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Teaching Strategies

3 Ways to Help Students Master Academic Language

To get kids wielding academic and discipline-specific vocabulary, they need to observe words in context as they read, talk, and write about topics and concepts—and receive explicit instruction.

September 15, 2023

Teaching students academic and discipline-specific language in the classroom isn’t about getting them to stockpile “big” words. Rather, researchers concur, when students know the contextual meaning of words in academic or informational texts, it allows them to unlock new and difficult materials—in the process making them better readers, which in turn exposes them to even more high-level vocabulary. 

Experts tend to think about vocabulary in tiers, says Todd Finley, an English education professor at East Carolina University. Tier one includes basic, everyday words that students hear often in conversation. Tier-two words, often referred to as academic vocabulary, aren't commonly used in conversations but they’re likely to show up across content areas, making them important to teach. They include words like “summarize,” “hypothesize,” and “analyze.” Third-tier words—vocabulary students will encounter in discipline-specific textbooks, informational passages, and assignments—are especially important to deliberately teach because they’re critical for understanding key concepts in a text. “No student comes to school adept in academic discourse—thus, thoughtful instruction is required,” Finley writes.

Adapting strategies that work well for English learners can be a highly effective way to teach all students academic vocabulary, suggest educators Tan Huynh and Beth Skelton, authors of the recently published book Long-Term Success for Experienced Multilinguals. “To succeed in all subjects, students need additional scaffolding to understand the unique vocabulary, phrasing, and conventions of those disciplines,” Huynh and Skelton told The Cult of Pedagogy. “When teachers intentionally design instruction and assessments with academic language support in place, they unlock those worlds for students and give them the tools they need to thrive.” 

Here are three ways to deepen students’ understanding and comfort level with academic and discipline-specific language in your classroom. 

Spotlight Key Vocabulary

In middle and high school, Finley suggests starting with “high-frequency, general instruction” tier-two vocabulary. These are words “learners need to know to complete an activity but that are not a lesson’s primary learning objective,” and can help prime students to make the transition to more sophisticated language, Finley writes. 

High school English teacher Jason DeHart kicks off vocabulary learning with his whole class. "I say [the words], have students say them, and then have them discuss the words in groups,” he writes. These discussions focus on linking new vocabulary to words students are already familiar with, and coming up with personalized, easy to remember definitions of the words, rather than the “rote” ones they’ll find in textbooks. 

When choosing specific words to focus on, DeHart identifies not only the “high-currency” ones Finley suggests, but also mixes in more advanced words like “ambience” and “hyperbole,” so students begin to familiarize themselves with language that they’ll encounter more frequently in future lessons. 

Because research shows that students need repeated exposure to words to move them into long-term memory, DeHart recommends word walls to reinforce key, discipline-specific words you’d like them to begin deploying in their discussions and writing. Similarly, Huynh and Skelton recommend unit-specific word banks—written lists of key subject-specific words or sentences students can consult during assignments—that can be swapped out as kids move from unit to unit. 

To further scaffold vocabulary learning, post discipline-specific sentence stems around the room, suggests Dr. Kate Kinsella, professor of education at San Francisco State University. Example frames include: “The key factors leading to _________ can be traced back to _________, ” or, “The concept of  _________ is essential because _________.”

Blend New Language into Writing 

To give students opportunities to practice using new words, writing activities should focus on producing discipline-specific styles of writing that help them analyze and synthesize knowledge like real-life practitioners in a given discipline, writes ReLeah Cossett Lent, a former teacher and literacy consultant.

Science writing, for example, should use precise vocabulary, be composed in a passive voice, and favor exactness over elaboration, Cossett Lent writes. Writing in history class should prioritize efficiently synthesizing information from multiple sources, organizing ideas, facts, and evidence, and writing in an argumentative manner. Cossett Lent likes to draw on literacy strategies to reinforce discipline-specific writing, for example asking students to pause and consider what they know about a given topic or concept. In science class, this KWL strategy becomes, “observe, infer, and conclude,” and in math class it can evolve into “deconstruct, solve, apply.” 

To give students enough time to practice this type of writing, Huynh and Skelton suggest weaving discipline-specific writing into everyday classroom tasks. A lesson related to focal points and convex lenses in physics class, for example, can end with an exit ticket asking students to use precise vocabulary or phrases to explain what they learned about both topics. 

Additionally, consider inserting explicit language requirements—and brief explanations of those requirements—into writing assignments, Huynh and Skelton suggest. For example: “Compare the social inequality in nineteenth-century France to the reality of the twenty-first century Western society using comparative language (both, just like, another similarity, etc.)” or “Predict what will happen to the main character in the next chapter using conditional language such as might or could.” 

Get Them Talking

Thoughtful and engaging academic discussions are another way to help students bridge the gap between abstract terms and concrete understanding. To ensure discussions are productive—and that they feature the specific phrases and terms you’d like them to adopt—students need explicit support, writes Boston district-level literacy leader Gwen Blumberg. 

One way Blumberg likes to scaffold academic discussions is by using a “Progression of Talk” framework created by educator Cynthia Satterlee. The strategy is designed to provide prompts and sentence stems to help keep comments relevant, build on what was said by peers, and make room for clarifying arguments, disagreements, and elaboration. 

Similarly, Catherine Paul, an eighth-grade language arts teacher, uses “talk moves”—which are brief prompts that she tapes to students’ desks that remind them to ask clarifying questions during discussions, like “I think what you mean is…” or questions that get peers to expand on thoughts, like “Can you explain more about…” Paul says the practice pushes kids “out of their comfort zone of social conversations,” and encourages them to adopt a more “professional and academic kind of register.” 

In high school, meanwhile, rubrics can quickly clarify discipline-specific language students are expected to use during discussions. Rubrics might define, for example, specific vocabulary words for a science or math classroom—words like “hypothesis”, “variable”, or “derivative”—and an expectation that students should use them fluently and in the correct context during their discussions of a specific topic related to the terms. Peers can be brought in during fishbowl discussions to observe and use the rubrics to track how well students are sticking to these goals—as well as to provide useful, low-stakes feedback at the end. 

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