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Developing Students' Academic Vocabulary Helps Beat Achievement Gap

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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At a small school district, I faced the challenge as an administrator of diminishing the achievement gap in the student scores, especially in math and science. For example, we noticed that in science there was a 40-point gap between Hispanic students passing the test versus the number of white students passing. Having been in the classrooms and having observed teachers teaching, I knew that they were not treating Hispanic students any differently than the white students. So why was there an achievement gap?

We wrestled with this question for a while. Then one day when I was talking with my own children the problem dawned on me: I sometimes had to watch how I spoke with my own children because they would give me funny looks when I used the "big" or unfamiliar words. My own children spoke English just fine, but they did not understand words like ubiquitous, loquacious, or facetious. The solution was looking me in the face quizzically. So, were teachers using academic language that the students whose first language was English were more familiar with? To make a long story short, we decided to increase the level of vocabulary development, primarily using many sheltered language techniques. The results were astounding. Because of this and an intense college readiness focus, in two years, our schools went from the status of unacceptable to recognized and then the next year, exemplary.

Sheltered Techniques & Marzano

Sheltered instruction is designed with the idea of helping teachers of regular subjects to accommodate for English language learners in their classroom. A close look at the strategies and the techniques of sheltered instruction will reveal that many of them are suitable for all classes.

We learned a few things in the process of increasing the vocabulary readiness of our students. Notice that I did not say that we diminished the academic language of the teachers. The focus was on helping the students to better understand and speak academic language. One of the foundations of sheltered instruction is "comprehensible input." What this means is that when the teacher is speaking to the students, the teacher should use multiple contextual clues that provide meaning along with the spoken words. A teacher would use the words verbally, but at the same time, point to the objects being described, and also show the words in written format. Gestures, pantomime, movement, actions, sounds, pictures, graphics, and video all are additional methods that teachers have at their disposal to increase the likelihood that their students will understand the message.

At about the same time we came across Robert Marzano's Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement which basically states that before a student can grasp the concepts being taught, the student needs a mental scaffold in which to place them. Experience, first-hand or virtual, is the number one scaffold-building tool. Reading is second best and the next best tool is intense vocabulary development prior to instruction.

As a Spanish teacher, I learned early on that the mouth is connected to the brain, and if the mouth could not say the word, then there was little chance that the brain would remember it. Learning new content in math or science is much like learning in a conversational Spanish class. If done right, the students will leave the class being fluent in the language and culture of science or they will be able to converse in the language of math. This requires that the teacher needs to initially realize that students may not understand completely what reduce, simplify, analyze, compute, illustrate, or group means.

Strategies that Work

The best way I have learned to build vocabulary is beginning with a visual/verbal/aural Bloom's Taxonomy-like scaffolding method -- starting easy then getting more complex and difficult.

Recognition of the word in context: As I point to the endoplasmic reticulum picture I say, "Is this an endoplasmic reticulum?" The students say in unison, "Yes." As I point to a picture of a ribosome I say, "Is this a vacuole?" Hopefully they respond, "No." As a total physical response (TPR) methodology, I can ask them to stand next to or point to the mitochondria, chloroplasts, etc.

Reproduction of the words in context: After going through all the words, I ask them to say the words aloud, as I point to such things as the nucleus. After I am satisfied they can say the words, then I check their understanding, "Which organelle of the cell processes energy for the nucleus?" (Mitochondria/chloroplasts). "Which parts of the cell are necessary to create proteins?" (Endoplasmic Reticulum, nucleus, Golgi apparatus, and ribosomes).

Written words in context: I then start bringing out the written-word strips and ask the students to match them with the pictures. Then, and only then will I let the students start reading the chapters, or workbooks, because, not only are they now familiar with the concepts, but they have muscle memory of the words in their mouths and know how to say them and thus remember them. This method is more enjoyable and more effective for students than writing the words ten times each in sentences, an all too-typical vocabulary development technique.

To increase student-learning success and decrease the achievement gap, what other vocabulary development techniques and strategies do you use to help students develop the necessary background knowledge?

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Gary S. Mathews's picture
Gary S. Mathews
Superintendent, Newton County School System, Covington, GA

Ben Johnson is right on target using Robert Marzano's BUILDING BACKGROUND KNOWLEDGE FOR ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT, ASCD, 2004. Kids gain background knowledge in at least four ways: from a caring, competent adult mentor; from exposure in the field (museums, acquariums, opera, a Braves baseball game even, etc.); from wide reading (such as that put forth in Marzano's book); from vocabulary development. When a caring, competent adult (mentor) is not readily at hand or resources will not allow venturing a lot into the field, then Direct Vocabulary Instruction (DVI), per Marzano's six steps and other recommendations, is indispensible in instruction, esp. for academically "at-risk" students. For the past six years--in Virginia and in Georgia--I have found DVI as something that will impact most positively student learning outcomes. For when it comes to any assessment (state or classroom), if Johnny or Susan does not know what certain words mean, they often do not intelligibly arrive at a correct response, much less put such in their own words, or bring synthesis or evaluation to the topic at hand.

Kerri Allen's picture
Kerri Allen
Communications Manager, National Association for Urban Debate Leagues

If vocabulary is the academic edge in closing the achievement gap for these minority students, introducing and encouraging kids to debate is an effective, interesting way to strengthen those skills. A new report by Dr. Briana Mezuk shows that urban students who participated in debate - even when compared with equally academically-oriented peers - had higher ACT scores in all four subject areas (including science and math) and higher overall GPA. The Boston Debate League has trained Boston Public School teachers to incorporate Evidence Based Argumentation in their classrooms with great success in improving learning outcomes.

Anne Beninghof's picture

We find it helpful to have students apply vocabulary in multiple contexts. Using the "Deal or No Deal" television show to spark interest, I made 25 briefcases. Inside each I wrote a location - a trip students could win. These include places such as a movie theater, the mall, an amusement park, the grocery store or a pizza parlor. A student acts as contestant to choose and open a briefcase, announcing to the class where their trip is taking them. Pairs then have to generate an idea for how they would use the vocabulary term on their trip. For example, if the word is "allegiance," and the trip is to the grocery store, a student might respond "I have a very strong allegiance to cocoa puffs cereal. I won't buy any other kind!" Teachers have found this activity to be engaging and effective for students across grade levels and content areas. Each quarter we change the contexts inside the briefcases. Our list of contexts includes occupations, hobbies, types of media, famous people and holidays - as is growing with our students! Feel free to contact me at if you would like a copy of the briefcase graphic for this strategy.

Sue Boudreau's picture
Sue Boudreau
Seventh Grade science teacher from Orinda, California

Teachers for Learners have developed these magnetic card kits for several curriculum areas. Spend a few minutes sorting out the vocab. that is relevant to the topic you are covering and have kids pick the word they'll define and link in to the co-constructed concept map. It's really fun, really interesting to see where they are coming from. You can find out one way to use these at which also includes a link to where to order the card sets from.

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