Every once in a while, I find some lesson or strategy or routine that fundamentally improves the learning in my classroom. One such routine is the systematic teaching of academic vocabulary words. Academic vocabulary are words that are routinely used in academic dialogue and text. They are the words that can often be found in questions/assessments for all subject areas and are scattered throughout standardized tests.
Long ago, during a guided reading group where I was working on writing structured responses to literary analysis questions in preparation for the NJ ASK, I discovered that, despite using the word at least a million times frequently in class, my kids had no idea what the word “cite” actually meant. I thought back to how many times I mentioned or saw in directions “be sure to cite from the text to support your answer” over the course of the year. Time and time again these kids were being asked to “cite” but they had no idea what that meant they were supposed to do.
After a little research, I discovered the world of academic vocabulary and from that moment on, I taught these words to my students.
There are dozens and dozens of words that can be considered academic vocabulary, but after spending some quality time with our district’s reading and social studies series, I’ve narrowed the list down to the following words essential for middle school students:
I introduce the words a few at a time and we practice using them. I point them out everywhere I see them and we talk again and again about their meaning. I hang posters of the words with their definitions in my room and refer back to them all.the.time.
This has made a HUGE difference in my students’ learning. Their answers to structured response questions improved and I had a lot less confusion/questions about assessment items. (Before, I’d find kids would often say, “I don’t get it” about certain test questions. I had always assumed that kids meant the concept the question was assessing… it never occurred to me that they were actually struggling with the wording of the question itself!)
Do you teach academic vocabulary to your students? Do you have a system for doing so? I’d love to hear about it!
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The academic vocabulary posters featured in this post can be found here.
Jenna Smith has been a teacher since she was old enough to sneak a pair of her mom’s high heels and play “school” with her rows of dolls and stuffed animals. For over a decade, she’s been teaching middle school in South Jersey, where she lives with her teacher-husband and four children. You can learn more about Jenna and her teaching approaches by visiting her blog Musings from the Middle School, following her on Facebook or Instagram, or stopping by her TpT store (also named Musings from the Middle School).