This may be one of the best arguments yet for grade 6-12 content teachers to spend more time teaching vocabulary


Researchers estimate that every year, beginning in 5th grade, students encounter approximately 10,000 unfamiliar words. Despite this exposure to nearly 70,000 new words over the course of 7 years, the average high school student graduates with a vocabulary of only 35,000 to 42,000 words, according to a recent article in The Social Studies Journal.

Many social studies teachers view vocabulary instruction as a task that will take time away from teaching the subject matter. Typically, teachers introduce students to a list of new words at the beginning of a unit or reiterate new words at the end of one.

But, author Aimed Alexander-Shear says social studies teachers need to redefine their view of vocabulary instruction not only because social studies is a very text-heavy subject, but because working with vocabulary can significantly improve students’ comprehension and appreciation of the material.

“This conception of vocabulary development (studying lists of words) fails to address the goals of the social studies by underestimating the powerful learning that vocabulary development can spark,” she writes. “When implemented in a thoughtful manner, vocabulary is an extremely powerful tool that intertwines concept development throughout a lesson.”

Focusing on vocabulary can be an important way of activating students’ prior knowledge about important concepts, the author says. Prior knowledge is the framework by which we understand new information.

The more prior knowledge students retrieve, the easier it is for them to grasp novel concepts. By learning or reviewing key vocabulary, students think of the words’ other associations and contexts and make connections with other courses they are taking, their own private lives and society as a whole.

Vocabulary instruction can provide a support for each lesson and opportunities for students to interact with social concepts, the author says.

4 components of vocabulary instruction

Interestingly, the 4 key components of vocabulary instruction are also the 4 foundational elements of effective teaching practices:

  • The activation of prior knowledge
  • Consideration of the relationships between concepts
  • Comparison and contrast of familiar concepts
  • Student generation of meaning.

“As vocabulary instruction incorporates these essentials, it is transformed into a learning strategy that can be threaded throughout social studies curricula in unobtrusive yet meaningful ways,” the author writes.

Below are suggestions for teaching vocabulary that address the 4 foundational elements of effective teaching practices:

Element 1. Activation of prior knowledge-

Activities that help access students’ prior knowledge are often simple to conduct and require very little time.
Mind streaming—The teacher pairs students and introduces a topic to the class. Each student in the pair takes a turn talking for one minute about anything familiar relating to the term without interruption and pause. Then, students share the results with the class. In another variation, pairs of students silently reflect on what they know about a word for one minute and then, at the end of the minute, discuss their thoughts with one another. The pairs share their thoughts with the class.
Knowledge rating—The teacher provides students with a list of words. Students indicate whether they are 1) completely unfamiliar with the word, 2) have heard it and understand it but cannot use it or 3) can use it in a sentence that demonstrates its meaning and defines the word. Students use their responses as a guide in their reading. For example, as they are reading and encounter a word they think they understand, they should examine the context to check if they understand it correctly.

Element 2. Consideration of the relationships between concepts

Meaningful vocabulary instruction focuses on how words and concepts relating to a unit fit within larger contexts. Students can make personal connections on a much broader level if they are encouraged to consider the associations that social themes have to their lives and other courses they are taking.
Semantic maps—A semantic map is a graphic display of relationships between general ideas and specific details. They are similar in structure to a flow chart. For example, the word patriotism is placed at the top of the map and branching off the main topic are components (voting, displaying the flag, etc.)
Spoken word—This exercise is particularly useful in social studies. The teacher gives students the key concepts for the chapter, their definitions and the context in which they can be found. Students must find ways in which the terms relate to their personal lives and may be asked to share with the class.

Element 3. Comparison and contrast of familiar concepts

Venn diagram—This is a graphic organizer consisting of two circles overlapping at the center. Similarities between concepts are noted in the overlap and differences are noted in the parts of the circle that do not overlap.
This is a 3-step activity that helps students clarify their understandings of concepts. In the list step, the teacher provides a topic and students come up with a list of 25 words associated with that topic. During the group step, the class groups words based on similar features and then comes up with labels for the groups of words. The class then evaluates the groupings and labels, determining which are most appropriate.

Element 4. Student generation of meaning

With their understanding of similarities, differences and differences among social ideas, students are now ready to generate meaning.

“Although it may be difficult to imagine allowing students freedom to create their own definition of a word, in reality students construct their own meaning of the word whether or not it is endorsed by the teacher because the interaction between student and content results in the formation of a personalized definition if content is understood,” the author writes.

Predicting word meaning—This activity is done before students are exposed to a topic. Students are given a list of terms and asked to predict the meaning of each word. During a lesson or during their reading, they determine if their predicted definitions were correct. This helps students draw out prior knowledge and keeps them focused on the material they are learning.
Frater model—Similar to concept definition mapping, this exercise asks students to consider the characteristics of a word and to provide examples of it. Students also are asked to provide “nonexamples” or instances that do not demonstrate the concept. In the final step, students are asked to come up with a personal definition of the word.

These and other exercises allow students ample opportunities to interact with concepts, terms and other field-specific language. “Changing how vocabulary instruction is viewed is one key to improving students’ overall comprehension of the discipline,” the author writes.

“Redefining Vocabulary: The New Learning Strategy for Social Studies,” by Aimed Alexander-Shear, The Social Studies, 2001, Volume 102, pps. 95-103.

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