Special Report
Reading & Literacy

Under Common Core, Students Learn Words by Learning About the World

By Liana Loewus — May 11, 2015 8 min read
First grader Noah Bayu, left, writes a sentence incorporating vocabulary words as his classmates, Madelis Salvador Lopez, right, and Josue Nava-Lanza, center, look on at the Center City Public Charter School’s Brightwood Campus, in Washington. The school is moving vocabulary instruction into thematic units.
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As many educators and researchers will attest, there’s no exact science to choosing vocabulary words—no inherent reason the word “detest” is more important to teach than “despise,” or why “compassion” should be highlighted in a text before “sympathy.”

But some reading experts, including those who helped write the Common Core State Standards, are saying what’s critical about vocabulary instruction is how the words are introduced—and that context is key.

“We’ve known for a long, long time from research that giving students a list of words and asking them to look them up in the dictionary and write a sentence is not an effective way to teach vocabulary,” said Nell K. Duke, a professor of literacy, language, and culture at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

A better approach, some say, is to have students focus on a topic—anything from the musculatory system to the Great Depression to Greek myths.

“It turns out that learning about the world is a great way to build your vocabulary and knowledge,” said David Liben, a senior content specialist for the literacy team at the New York City-based Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit professional-development group founded by the lead writers of the common-core standards.

At Center City Charter School’s Brightwood campus here in the District of Columbia school system, early-elementary educators have begun moving vocabulary instruction into thematic units.

On a rainy day this spring, kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Masi led her students through a picture book about colonial towns and families. The lesson was peppered with words that seemed far above 5-year-olds’ heads: “miller,” “sheer,” “linen,” “spindle,” “carder.”

Academic Vocabulary

But Ms. Masi made clear that students should focus on a single word of the day—in this case, “garment.”

The spinners and the weavers use materials like cotton and wool to make “garments,” she pointed out.

Garment, as teachers at Center City explain, is a “tier two” vocabulary word. The appendix of the common standards, based on research by Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan, the authors of Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, lays out three tiers for vocabulary words. Tier-one words are the most common words used in everyday speech. On the other end of the spectrum, tier-three words are domain-specific, meaning they’re uncommon and used only in particular academic or topical contexts.

Tier-two words are the sweet spot for common-core instruction—they’re academic but come up in a variety of contexts. They have “wide applicability,” the standards say, and need to be explicitly taught.

And, somewhat paradoxically, one of the best ways to learn about those transferable tier-two words, some say, is by becoming an expert in one particular topic.

Tiered Vocabulary

Tier 1
These are the most commonly used words in the English language—the ones used in everyday speech. Children whose first language is English typically do not have trouble with them. They are therefore not often the focus of classroom discussion.
Examples: but, they, know

Tier 2
These words, sometimes called general academic words, appear in many types of texts and are transferable across disciplines. They offer more precise ways of saying simple things (“saunter” vs. “walk”), and can sometimes be difficult to define using context clues.
Examples: layers, solid, surface

Tier 3
Also known as domain-specific words, these less commonly used words are specific to a discipline or field of study.  They are more common in informational texts than in literature. Because these words are “hard,” or uncommon, authors often define them within a text.
Examples: molten, magma, lava

Source: Common Core State Standards, Appendix A

“People find the academic word lists and teach from them, not recognizing that what’s hard about academic vocabulary is the way it’s embedded in domains of knowledge,” said Catherine E. Snow, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who specializes in language and literacy development in children.

Too often, teachers end up “teaching lists of words instead of talking to [students] about who Rembrandt was or what the Paleozoic Age was like,” she said.

Gathering Texts

The idea is that by hearing academic words in one context again and again, students will attach deeper meaning to them and be able to use them in other contexts.

Center City started embedding vocabulary instruction within topics, using the Core Knowledge curriculum, at the beginning of last year.

“I initially saw it and was like, ‘You want me to teach 6-year-olds about colonial independence and Mesopotamia?’ But it’s been so much fun,” said Adrienne Williams, a 1st grade teacher at Center City.

She now has pupils read and listen to multiple texts about a single topic that use similar tier-two words. For instance, in a unit on habitats, the class read a book on the world’s rarest animals and two books on endangered species, watched the “Rainforest Rap” video by the World Wildlife Fund, and used the Brainpop Jr. online videos and lessons on the topic. Students continually heard words such as “predator,” “survive,” “adaptations,” “coexist,” and “temperate.”

Finding supplemental texts can be “a lot of work,” said Ms. Williams. She pulled several of her units together through the “text-set project,” a professional-development program led by Student Achievement Partners in which teams of educators gather packages of readings and multimedia resources around a single topic. The text sets that teachers craft during those two-day sessions are made available for free on Edmodo, a social-media site for teachers. While it’s fairly easy to find texts with the same vocabulary words, she said, “the trick was finding texts at a developmentally appropriate level.”

