video.

Bluearrowbullet.gif Quizlet is a free online flashcard and quiz maker. It can create matching, multiple choice, written and true/false questions. Upload your data set of terms and definitions from Excel and the site generates the quizzes. Then just provide the web link to your learners. Even better, there are many academic word sets already created and ready for use. Click for tutorial video.



Let’s see how a digital tool could be used for instruction. Click here for an example of a Tier 2 vocabulary word flash card set created by another user in Quizlet. Review the words and then click here to complete the brief quizzes that generate for this set of terms. This is an ideal way for students to engage in fun challenges that can provide assessment on several levels. Wouldn’t you rather review new terms this way?


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At this point, you should be getting comfortable with the concept and strategies behind direct academic vocabulary instruction. Let’s revisit the assessment you posted in the Unit 1 Discussion section. What would you do differently now that you know about the Six-Step Model and the various digital tools available for integration into instruction? Please post your current reflection in the 2 Discussion section .

Arrowbullet.png Please click here to continue to UNIT 3.

Arrowbullet.png Please click here to go back to UNIT 1.

Arrowbullet.png Please click here to return to ETAP 623 Spring 2014 Home Page.

References and Resources

Austin Independent School District. (n.d.) Building a bridge to academic vocabulary in mathematics. [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://curriculum.austinisd.org/math/elem/resources/general/M_el_res_acVocabBridge.pdf

Berkeley Unified School District, Office of Professional Development. (2013, May) BUSD grade level academic vocabulary. [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www.berkeleyschools.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/BUSD_Academic_Vocabulary.pdf

Colorado Springs School District 11. (n.d.) Six-Step academic vocabulary instruction. Retrieved from http://www.d11.org/Instruction/Literacy.LanguageArts/Pages/Six-Step-Academic-Vocabulary-Instruction.aspx

Feldman, K., & Kinsella, K. (2005). Narrowing the language gap: The case for explicit vocabulary instruction. New York: Scholastic. Retrieved from http://teacher.scholastic.com/products/authors/pdfs/narrowing_the_gap.pdf

Kelley, J. G., Lesaux, N. K., Kieffer, M. J., & Faller, S. E. (2010). Effective academic vocabulary instruction in the urban middle school. The Reading Teacher, 64, 5–14. Retrieved from http://voiceofsandiego.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/187283f0-56e7-11df-86f8-001cc4c03286.pdf.pdf

Larson, L., Dixon, T., & Townsend, D. (2013). How can teachers increase classroom use of academic vocabulary?. Voices from the Middle, 20(4), 16-21. Retrieved from http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/VM/0204-may2013/VM0204How.pdf

Marzano, R. J., & Pickering, D. J. (2005). Building academic vocabulary: Teacher's manual. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Oklahoma Department of Edcuation. (n.d.) Building academic vocabulary. Retrieved from http://ok.gov/sde/building-academic-vocabulary#Links

Oregon Department of Education. (2011, November 7). Session 4: Academic vocabulary, 6-12 ELA & content teachers. Common Core State Standards - ELA & Literacy Module 1. [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://www.ode.state.or.us/search/page/?id=3454

Oxnevad, S. (2011, July 10). Cool Tools for Teaching Vocabulary. [Web log comments]. Retrieved from http://d97cooltools.blogspot.com/2011/07/cool-tools-for-teaching-vocabulary.html#.U1--aldOAXg

Rhode Island Department of Education (2012, June). Focusing on general academic vocabulary to enhance understanding of complex texts [PDF file]. Retrieved from http://www.ride.ri.gov/Portals/0/Uploads/Documents/Common-Core/Academic-Vocabulary-PowerPoint.pdf

Tyson, K. (2013, May 26) No tears for tiers: Common core tiered vocabulary made simple. [Web log post]. Retrieved from http://www.learningunlimitedllc.com/2013/05/tiered-vocabulary/

West Virginia Department of Education (n.d.) Vocabulary development. Retrieved from http://wvde.state.wv.us/strategybank/vocabulary.html

Winchester, Elizabeth. (2007, April 6). High-Tech Bullies. Time for Kids. Retrieved from http://www.timeforkids.com/TFK/teachers/wr/article/0,27972,1605948,00.html