11 Tips on Teaching Common Core Critical Vocabulary | Edutopia
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Teaching vocabulary within the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) is an essential component of standards-based curriculum alignment. Making the critical words second nature to our students will enhance achievement on assessments and will be useful in college and career. To process and store the academic vocabulary of the standards, our students’ brains require an efficient automatic memory system. This system, also called nonmotor procedural memory, stores information that is repeated, such as multiplication tables, song lyrics, words and definitions.

Following are 11 strategies, supported by education and memory research, for teaching critical CCSS words while keeping the cognitive verbs in mind: analyze, evaluate, compare, delineate, etc. Cognitive verbs require processing skills that are automatic (unconscious) to free up working memory space, the area in the brain that holds new information and connects it to long-term memory.

Identifying the Best Words to Teach

Find out which words are "your" words. Read the CCSS for your grade level, highlighting the words you think your students won't know. Then go back to each year prior to yours and highlight those words. You can find a list of 55 critical words on my website. Next, create a pre-assessment for your students with these critical words. A simple list of words followed by columns marked "Yes" (I understand), "No" (I don't understand) and "Maybe" (I might understand) is a start. Use this information and your professional judgment to decide which words have not yet been mastered and require instruction.

Teach the words in the order they are presented in the CCSS. Begin with the verbs presented at the earliest grade levels. The CCSS doesn’t use the word analyze until fifth grade, but in subsequent grades it is used 80 more times. If you teach any grade above fifth, analyze is a critical word for your students to know and use with facility.

Vocabulary Exercises Supported by Educational and Memory Research

  1. Introduce a word and determine a definition or description with your students. Using their own language to describe what a word means will help students remember the appropriate definition.
  2. Have students draw a picture of the word or what the word represents. Analyze, for example, means to break something into its component parts. I have seen students' drawings that depict a figure breaking a stick over its knees, block towers tumbling down, and unpacked Russian nesting dolls.
  3. Ask students to find synonyms and antonyms for each word on a list. Synonyms are often used as definitions, so the process of finding and discussing these terms is crucial. Give each student a nametag that includes either the critical word or its synonym. Let students figure out which words are related and form synonym circles. The circles can line up together or work in groups that day.
  4. To store words more easily in automatic memory, let students compose jingles or songs for words and definitions.
  5. Have students create semantic maps or mind maps for some words.
  6. Vocabulary gloves: have students write the vocabulary word on the back of cheap canvas gloves. On the front, have them write a sentence on the palm, synonyms on the thumb, pointer, and middle finger, an antonym on the ring finger, and the definition on the pinky. Gloves can be used for independent or paired practice.
  7. Have students act out word meanings to activate their procedural memory.
  8. You and your students can create review games to reinforce the words. For example, here are some guidelines for Vocabulary Bingo:
    • Hand out Bingo cards with definitions in the squares.
    • Students ask each other if they know what word fits one of the definitions and to sign the square if they know.
    • Once all squares have signatures, draw student names from a container; all students with that signature cover the square.
    • Students yell "Bingo!" when they have five in a row. The five students whose names are covered on the card must know the correct word.
  9. Create vocabulary word pages in a notebook. When the word appears in different contexts or content areas, students can return to that page and add new information. This will help them use the words more easily in writing and speaking.
  10. Model the use of the words in your classroom. The more often that students hear them, the more automatic their use of those words will become.
  11. Be aware of eye accessing cues.1 When a student is struggling with a test question, he or she will often be looking down, which accesses emotions -- perhaps the emotion of feeling "dumb." To access information, such as definitions or visual memories of words, eyes must be looking up. When you observe this, stand over the student and ask a question that forces him or her to look up, possibly triggering the information.

During the school year, have students practice critical words in several different ways that will help store them in different parts of the brain. Later, this will help learners retrieve the words and definitions when the right context emerges. Research2 has clearly established that students will achieve higher scores on standardized tests if they know the vocabulary of the standards.

How do you identify and teach vocabulary? Please share your experiences and suggestions in the comments section below.


1Payne, R. (2009). A framework for understanding poverty. Highlands, TX: Aha Process.
2Tileston, D. Closing the RTI gap. Indianapolis: Solution Tree.

Comments (25)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Andria Cole's picture
Andria Cole
ELA Instructional Facilitator at Talent Development Secondary

This summer I had the privilege of working with a former master teacher (now an ELA IF, like me). She demonstrated a strategy that I've been begging my teachers and coaches to use ever since. She creates PowerPoints for 3-5 of the vocabulary terms to be covered on a given day. 5 or 6 slides are dedicated to a single word. The first slide notes its pronunciation, definition, and forms. The others are dedicated to creating "an experience" around the word. Let's use relinquish, for instance. She'll cite a quote from Deepak Chopra; she'll pose a question--Would you relinquish your cell phone for a used car?; she'll spark a controversial debate: Should adoptive parents have the right to relinquish their rights to an out-of-control teen?; she'll show a video clip of someone relinquishing something... The idea is that the kids are given multiple, engaging exposures to the word. They're asked to respond to questions that require knowledge of its definition, and to use it in a sentence. Lastly, she adds the word to the word wall, but with an image. I'm just in love with this approach.

