Every subject has content-specific vocabulary. Examples from Language Arts include literary devices such as simile and personification. In Social Studies, forms of government such as monarchy and democracy. In Science, herbivore and omnivore. And in Math, numerator and denominator.
Proficiency in any academic subject thus depends in part on fluency in that subject’s language. And the best way to achieve such fluency is the same as it is for a foreign language: immersion--being placed in an environment where that language is used routinely. So no matter what you teach, be sure to provide such an environment for your students. This means resisting the temptation to water down language just because students may struggle with it (a temptation I gave in to at first--e.g., calling the longest side of a right triangle “the longest side” rather than the “hypotenuse”). Instead, take a define-a-term-once, use-it-always approach. No more insisting students choose a different word, but rather a different adjective or verb. No calling it water, but rather lake or river. No using category when you mean phylum. And no asking for the answer but rather the product or quotient.
Of course, for students to become fluent in a subject’s language, not only must you use that language, but they must use it too. It’s important, therefore, to provide students resources for looking up terms they’ve forgotten (e.g., class notes, subject area dictionaries, posters). It’s also important to then reinforce using those resources--and here are two great ways of doing this: open-note quizzes; and using previously defined vocabulary to define a new term without naming that new term (eg., “a quadrilateral that is equilateral and equiangular” prompted my students to look up as many as three words, only to then realize I had just defined a word they’d known since pre-school: “You’re bogus, Coach G, why didn’t you just say ‘square’?”).
Image provided by Phillip Martin with permission
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