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Common Core

11 Tips on Teaching Common Core Critical Vocabulary

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: 1) Hand out Bingo cards with definitions in the squares. 2) Students ask each other if they know what word fits one of the definitions and to sign the square if they know. 3) Once all squares have signatures, draw student names from a container; all students with that signature cover the square. 4) 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. (Ref. Payne, R.) 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. Research (Ref. Tileston, D.) 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.

Reference Notes

  • Payne, R. (2009). A framework for understanding poverty. Highlands, TX: Aha Process.
  • Tileston, D. Closing the RTI gap. Indianapolis: Solution Tree.
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TODD SENTELL's picture
Author of the hilarious schoolhouse memoir, "Can't Wait to Get There. Can't Wait to Leave"


Words are powerful things. They're sometimes like little bullets on a page of paper. Without words, all we'd do, I guess, is draw, wave our arms around, spit, and grunt.

In first period language arts class today, we read, going around, one at a time, the new fifteen words at the beginning of lesson 4. "Punctilious" landed on Lucy. She asked ... Is that OCD?

I was struck silent for a moment. Struck impressed. She's so sneaky smart. Lucy has obsessive compulsive disorder. I said, Not really. God. Sort of. Read the definition.

Lucy said ... Careful of and attentive to details, especially ones relating to good manners and behavior. Punctilious.

In class, sitting at her desk, when Lucy speaks to you in her always-quiet voice, she puts her right elbow on the desk and then presses the four fingers together. Then she moves her thumb underneath her fingers and it all looks like a duck beak. Lucy doesn't move the fingers like a beak when she talks, but she told me one time after I asked her why she does that ... It helps me communicate better.

Lucy also constantly picks at the skin on her arms and pulls out her arm hair and picks at the skin on her ankles and picks the hairs off of her ankles, too. All the teachers let her do it for a while and then ask her to stop. She stops without complaining, but then she starts up again when you're looking the other way. She pays attention while she picks, but sometime you can catch her lost in that world and she can't find where the going-around-the-class reading had ended with Brainerd or Lazlo.

Miss Velvet, her homeroom teacher and advisor by default, says Lucy's mother is oblivious to her daughter's disorders. That's hard to believe, but it could be true. As a teacher you get to know the parents real well, too, by default.

Lucy had come to class today with the hairs of her right arm shaved off. Her left arm still had hairs. No one other than Lucy's mother would have shaved the arm. I'm pretty sure. Maybe Lucy's mother is oblivious to everything else that puts her in this school.

Now we're quietly working on our own in the vocabulary workbook, except Lucy. She's hunkered down over her left arm. I don't say anything. I get up and walk around and look out a window and actually whistle a little bit and then sneak up behind Lucy to discover that in the duck beak she had hidden a pair of tweezers.


Roz-boyerski's picture
8th Grade Reading/Writing Teacher

These are great ideas for helping teach the academic vocabulary that coincides with the new Common Core Standards. Our school just switched to them this year, and we have noticed a gap in our students' understanding a lot of question stems and general vocabulary being used within the standards. I hope that some of these strategies will help them bridge that gap a little bit faster!

KarlaO's picture

This is a great article. This is our second year using common core standard, and I have noticed that the vocabulary for kindergarten is very good to improve our students' vocabulary skills. The strategies provided in this article are great for any grade level.

Diane Mattison-Nottage's picture
Diane Mattison-Nottage
Instructional Coach/Mentor from Springfield, Oregon

Just want to thank everyone for thoughtful comments and for airing serious concerns in a respectful yet urgent tone. Too much of the Common Core discussion is just too fearful and, to my way of thinking, unproductive. I too have serious concerns about the Common Core and its focus on specific Academic Vocabulary. However I also believe that through serious discussions we can create an environment where we are addressing the CCSS requirements without disenfranchising students from various cultures and backgrounds. Keep talking people, love your ideas and insights!

Tim's picture

A similar approach I have used to teaching words through picture is to have students find YouTube videos that somehow demonstrate the word. For example, when teaching the word "abominate," I showed the students the clip from Little Rascals where Alfalfa writes, "Dear Darla, I hate your stinking guts."

In addition, thank you for your idea on pre-assessment of words. Normally, I have done this at the beginning of the year, but I am going to try to use it for individual units of instruction, so the students know the words causing them the most difficulty.

Jane's picture
elementary special ed teacher

Great point. My students have been taking practice tests that are similar to the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium test for Common Core. One of the things they have found most difficult and stressful is that the test vocabulary differs so much from the standardized testing they are used to taking. When I "translate" the test question for them the light bulbs go on. Making a list of and teaching the vocabulary used in the grade my students are in as well as the prior years is a great idea.

Ghibli Kang's picture
Ghibli Kang
im interested in Education setion.Because the education is the future

Yes, it's a great article, and i agree with all the things. However, drawing picture and searching on the youtube are not adequate for Tenth, Eleventh grade. Because these method take too time. 10,11 grade spend most of time on preparing college, like SAT or ACT and GPA. So they can not use most of time to memorize the words like above way. Your methods that memorize the work are only for younger ages.

Lauren2721's picture

This was a great article! I think that the students struggle more than anything with vocabulary and wording. We can give them work with questions that they do not understand; however, if you take the time to reword what the question is asking then they know what to do. It is not that they do not know the answers but they do not know what the question is asking. For example, we were working on something at the sixth grade level that asked "What was Percy's challenge?" and students were completed lost. However, once it was reworded and explained as what was the problem that Percy had in this chapter, they all knew right away what to do. They are getting stuck on vocabulary so these are some great ways to expose the students more to the vocabulary. I believe that is what it is. They do not have the exposure so they do not know what the questions are asking and the vocabulary is too much for them, and they get lost in that part alone. I like coming up with whatever game I can to reinforce vocabulary and expose the students to the words in fun ways where they do not realize they are learning. Vocabulary is crucial in the learning of students and helps tremendously with the Common Core.

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