Teaching Opinion

Response: Many Ways To Help Students Develop Academic Vocabulary

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 17, 2013 9 min read
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Last week’s question was:

What are the best ways to help students -- mainstream and/or English Language Learners -- develop academic vocabulary?

Helping our students develop academic vocabulary knowledge has always been a challenge to us teachers, and the Common Core Standards “up” the challenge and its importance even more.

Today, I’ll begin by briefly mentioning some of my own classroom practices (though I won’t both duplicating ideas mentioned by others later in the post), and then several educator/authors - Marilee Sprenger; Jane Hill and Kirsten Miller; and Maria Gonzalez - provide guest responses. Lastly, I’ll be highlighting contributions from a number of readers.

And if you’re looking for even more ideas, you might want to explore my collection of The Best Websites For Developing Academic English Skills & Vocabulary.

I’m a big fan of word charts with all students and use this sequence:

First, prior to the beginning of a unit, whether it might be a writing genre or a particular topic, introduce ten-to-fifteen words. Plenty of research cautions against introducing a lengthy vocabulary list at any one time because students can feel overwhelmed.

Next, ask students on their own to write guesses and make connections to the word list, and then share them with partners.

The following step is to elicit these student ideas and and guide them toward an accurate definition of each word, which they then write down.

Finally, students draw a sketch or image to represent each word.

During the subsequent lesson or unit, students are periodically asked to highlight where and when they see or hear those words used, and when they themselves use them, as well as identifying other words they believe should be added to their chart.

When teaching Beginning and Early Intermediate English Language Learners, I will often share a short engaging video and combine it with questions and sentence starters containing academic vocabulary. For example, I might first show this video, What’s Your Reason For Learning English?, from English Central.

I’d then give students a sheet that says:

How do you think learning English can benefit you?

It can assist me to:




Now, onto our guest responses....

Response From Marilee Sprenger

Marilee Sprenger is the author of the ASCD book Brain-Based Teaching in the Digital Age and the forthcoming book, Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core: 55 Words That Make or Break Student Understanding, due from ASCD, summer 2013:

Researchers estimate 85% of achievement test results are based on how well students understand the vocabulary of the standards. There are a minimum of 55 academic words (found on my website www.brainlady.com) that are used in the CCSS, its exemplars, and current samples from the testing consortiums. These words fall into the category of Tier 2, or academic words, that are used across curriculums and throughout life. Upon doing my own action research on these words, I discovered that many students at all grade levels and risk levels don’t know these words.

Some of the words I am referring to include: analyze, anticipate, cite, compare, comprehend, classify, contrast, delineate, . . . and the list continues. Students generally learn these verbs through specific lessons that target the skills these words represent. Some students learn the words easily, but most students, especially ELL and low-SES students, have difficulty. When academic words are taught, the hope is that they will be retained in long-term memory.

I train teachers to take the critical words of the standards and teach them in such a way that they are retained in a memory system called non-motor procedural memory. This is the system we use to store and use our decoding skills, as well as other information, such as song lyrics. This requires engaging students in various activities to get the words stored quickly and easily. Strategies include: drawing pictures, vocabulary word maps, mind mapping, 3-D graphic organizers, vocabulary word gloves, check my vocabulary cards, songs or raps, vocabulary cartoons, movement activities such as freeze frame, skits, and puppet shows, analogies, and online games.

Learning these words requires a whole school effort in which they are used in dialogue, on tests, by all teachers, in newsletters, posters, and as words of the week. When teachers ask where to begin with teaching academic vocabulary, I tell them these are the words to approach first. Pre-assess, teach in fun and repetitive ways, use review games, get parents involved if possible, and aim for success!

Response From Jane Hill and Kirsten Miller

Jane Hill and Kirsten Miller are consultants at McREL, and both are working on the second edition of Classroom Instruction that Works for English Language Learners, due out fall 2013:

Select vocabulary strategically

Just because ELL students and others in need of language development can’t always say it, it doesn’t mean that they can’t think it. It’s our job to help them develop the academic vocabulary appropriate to the subject area and their levels of learning, and we can start by using Beck, McKeown, and Kucan’s (2002) three-tiered model for determining vocabulary.

