Professional Learning

Developing Students’ Academic Vocabulary Helps Beat Achievement Gap

Strategies for developing students’ academic vocabulary that help decrease the achievement gap.

December 9, 2011

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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