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Use and Teach Content Vocabulary Daily

Corwin Press, an imprint of Sage Publications
Copying definitions from the dictionary and memorizing words for tests is not sufficient work for students to master and retain new vocabulary. This article helps teachers choose which words are most important to teach and suggests strategies to bring those words to life for students.
All words are pegs to hang ideas on.
— Henry Ward Beecher

Make the vocabulary of your subject matter come to life for students. You can’t do it by simply handing out a list on Monday, assigning the definitions to be completed by Wednesday, and giving a test on Friday. Students will, as you know, mindlessly copy the meanings from the dictionary or glossary with little conceptual understanding. Word Walls won’t magically infuse your students with a fabulous vocabulary, either.

Unless you personally bring those words to life, many students will memorize the meanings for the test and promptly forget them; others won’t even be able to remember them for the test. Oh, some students may recognize them in their reading, but the solid understanding they need to comprehend the text of your discipline won’t be there. The most important words to teach are those concepts that lay the foundation for entire units of study or for your discipline in general. Use these questions to help you formulate your priorities:

  1. What are the key concepts of your discipline?
  2. What words are indispensable to understanding the text?
  3. What words have multiple meanings?
  4. What are the common American idioms?
  5. What words are needed to take tests?
  6. What words are essential for ELL students both in your classroom and discipline?

Here’s how to teach words for mastery:

  1. Post the words in your classroom in their syllabicated forms (e.g. math-e-ma-tics) to aid struggling readers who have a difficult time identifying and pronouncing multisyllabic words.
  2. Provide a student-friendly definition of the word.
  3. Suggest synonyms or antonyms for the word.
  4. Put the new word into a context or connect it to a known concept.
  5. Use the new word on multiple occasions and in multiple contexts (e.g., sentence starters, games).
  6. Whenever you say the word, run your hand or a pointer under the syllables of the word as you pronounce it, quickly cueing struggling readers to associate your spoken word with the written word on the wall.
  7. Place several new words into a shared context.
  8. Ask questions that contain the new word so students must process its meaning in multiple ways.
  9. Add the new word to an already existing classroom concept map, or construct a new concept map using the new word as the foundational concept.
  10. Expect pairs of students to construct semantic word maps for new vocabulary.
  11. Give students extra credit points for hearing or seeing content vocabulary in other contexts.
McEwan, E.K. (2007).40 Ways to Support Struggling Readers in Content Classrooms, Grades 6-12 . Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press. Reprinted with permission from Corwin Press.