Volume III, Issue I

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Heather Clayton, the author of Making the Standards Come Alive!, is the principal of Mendon Center Elementary School in Pittsford Central School District, New York. She is also a co-author of Creating a Culture for Learning published by Just ASK.



Providing an All-Access Pass via Academic Vocabulary

“The limits of my language are the limits of my mind.
All I know is what I have words for.”
– Ludwig Wittgenstein

The Common Core is built on the idea that students will gain access to complex texts by reading texts of increasing complexity that spiral important ideas and concepts. With appropriate instruction and learning experiences, students can build their knowledge of the world through their interactions with texts and continually build a rich vocabulary that they can generalize to a number of different contexts.

Using Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan’s tiers of vocabulary model, Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards for ELA describes those tiers in this way:

Tier One words are the words of everyday speech usually learned in the early grades; they are not addressed in the standards.

Tier Two words (referred to in the Standards as academic vocabulary) are far more likely to appear in written texts than in speech. Because they are found across many types of texts, they are highly generalizable.

Tier Three words (referred to in the Standards as domain-specific vocabulary) are specific to a domain or field of study and are key to understanding new concepts. Tier Three words are more common in informational texts than in literature.


Exemplars of Academic and Domain-Specific Vocabulary

Units of Study Academic Vocabulary Domain-Specific Vocabulary
Immigration movement, settle, economic, political, destination, motive, barrier amnesty, admission, visa, deportation, verification
Natural Disasters devastation, damage, warning drought, fault, erosion, magma, tectonic plates, cyclone
Poetry rhyme, meter acrostic, haiku, cinquain,
free verse, quatrain
Quadrilaterals parallel, congruent, opposite, equal trapezoid, rhombus, square, rectangle, congruent


Students benefit from being explicitly taught how to study words, including word roots. As stated in the Educational Leadership article “Vocabulary: Five Common Misconceptions” by Nancy Padak, Karen Bromley, Tim Rasinski, and Evangeline Newton, a common misconception about vocabulary instruction is that studying Latin and Greek roots is too hard for young learners. However, teaching Latin and Greek roots and affixes, (prefixes and suffixes), is an important step for strengthening students’ repertoire of vocabulary words. In fact, the authors of this article share that more than sixty percent of academic words are made up of Latin or Greek word parts that will always have the same meaning.

Three Goals for Vocabulary Instruction

  • Provide students with skills and opportunities to learn words independently
  • Teach students the meaning of specific words
  • Nurture a love and appreciation of words and their use
Most English words are derived from Latin and Greek. Research shows that students benefit from instruction around specific roots. Learning just one root word can add as many as forty different English words to students’ vocabulary. For instance, if students learn the prefix “pro-” means forward or ahead, they will also be able to make meaning of the words proactive, profess, professor, professional, proclaim, provide, and provider to name a few. When students are learning new words, they should be given ample opportunity to make connections to other words they know are related. Their connections may be based on morphemes, or word parts, or their connections may be based on content. For instance, if students have learned the root word “port-” means to carry, they can make connections to other words like portage, portable, airport, seaport, import, and export. This approach is especially effective for our English Language Learners (ELLs). ELLs whose first language is Spanish benefit from this approach to vocabulary instruction because Spanish is based on Latin.

According to Robert Marzano, who has done extensive research in the area of vocabulary instruction, the “direct teaching of vocabulary might be one of the most underused activities in K-12 education. The lack of vocabulary instruction might be a result of misconceptions about what it means to teach vocabulary and its potential effect on student learning. Perhaps the biggest misconception is that teaching vocabulary means teaching formal dictionary definitions.”

Words for students to study should be chosen carefully. Just as carefully selecting texts for readers is important, the careful selection of words for vocabulary instruction is essential. When identifying words to be taught, educators should consider the following:

  • How frequently will students encounter the word?
  • Are students likely to see it in other texts?
  • Are students likely to attempt using it in their writing?
  • How central is the word to the meaning of the text?
  • Are there many related words or ways that students would be able to glean the word’s meaning through context?


There is not a list in existence that would support every grade level and students’ vocabulary. Rather, words should come from meaningful and authentic texts or contexts, help students learn the meaning of many other words, and be words that students will frequently encounter.

