Breaking Down Academic Vocabulary

Our Social Studies PLC has been talking a lot lately about academic vocabulary.

For me, the research guru on this one is a no brainer: I follow what Marzano, Pickering, and Pollock  say in Classroom Instruction that Works (2001).  When you get past all of Marzano’s talk about standard deviation and statistical analysis of best practice, you find that he suggests a fairly simple and systematic process.

It starts with choosing the ESSENTIAL academic vocab terms. Then, front load with the following (paraphrased) five-step process of instruction:

  1. Present students with a brief explanation of the new term
  2. Present students with a visual (or “nonlinguistic representation”) for the term
  3. Ask students to generate their own explanations of the term
  4. Ask students to create their own visuals for the term
  5. As students read over the next few weeks, ask students to review their definitions and sketches in comparison to new texts

Unsurprisingly, I notice that when I rush through these stages or skip one of the steps, my students’ knowledge of the concepts drops!

Student Example


But, somehow–despite our better judgement–we do this!

When we ignore the research, hurrying our lesson along to the “fun” or “trendy” activity, our students actually miss the chance to deepen their understanding of what really matters.

The same goes for choosing too many terms. If I have some forty+ academic vocab words for each unit, how can I seriously think that 1) my students are going to master them all and 2) all of the terms really are essential?

In some ways, this makes me think back to my own World History class in ninth grade (i.e. “AP Coloring”… We spent A LOT of time coloring in maps that year!).  Back in the ’90s, my teacher would give us a study guide of 30+ vocab terms, send us to the back of our textbooks to record the definitions, and chillax at his desk. I don’t know what exactly he was doing at his desk; it’s certainly not like he was surfing the Internet back then. Regardless, this kind of vocabulary instruction was ineffective then and still is today.

My teacher example

For me, Marzano’s rules can be followed simple enough. Sometimes, I’ll even “fancy it up” and provide my students with printed boxes for the vocabulary notes, but most of the time, we just use our notebook pages and draw boxes as we go.

1. I start by giving the students a slightly more scholarly version of the term’s definition.

2. They translate the definition into their own words, either independently or by turning and talking to a neighbor, and record them in their notes.

3. Next, I draw my own quick sketch of the term. Trust me! This doesn’t have to be Caldecott-worthy artwork. Most of the time, mine are stick figures, and my fifteen-year old art critics tease me because I’ve given Carnegie three eyes or whatever.

4. As I’m creating my thirty-second masterpiece, students sketch their own images. Sometimes they replicate my drawing, but mostly they come up with something on their own, far better than my original.

Depending on the unit and the particular vocab terms, we sometimes do a kinesthetic mix-up. Instead of drawing our “non-linguistic representations,” we create quick, dance moves to correspond with a few of the terms. Mostly these are simple, impromptu moves that we create on the spot during our interactive lectures.  What’s interesting is that I notice some kids subtly moving through the physical representations during our assessments. If a kid’s gotta break out the Sherman Anti-Trust Act dance move in order to remember it’s deeper meaning, I say go for it.

5. Lastly, we continuously reference the terms throughout the unit. Each time they close read a new primary document or revisit the concept in an Article of the Week, I point it out on our unit’s anchor chart, discussing the variations of meaning.

I know anchor charts dominate most elementary classrooms, but I don’t feel like they get enough playtime at the secondary level.  After I started using them a few years ago, I’ve found them central to mentally locking down concepts for students. In my high school classroom, the chart paper moves from the podium (when we’re in the middle of unit) and then stays on the wall the rest of the year. That way we can collect a big picture representation of our months of comprehensive learning.

When it comes to vocabulary, Marzano and Pickering break it down is the most straight up way in Building Academic Vocabulary: Teacher’s Manual, (2005):

“Given the importance of academic background knowledge and the fact that vocabulary is such an essential aspect of it, one of the most crucial servies that teachers can provide, particularly for students who do not come from academically advantaged backgrounds is systematic instruction in important academic terms.”

So, that’s it.

It may not be trendy or even really fun, but research-based vocabulary instruction needs to be an essential part of our instruction.

To close, I want to open it up to you: How do you work within Marzano’s process while staying true to the unique needs of your students?

One thought on “Breaking Down Academic Vocabulary

  1. Thanks for your post. I always have a “word wall” that included a definition and image of each term so when it comes up during a close reading or class discussion I can point to it on the word wall. I also require, in all my rubrics, that students use the historical vocabulary in their written responses to exit tickets, etc.

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