Marilee Sprenger's picture
Marilee Sprenger
Author and Speaker on the Brain, Learning, Memory, Common Core Standards

This is an awesome strategy. With a few differences, I have included this in my next vocabulary book for ASCD. A teacher in one of my workshops does something very similar. All teachers could apply this. Thank you!

Lisa Dabbs's picture
Lisa Dabbs
Educational Consultant. Author. Speaker. Blogger.

Marilee...your strategies are amazing! I should have known that you are an author for ASCD. You present the opportunities to engage with students in such a way that you provide a road map that most could easily follow.
To answer your=>How do you identify and teach vocabulary? question...I was a principal for 14 years so my role was to support my teachers through this and would have used your post as a resource. I would also add that I worked for a year as a consultant with an app developer who, with my encouragement, designed their apps 3-8th grade to support the common core in Reading, Math and other content areas. Here is a link to their site: http://www.edupad.com/ I would encourage others who are looking for tech tools to support teaching vocabulary with #CCSS to check it out!

Samantha Carr's picture

I teach foreign language and have used all of these techniques! They are very engaging for my students. We also play a form of "Password" where the students use circumlocution to give clues to their partner as they try to guess the word. No one is allowed to use any form of the word to describe it, example: shoebox, they cannot use the words shoe or box to define the item or action. This is very popular with my students, but very difficult in a foreign language!

zep's picture
Education Specialist

I can't express enough how frightening this entire concept of "critical vocab" is. I wonder how many of these critical words are used daily in truly diverse communities, such as impoverished parts of our inner cities and areas where clusters of recent immigrants are found, my guess is zero. Focusing students attention on words simply because they are deemed critical to passing a test (CCSS aligned standardized tests) seems to define ethnocentrism. Those curious about this form of covert racism may find it interesting to review the "chitling test", simply google it, to see the impact of prioritizing one set of "critical vocab" over other cultures' commonly used vocab.

Andria Cole's picture
Andria Cole
ELA Instructional Facilitator at Talent Development Secondary

Me again! Currently, I'm enrolled in a course that explores technology as an absolutely necessary element of today's classroom. In the class' most recent session we were exposed to a concept called the Universal Design for Learning. I won't attempt to describe it in its entirety here, but two of its most important tenets are the ideas that students have opportunities to receive information in a variety of ways and that they be able to express their understanding of that information in a variety of ways. I don't know that educators as a whole (myself included) ever really "got" how to aid our students' vocabulary acquisition, even before Common Core. Now that the focus is on Tier 2 words I fear that we'll present vocabulary in an even stricter light, which is why I find this post so extremely helpful. I will be passing it on to my teachers.

Marilee Sprenger's picture
Marilee Sprenger
Author and Speaker on the Brain, Learning, Memory, Common Core Standards

Thank you for your comment. It is definitely food for thought. I agree that many of these words are not in our students' daily vocabulary. I wrote the book, Teaching the Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core, specifically for teachers trying to prepare for new standards and an unknown assessment, and also because so many of the words are critical thinking processes that are needed by students in other stages of life. Creating fun and interesting ways to help students remember and use higher level thinking is a goal of most educators. I found encouragement in the work of Ruby Payne, Larry Bell, Eric Jensen and others who are trying to raise the achievement levels of impoverished students by increasing vocabulary. Seeing student success through learning and using these words as well as many other Tier 2 vocabulary words has been inspiring. Success in education can be measured by an assessment, but it is also measured by student attention, motivation, and personal satisfaction.

Marilee Sprenger's picture
Marilee Sprenger
Author and Speaker on the Brain, Learning, Memory, Common Core Standards

Thank you, Andria! One of my fears with the need for more direct vocabulary instruction is that teachers who are so short on time would do what I used to do...assign vocabulary rather than teach it. I hope the strategies I have included in the blog and in my book provide ideas for short lessons that can add to classroom learning.

Eric Springer's picture
Eric Springer
Fourth Grade teacher at American School of Kuwait

We are starting a unit on word work for the common core standards as we want our students to know the important words to take charge of their own learning. I found your activities very interesting and engaging and plan on bringing this up at our next grade level meeting. Thanks for putting this up!

zep's picture
Education Specialist

The summative question I retain is, whose vocabulary is in the common core, and can a singular assessment validly measure students from all cultural contexts? The work of Ruby Payne in particular has been ripe with critique from academics focused on ethnocentric curricula; thanks for the response & for keeping the conversation going, for all of us to continue thinking deeply ourselves.

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