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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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Comments (14) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Annabelle Howard's picture

Good article, Ben.
We have the largest achievement gap in the country here in CT. I worked in a bilingual after-school program in New Haven to try to create an online system that would help close the gap. I, too, realized a lot of the problem was in a lack of vocabulary. So, I created math vocab games and English vocabulary games. These students went from "below basic" to "goal" and one girl went to "advanced" in math. Out of this came a statewide motivational learning league for CT with live scoreboards that rank kids by how hard they are working. Results were just published by ConnCAN showing the top 10 schools in the state that made the biggest leap in state tests -- 3 out of 10 use my learning league system (and we are only in 5% of the CT schools!). This system is called TestPrepFUN (terrible name). It is a non-profit.
Now, I am at work on my400words which will teach academic vocabulary in line with Common Core. The pedagogy is based on a book much cited by CCSS in Appendix A of ELA--Bringing Words to Life. If you have students who would like to help test my400words for free and make it better . . . please, let's be in touch!

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I am so impressed. It is nice to know that superintendents take time to see what is out there. It is obvious that you stay abreast of the eduction news because you are perusing Edutopia.org. We found that increasing student learning was a simple and immediate fix-- make sure they understood the words we use.

It would be awesome if some of your teachers took a moment to chime in and share what they do to be effective at DVI.

Thanks for the post and keep up the good work!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


I am so happy that you are involved with helping all students, especially the ones that don't think they can debate, to engage mentally and verbally. In the process of the debate training, I am sure that a certain ammount of vocabulary training is performed to assist the students in understanding the issues and identifying solutions. No student can truly debate unless there is some level of knowledge to support the opinions. What strategies do you use to increase student understanding through vocabulary development?

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, TX

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Thank you so much for being willing to share. This is a great vocabulary development activity for a number of reasons: It is interesting, kids are familiar with the game, it is open ended (i.e. the students have to come up with a creative response that displays understanding), and it is flexible enough to include numerous content areas. Thanks for spending the time to create this for your students and share it with us.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Great idea with the concept cards. I can envision students making their own cards also. I see the power behind the mapping exercise. Students will be able to see how the ideas relate and I am sure that very engaging conversations ensue.

Thanks for sharing.

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator


Thank you so much for sharing your expertise and congratulations on your success. I don't understand some teachers who want to get rid of competitions in the classroom. Students love them and they love seeing their progress. Just because some students will score or perform better than other students does not mean that the "non" winners are stupid or will be emotionally damaged for life. In fact the contrary is true.

I would love to help you find schools that will test your 400 words. I can talk to ten schools that I am working with now. Just drop me a line by email and let me know. (I think if you click on my name it sends you to my email address).

Well done and good luck!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio, Texas

Ben Johnson's picture
Ben Johnson
Administrator, author and educator

Mr. Mayor:

I went to your website and found out that you are being absolutely forthright in your assertions (unlike some politicians) and you have provided tremendous resources, free of charge to anyone-- you did not even require that we create a free account, though we can do that.

What you have placed at our disposal is a magnificent tool for RTI, ELL, and differentiated instruction three of the most challenging teaching tasks for regular teachers. I played a few games and listened to the oral vocabulary--very top-notch. Then for almost nothing, the premium offerings make the recording and grading progress super easy. Thank you for sharing this valuable vocabulary building resource.

Again Great stuff! Thanks for Sharing!

Ben Johnson
San Antonio Texas

VocabularySpellingCity Mayor's picture
VocabularySpellingCity Mayor
I'm the founder of VocabularySpellingCity.com and Science4Us, two significant contributions to elementary edtech

Ben, This is a great post on how to teach academic vocabulary with direct instruction. I have an online educational service, VocabularySpellingCity.com, that is often used to introduce or reinforce academic vocabulary. We have provided free to all users, academic vocabulary with human (ie non-robotic) voice overs speaking contextually rich sentences for about 50,000 words, including a large volume of math and science academic vocabulary words. Teachers are free to add their own definitions and sentences, which get vocalized by a synthetic voice.

Here are the math and science vocabulary word lists by grade that we have prepared.


Cara's picture
4th grade NBCT

As a 4th grade teacher who is Nationally Board Certified in Literacy, I found your article very refreshing and relevant. So many of my students struggle with vocabulary development, even though they are fluent speakers and writers. Thinking of state standardized testing and its terminology, students often have trouble discerning the vocabulary. They are fully prepared and know the skill but are unfamiliar with the appropriate terminology, therefore they do not score as well as they should. (I am in no way advocating standardized testing, but it is a way of life for us!)

I find students are most immersed in vocabulary when they are given multiple exposures to the words in text, are given real life situations to practice the text, and receive rote drill and practice. One of my favorite ways to accomplish my vocabulary goals is by using the website, VocabularySpellingCity. http://www.spellingcity.com This site gives my students fun ways to practice and review their vocabulary words in multiple situations. My favorite section is the Math Vocabulary http://www.spellingcity.com/math-vocabulary.html since my students seem to struggle most with this terminology. My students play the games on our interactive whiteboard everyday to gain familiarity with the math terms. Then, I use the site to give their vocabulary test online. My weekly math scores are better due to a better sense of the vocabulary.

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