Steps to Increasing Vocabulary Acquisition

“Vocabulary knowledge is the #1 predictor of long-term student achievement.” Louis Terman

“Assumacide” (Kelly Gallagher) is a term used to explain the problem that teachers encounter when we “assume” our students understand a concept; therefore, we don’t explicitly teach it, resulting in BIG comprehension problems for our students. 

During my first few years as a teacher, I was guilty of assumacide regarding my students’ vocabulary acquisition levels.  I was mistakenly under the impression that if my students could correctly “decode” or pronounce a word, they could also define it and use it correctly.  Boy, was I surprised, embarrassed, (and saddened), when I realized what a horrible and faulty assumption that was. 

As a teacher, there is much consternation as to what to teach and when, but time spent explicitly teaching both academic and content specific vocabulary, is time well spent. In my experience, there are a few areas of vocabulary instruction that educators can emphasize to greatly increase student vocabulary knowledge and comprehension.  First, I want to clarify three terms: “content,” “academic,” and “superfluous” vocabulary.

“Content” vocabulary (the Common Core refers to them as 'domain-specific') are terms specific to a content area such as: equation, characterization, musicality, photosynthesis, etc., and they are a foreign language to our students.  The Common Core refers to these words as “Domain-Specific” though some reference them as “Tier 3” or “Brick” terms.  Students only hear these terms during our lessons and do not use or encounter them outside of our class.  This leads to a disconnect in their level of understanding as one only develops proficiency and fluency in what is utilized often, and content vocabulary is often used only by the teacher but rarely by the student.  Essentially, students are “lost” in our content area classes because we are speaking a foreign language.

“Academic” vocabulary are those terms more general, seen across all content areas in both fiction and non-fiction text.  These terms include: analyze, compare, determine, associate, particular, etc., and are sometimes referred to as “High-Utility,” “Tier 2,” or “Mortar” words.   These words, when used in student speech, help to sophisticate their level of conversation. In addition, having knowledge and the ability to use these terms can greatly enhance students’ overall text and testing comprehension.

“Superfluous” words are those that are rare and unique (often adjectives) often encountered in fiction, but can be seen anywhere-words such as: superfluous, loquacious, ubiquitous, etc.  They sometimes carry importance but often are not vital or common enough to warrant extensive instruction in.  These terms also tend to be the focus of many ELA vocabulary programs, though students would benefit more from instruction in content and academic vocabulary.  Keep in mind, just because a word is underlined by the publisher, doesn’t mean it necessitates extensive instruction.

So what can a teacher do to boost student vocabulary knowledge and fiction/non-fiction comprehension? 

Step 1: Develop Academic & Content Word Lists

Identify the essential content and academic terms your students must know for your class each week and try to limit them to 3 (total) per class/content area in the lower grades (K-4) and 12 per class in the upper grades.  This doesn’t mean that you cannot teach more words than that, just be aware that student word acquisition is limited, so emphasize those words that will be utilized often throughout your course. 

Many teachers and PLCs create Content and Academic Word Lists that identify the essential terms for a course; this is helpful for vertical articulation so those who teach the preceding or subsequent courses to your classes are aware of the vocabulary you teach.

When narrowing down your list of essential words to teach, ask yourself these questions; if your answer is “yes” to all three, teach it:

*Is the word essential to understanding the lesson?

*Is this word important to my content area?

*Will students see this word often?

Step 2: Be Consistent & Prepared

Many teachers use a different method to teach each word and this chameleon type of instruction is confusing to students.  Explicitly teach your essential terms using a consistent step-by-step process and have students take notes using some type of Vocabulary Study Chart (there are samples on my site under “Trainings” and then “Workshop Examples”).

Step-by-Step Process to Teach Essential Words:

*Say the word & provide the part of speech (helpful for ELs so they know how to use it) and have students rate their knowledge of the word

*Have students repeat 3-5x (builds pronunciation fluency of multi-syllabic terms)

*Provide kid-friendly definition (avoid dictionary language-keep it simple)

*Provide example sentence and picture/symbol (so students have an accurate reference and visual)

*Ask a checking for understanding question

*After teaching, have students again rate their knowledge of the word


*Jubilant, adj., rate your knowledge of the word on a scale of 1-4

*Repeat after me:  jubilant, jubilant, jubilant

*Jubilant describes one who is really happy or excited.

*I was jubilant after winning the race! :)

*Would you be jubilant if I assigned you a 10-page essay?

*Now re-rate your knowledge of the word, 1-4

Step 3:  Use a Variety of Strategies to Review

Review vocabulary every class session for 5-8 minutes.  Yes, that is correct; I didn’t stutter, 5-8 minutes daily...this can be part of your bell-ringer/frontloading strategy.

Students need multiple opportunities to see, say, and manipulate words to develop acquisition.  Experts consider the following strategies "substantive and robust" in building acquisition skills:

“Clozed” Sentences/Paragraphs (fill-in the blank)--extremely scaffolded activity-best initial review strategy

*Teacher writes a sentence/paragraph using essential word/s, then deletes the vocabulary terms and puts them in a word bank, the students use the word bank to complete the sentences/paragraph using the context clues as a guide.

EX: I was ________________ after winning the race.  jubilant

Yes/No/Why?--less scaffolded

*Teacher provides accurate/inaccurate sentences using the vocabulary terms and the students determine whether the sentence makes sense according to the definition and explains in a complete sentence response.

EX:  I was jubilant when the officer issued me a $300 speeding ticket.

Yes, this sentence makes sense because…

No, this sentence does not make sense because…jubilant means really happy or excited and I would not be happy if I received a $300 ticket.

Independent Clauses --no scaffolding-upper level thinking

*The teacher provides a complete sentence with the vocabulary term in it followed by a semi-colon.  The student then provides another complete sentence after the semi-colon that has a synonym or example of the vocabulary word, demonstrating knowledge of the term.

EX: The student was jubilant; he was thrilled when he earned an A on the midterm exam.

Double Definitions--no scaffolding-upper level thinking

*The student writes a formal definition of a term that may be used to describe a word to the principal and then writes an informal definition of the same term using slang/symbols to describe it to a friend.

Crossword Puzzles, Vocabulary Bingo & Vocabulary Relay—

*Vocabulary acquisition games are an engaging review method that builds acquisition and a productive and fun way to begin or bring closure to a lesson.

Step 4:  Assess Separately

Have you ever given an exam and had a number of students fail?  It is difficult to know whether it was the vocabulary or the concepts themselves that were the proficiency saboteurs. One way to remedy this is to assess your vocabulary separate from the content exam a few days ahead of time.  This will provide you with data to determine whether your students need more instruction in the unit vocabulary before the final exam. 

If they all do well on the vocabulary assessment, then they are more likely to succeed on the content exam; if they mostly fail the vocabulary assessment, (yikes!) spend more time reviewing and practicing the vocabulary so they are better prepared for the content exam. 

Effective vocabulary instruction is key to comprehension and long-term retention of our content.  In a foreign language class, the teacher often spends +70% of the time on vocabulary acquisition just so the students can engage in and comprehend the lesson; however, a content area teacher devotes less than 2% of time to vocabulary instruction (Scott, 2003).

It is difficult for anyone to develop proficiency when instruction and assessment are in a foreign language.  Assumacide is dangerous when it comes to skills instruction-explicitly teaching vocabulary for a few minutes a day is an excellent way to improve content comprehension and foster the 21st Century College/Career Readiness skills our students need. Julie Adams, Adams Educational Consulting,