When planning vocabulary integration, it is not possible to teach every word students may encounter that will be unfamiliar. Instead, we need to think about front loading the words that would be very difficult for students to understand even using strategies and choose words that add value in terms of understanding the text being read and other texts for that course or grade level.

Beck, McKeown, and Kucan, in Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, suggest that students will benefit the most by focusing instruction on the academic vocabulary that contains words that will appear in a variety of domains. It is easy to get swept up in the teaching of all of the domain-specific words students will encounter, but the teaching of domain-specific words should be reserved for those words that are directly related to the reading that students are being asked to do.


Best Practice in Vocabulary Instruction

  • Explicitly teach students how to study words, including word roots.
  • Provide students many exposures to the words being studied.
  • Have students explore the relationship between the word being studied and other words that are related.
  • Choose the words to be studied carefully.
  • Engage students in actively processing the meaning of new words.



When learning a new word, students…

  • Need to hear it used in context
  • Listen to/read a description or explanation
  • Have a chance to make it their own

Students need to be engaged in processing the meaning of new words. When learning vocabulary, if students just copy down an explanation or description provided by the teacher, they are less likely to understand and remember the word. With each new word they are learning, students need the opportunity to hear it used in context, listen to a description or explanation, then have a chance to make it their own. They may come up with their own definition, a visual for the word, or connections with other known vocabulary to make meaning of the word being studied.

Students need many chances to be exposed to the words being taught. Extensive studies tell us that in order for students to internalize and apply a new word, they need to be exposed to that word multiple times in multiple contexts. Robert Marzano, in his article “Six Steps to Better Vocabulary Instruction,” recommends a six-step process for students’ vocabulary development. It has been found that this process, when followed as it is written, results in improved achievement for children. These six steps are summarized below:

  • Step 1
    The teacher presents a meaningful and accessible description or explanation of the word. This explanation may also include a visual to help students understand.
  • Step 2
    Students think about their existing knowledge and experiences, along with any other words they may know already, and come up with their own description or explanation of the word.
  • Step 3
    Students create a visual representation of the word that reminds them of the meaning of the word.
  • Step 4
    Students use the word in other contexts. For instance, students may encounter the word in a variety of different readings, use the word in her writing, or apply the word in conversation.
  • Step 5
    Students discuss the meaning of the word with other students. The dialogue helps to clarify meaning, break down any misconceptions, and give the students additional practice using the word.
  • Step 6
    Students play vocabulary games. Through games, students see the word multiple times in multiple modalities in a motivating way.

Pitfalls to Teaching Vocabulary

Assigning Vocabulary
While the golden rules and Marzano’s six-step approach for vocabulary instruction set teachers on a clear path, it is also necessary to bear in mind those practices in vocabulary instruction that we know are ineffective. Below you will find strategies that are unlikely to yield the results desired when explicitly teaching vocabulary.

Traditionally, teachers have generated lists of words for students to know, given students the assignment of looking the words up in the dictionary, and then using them in a sentence. Simply knowing a definition of a word is not enough. Words are dimensional and have a number of different variations, connections, and purposes. In order to know a word thoroughly and flexibly, students need to investigate the word’s structure, spelling, and origin, as well as any related words or connections to a student’s prior knowledge.

Pitfalls to Teaching Vocabulary

  • Assigning Vocabulary
  • Limiting Word Learning to the Dictionary
  • Relying Only On Context Clues
  • Teaching Words Out of Context


Limiting Word Learning to the Dictionary
The use of the dictionary can cause challenges for students. If the student can actually find the word, there may be multiple definitions to choose from, each of which is presented out of the context of authentic reading and writing. This can be frustrating for a child and lead them to the shortest definition rather than the one that defines the word in question. This challenge is further compounded when students are then asked to use the word in a sentence, very often after they have chosen a definition for which they have little understanding. The results of this exercise are decontextualized, non-specific examples that do little to strengthen students’ knowledge of words.

Students must already have some knowledge of the word for the definition to make sense because:

  • The definition may not explain how the word is different from other analogous words.
  • Definitions often use vague language with insufficient information.
  • When reading definitions, students have difficulty taking syntax, structure, and part of speech into account.


Relying Only On Context Clues
To derive the meaning of a word using context clues, the student must have an understanding of the rest of the sentence. Students who are in need of support to acquire vocabulary are likely struggling with reading and not reading as frequently as others. At times, sentences do not have ample information to support the reader in determining the correct meaning.

