Building Academic Vocabulary

Posted by Courtney Carmichael at 4/2/2015

When coming upon an unknown vocabulary word, it is better to say “How do we find out the meaning?” rather than “What do you think it means?” Students often have misconceptions about a term and will keep that wrong term in their head. Correcting a mistake is harder for the brain to process.

Using the work of educational theorist and practitioner Robert Marzano, teaching academic vocabulary builds students’ knowledge and comprehension. He estimates there are 7,923 words a typical student must know in their educational experience from across 11 subjects.

The following totals are in addition to social vocabulary a student picks up on interacting with peers and family:

  • K-2: 782
  • 3-5: 2,398
  • 6-8: 2,352
  • 9-12: 2,391

In Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement, he found these words from national standards documents. Without a basic understanding of these words, students can have difficulty understanding the information they read or hear. Marzano (2005) estimates that a student without direct vocab instruction only knows about 50%. With direct instruction, that student can rise to 83%.

Building Academic Vocabulary  You might be thinking to yourself, “Ugh, do you mean flash cards?” No, “drill and kill” procedures like that classic one can just do that, cause academic agony for the students.

Marzano recommends a 6-step process:

  1. Provide a description of the new word
  2. Ask students to restate the description
  3. Have students construct a picture, symbol or graphic representation of the word
  4. Use engaging activities with the word imbedded
  5. Have students talk about the word
  6. Use games that allow play with the word

Notice how he incorporates activities that activate the senses and multiple modes of thinking.