Tier 1 words represent objects or actions that students will be familiar with in their native languages--rudimentary words like “chair.” Tier 2 words are more complex and may be subject-specific (for example, “estimate” in math) and require direct instruction. Finally, Tier 3 words are complex, low-frequency words, primarily found in the upper grades (think “allotrope”).

Though Beck et al.'s model isn’t developed specifically for ELLs, Herrera, Perez, and Escamilla (2010) note that teachers can differentiate vocabulary instruction for ELL students by teaching across the tiers--selecting words that align to students’ levels of language acquisition and background knowledge.

But how can you know which words are the right words? Classroom teachers should sit down with their ELL coaches to reevaluate their vocabulary lists through an ELL lens, keeping or adding words that are cognates, have multiple meanings, or contain essential roots, suffixes, or prefixes that can help foster ELL students’ language development (Herrerra et al., 2010).

For example, here’s a typical 3rd-5th grade science vocabulary list, from Marzano, Kendall, & Gaddy’s Essential Knowledge (1999):

axis; cloud; condensation; evaporation; fog; fresh water; ocean; precipitation; process rotation; states (of matter); substance; water; droplet; wind; process rotation; droplet; wind

So which of these words are cognates (words that have a common origin)?

condensation (condensación); evaporation (evaporación); precipitation ( precipitación); process (proceso); rotation (rotación); substance (sustancia)

Next, which words have multiple meanings and may appear across content areas?


Which words contain essential roots, suffixes, or prefixes?

condensation; evaporation; precipitation; rotation

If you’re overwhelmed by the notion of teaching academic vocabulary to ELL students, remember that choosing words strategically can help students use--and retain--new vocabulary.

Response From Maria Gonzalez

Maria Gonzalez is an education consultant who has worked extensively with ELL and urban populations. She is a member of the ASCD professional development faculty:

As a consultant, I’m always asked for the best ways to meet the needs of ELL students. In my experience and survey of research, it is a rich exposure to words and connecting these words to concepts. I can relate this advice to my own experiences as a language learner - I arrived in the U.S. at ten years old and exited out of the ELL program at my school after two years. I will never forget the day the I began attending “regular” classrooms, which meant no friends or support system as far as language. So I began talking to myself and studying as many words as I could, not just the definition, but how they applied to whatever we were learning for the day. I don’t like to admit to this, but few of my teachers really communicated what we were going to be able to understand after a lesson - most just focused on skills. After years of schooling (and talking to myself!), I began to pick up more and more Tier 2 (academic) and Tier 3 (domain-specific) words.

Teaching rich, Tier 2 & 3 words to your students can significantly increase their comprehension. It would be beneficial for teachers to look at their standards and think about what concept (big idea) do I want students to understand after this lesson? Then, choose an adequate amount of academic and domain-specific words that can be learned for mastery at the end of the lesson. Learning vocabulary words by simple memorization is a skill and through brain research we know that words learned this way are easily forgettable. But tie this skill to a concept, big idea, or understanding, and our brains are able to make connections and store the meaning in our long-term memory. As an ELL student, I worked all this out in my head, and in my native language, for some time. It was not until I started college that I was fluent in the cognitive language, and I’m still learning new words, every day.

Responses From Readers


Here are some ideas I’d like to share:

1-teach new vocab with movement/gestures accompanying the statement of the meaning

2-use a funny/dramatic cartoon that illustrates the meaning

3- underline a link in the new word that relates to a familiar word, like the “pug” in pugnacious, then draw your cartoon or write your sentence using both words

4-keep track of the words you introduce and in the following days make use of them in unrelated instruction/ communication


I’ve taught English to both ELL students and native language speaking students. I find a similar trend between both groups--grammar is a dying science. We hear poor grammar and inappropriate vocabulary everywhere whether it’s on TV, in music, on the street, or even in “journalistic” articles. With the advent social media shorthand, students no longer see or understand the need to use academic vocabulary because this shorthand has become more common.

I’ve had students answer test questions with “IDK”. Having students keep a reading log and participating in SSR has helped incredibly with both of my student groups. The key to teaching students academic vocabulary is to use it ourselves.

Here’s a collection of “tweeted” reader contributions:

Thanks to all of this week’s contributors!

Please feel free to leave a comment sharing your reactions to this question and the ideas shared here.
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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.