Despite the challenges that the use of context clues can create, it is still possible for a reader to discover the meaning of a word by using the information in the sentence. The suggested approach for teaching context clues is for the teacher to do frequent think-alouds and modeling of how he used information in the sentence to infer the meaning of the word.

The way for students to learn words and learn them well is through repeated exposure and multiple encounters with a word during their reading and writing. While it’s impossible to teach children every possible word they will encounter, we can focus on teaching them to be strategic in how they think about words. Students need to see words in context in order to comprehend the word in text and apply it appropriately in their writing. Some common traps to avoid that pull words out of context are using vocabulary activities that do not require meaning making or process of the words, such as word searches or copying down the same word multiple times.

A Vocabulary Toolbox

Concept Maps
A concept map is a visual way to organize the important aspects of a word. Students engage in writing about what the word means, what it is similar to, along with some examples and in some cases, non-examples. The Frayer Model is one version of a concept map.

Frayer Model

Frayer Model


Access a Frayer Model Template
in the Just ASK Resource Center.


Vocabulary Notebooks
Vocabulary notebooks are a place for students to keep track of their learning vocabulary and to promote ownership of new words by recording new words they encounter in their reading, words or morphemes that are discussed in class, or words that are important for study in the content areas.

Donald Bear suggests six steps for students when recording entries in their vocabulary notebooks.

  • Step 1
    Student finds an important word and infers the meaning of the word given what he knows about the word.
  • Step 2
    Student writes the sentence in which she found the word. If the sentence is too long, then the student can just write a portion of the sentence.
  • Step 3
    Student “takes apart” the word by separating its root, prefix, and/or suffix.
  • Step 4
    Student brainstorms all related words, either by structure or meaning, then records them in his/her notebook.
  • Step 5
    Student investigates the word and its meaning by using any available resources.
  • Step 6
    Student reviews his learning and shares an explanation or definition of the word with others.


Word Sorts
Sorting words is a powerful way for students to strengthen their understanding of word meanings and structures. Students can sort words in a variety of ways, including by word structure or concept. Concept sorts are relevant for all grade levels. In a concept sort, the teacher first reviews the words and headings. For younger students pictures can be used. Typically, students sort up to twenty-four words on a pre-printed template. After the teacher’s introduction, students work in small groups, partners, or individually to cut apart the words and sort them into the proper categories. If teachers prefer to skip the cutting portion, students can be given a randomized list and then record the words into the appropriate categories.

In closing, content area learning and complex texts require new vocabulary. When making choices about words to teach, choose those that are relevant and will help you to teach more than just one word. By considering word parts, or morphemes, students can explore related words and broaden their vocabulary. In addition to word parts, special attention should be given to words that have more than one meaning. We will know if we have been successful with our vocabulary instruction if our students are able to define a word, understand its meaning in different contexts, recognize and comprehend different nuances and meanings of the word, and apply the word to their writing in a way that is effective and accurate.

Resources and References

Bear, Donald R. “Academic Vocabulary Study in the CCSS: Embedded, Deep and Generative Practices.” Columbus, OH: McGraw-Hill Reading Wonders. Accessed at: mhreadingwonders.com/wp-content/themes/readingwonders/docs/9431_Bear_Author_9-4.pdf.

Beck, Isabel L., Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan. Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction. New York: Guilford Press, 2002.

“Common Core State Standards for ELA, Appendix A.” National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, Council of Chief State School Officers, Washington, D.C., 2010.

Greenwood, Scott C. Words Count: Effective Vocabulary Instruction in Action. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 2004.

Marzano, Robert J. The Art and Science of Teaching/Six Steps to Better Vocabulary Instruction. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, September 2009.

Padak, Nancy, Karen Bromley, Tim Rasinski, and Evangeline Newton. “Vocabulary: Five Common Misconceptions.” Educational Leadership. June 2013. Accessed at: www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/jun12/vol69/num09/Vocabulary@-Five-Common-Misconceptions.aspx.

Rutherford, Paula. Meeting the Needs of Diverse Learners. Alexandria, VA: Just ASK Publications, 2010.


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Please include the following citation on all copies:
Clayton, Heather. “Providing an All-Access Pass via Academic Vocabulary.” Making the Common Core Come Alive! Volume III, Issue I, 2014. Available at www.justaskpublications.com. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). ©2014 by Just ASK. All rights reserved.