‘Going Deep’

Throughout the year, pupils will be introduced to 11 different topics, or units, in Ms. Williams’ class.

“We’re providing them with basic knowledge about the world that’s going to teach them about unfamiliar things,” she said. “Going deep into social studies and science topics, the background knowledge they have to pull from is much more vast.” Students are better able to cold-read unfamiliar texts, she said, under the new method—just as they have to do on the common-core-aligned tests.

“The best way to get the largest number of students, especially those students who need our help most, to be able to read complex texts independently and proficiently is to go after knowledge big-time, to go after a topic,” said Mr. Liben, who helps lead professional development for the text-set project.

A new study of 59 students by the University of Michigan offers some evidence that the text-set approach may be on the right track. Researchers compared a group of 4th graders who read six texts about one topic, such as birds, with a group that read six texts about different topics, such as birds, glaciers, and coral reefs.

The students who read about only one topic performed marginally better than their peers on a test of general academic words that appeared in both groups’ texts.

And those with the coherent text set also learned significantly more vocabulary words that were specific to their texts than did the other group.

The researchers say this seems to demonstrate that conceptually coherent text sets can help students with “incidental acquisition” of words.

Kindergartner Yohanna Tesfamariam whispers into her classmate’s ear during a vocabulary lesson at Center City school.

“If kids have knowledge of the topic of the text, ... they’re having to wrestle less with the content of the texts, and that frees up attention for understanding unknown words and making inferences about the meaning of those words,” said Gina N. Cervetti, an assistant professor of education at the University of Michigan who led the study.

Beyond Context

Vocabulary standards are sprinkled throughout the common-core standards—which 43 states and the District of Columbia have adopted—in the literature, informational text, and foundational-skills strands, and across the grades.

But many teachers are particularly focused on teaching vocabulary under the new standards, said Mr. Liben, because of the standards’ requirements about reading complex texts.

“Everybody gets the idea that complex texts have more complex words,” Mr. Liben said. The standards also emphasize reading informational texts, or nonfiction, which tend to have more academic words than novels, he said.

See Also

Webinar: No More Word Lists: Teaching Vocabulary in Context
June 4, 3 to 4 p.m. ET

In this webinar, literacy researcher Gina Cervetti will discuss her findings on vocabulary acquisition in the content areas, and special education teacher Jodie Westmont will explain how she uses “text sets” developed around a single topic to teach her students new words.
Register now.

However, teaching vocabulary in context alone is often not enough. Students, especially young ones and struggling readers, may also need some direct vocabulary instruction. The methods educators have typically used, include teaching root words, prefixes, and suffixes; using the dictionary; playing word games; and writing sentences with new words, some educators say.

The common standards themselves call for students “to grow their vocabularies through a mix of conversation, direct instruction, and reading.”

“If every great tier-two word requires us to become an expert in an area, we’re not going to get very far,” said David J. Chard, the dean of the education school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who specializes in reading.

“I don’t think we have enough time to make kids experts in so many things,” he added.

Students with disabilities in particular need to be explicitly pretaught vocabulary, he said. Otherwise, some students will “read [a text] and not attend to anything in it. None of the words will be more meaningful or less meaningful than the word next to it.”

The National Reading Panel‘s influential report in 2000 found that learning vocabulary through reading and teaching vocabulary explicitly are both effective. The keys, the authors found, are “systematic repetition” and leading students to think deeply about what words mean.

Seeking Balance

At Center City, teachers are still trying to figure out where the balance lies.

“We’d love to transition to only teaching these words in context, but the reality is we have a gap to fill before students are common-core ready,” especially English-learners and struggling readers, said Samantha Flaherty, the K-3 reading-curriculum manager at Center City. “We’ve by no means perfected this.”

While they’re steering clear of “drill and kill” with the dictionary, teachers do often give explicit, child-friendly definitions of words as students are reading—a tactic that Ms. Duke of Michigan and other experts recommend.

They also incorporate word-specific discussions and games into their lessons.

At the end of her habitats unit, after students had been exposed to their tier-two vocabulary words across many texts, Ms. Williams and her pupils played a modified version of “Jeopardy.”

“Describe the Amazon Rainforest in three different ways,” she said.

Teams of four and five huddled together, dry-erase markers flying across small whiteboards. “Humid,” “shady,” “rainy,” “dense,” the 1st graders wrote.

With the thematic units, classroom discussions have become more rich, and students have been better able to tackle unfamiliar texts, according to Ms. Williams. “I can see these kids retain more,” she said.

Coverage of efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards for all students is supported in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, at www.gatesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the May 13, 2015 edition of Education Week as Forget Word Lists: Vocabulary Lessons Start With Context


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