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AdLIT In Perspective > 2008 > October
Classroom Vignette

Strategies to Teach Vocabulary in the Content Areas

by Mark Dewar


I graduated from Bowling Green State University in 2007 believing I had all the necessary tools to take on the world of education. As I began my teaching career at Fostoria Middle School, I found that some things are best learned in the field, for example, discipline, time management, and even effective learning strategies to "hopefully" reach all my students. Of the many lessons that I learned in the first few months of teaching, one has stood out and has become part of my own teaching philosophy—the importance of literacy in all content areas.

In the early fall of 2007, when my middle school principal first approached me to join the school literacy team and participate in a workshop called Taking Action on Adolescent Literacy, I was enthusiastic but unaware of what "literacy" really meant. Yes, even though I was a "fresh from the box" educated teacher, I had a mixed view of what literacy actually entailed. I recalled that I had taken a couple of literacy classes in college, and we read books and other material, but what did literacy have to do with me now? I was a seventh grade science and social studies teacher at the time and was wondering why I was being asked to be part of a literacy team. Nevertheless, it felt good to be asked to be part of any team that would work to improve the school—and me.

When the workshop began, I still had little idea of what to expect. But as the speaker proceeded through the presentation, a light began to slowly brighten inside my head. To sum up that workshop, I took away one quote that I will never forget: "Content Literacy Is Content Learning." For those of you who are not into quotes, I can rephrase it this way: The ability to read and write in a content area is the ability to learn in that content area. After hearing that quote, it hit me: How can I expect my students to achieve academic success if they are unable to read and write in my classroom, whether it be science or social studies? The answer is I can't.

Some believe, and of course it isn't any of us reading this article, that literacy activities and lessons belong in the English classroom. I completely agree with those people—they do belong there, but not just there. Literacy should be taught in any classroom regardless of the subject. We all need to do everything we can to help our students be effective readers.

Effective readers in the content areas read for a purpose—perhaps to answer a question or to find a main idea. I currently teach eighth grade American history at Fostoria Middle School and have found a real need for effective reading strategies. To further convince myself of the importance of literacy, I looked at a page in my social studies textbook and realized that there were words within the text, whether highlighted or not, that were important to my students' understanding of the chapter. It reminded me again that a key component to literacy in all content areas is vocabulary. Studying vocabulary is vital to a student's understanding of a main idea or indicator or any subject. How can students understand the effects of global warming if greenhouse effect means nothing to them except a house looking green when it is not?

I have found a number of vocabulary learning strategies that can be implemented in some new and efficient ways in the classroom.

Triple-Entry Vocabulary Journal. My personal favorite, one that I brought back with me from the Taking Action on Adolescent Literacy workshop, is the triple-entry vocabulary journal. This strategy has been something that our literacy team has shared with many teachers in our middle school and that we have found to be very successful. Obviously, you know by its name that there are going to be three entries for each vocabulary term in these journals. What is not obvious—but is a great feature—is that teachers can adapt this journal to fit and be appropriate in any subject or situation.

Keeping that in consideration, I will explain what I have found works best in my classroom. Figure 1 is a sample journal page.


Figure 1


As you can see, in the first column students write the term or person, in the second they draw a picture or symbol, and in the third they write the definition. What sets this journal apart from others is the second column, where the students are directed to draw a symbol or picture that will help them remember the definition. At first, students will struggle with this because they will want to draw a picture relating to the term instead of the definition.

The journal page in Figure 1 is done at a basic level. This student understood most of what was expected, but there is some misunderstanding of the purpose of the pictures. For the term Peninsulares, the student drew a picture of a peninsula, which, while related to the term itself, will likely not help the student remember that Peninsulares was the highest social class in the Spanish colonies. This is the difference between drawing pictures to help remember the definitions and drawing pictures related to the terms themselves. With quick intervention, this student understood the mistake and corrected the drawing.

When given an example of a picture that might be used to remember the definition, students usually will catch on. It is key to ensure that students understand that there are no right or wrong pictures as long as they relate to the definition. Everyone has a different way of remembering things. When student A draws a log and student B draws a dog for the term biotic factor, they are both right. A biotic factor is any part of the environment that is living or was once living. Both pictures accurately depict the definition's meaning, and each student has individualized his or her own memory cue. The idea here is for the student to become familiar with the terms or key people while at the same time constructing a study sheet, whether it be for a vocabulary test or for the chapter test. By including pictures, students can encode the information into memory in two different ways: by drawing and writing the definition.

The journal page in Figure 2 is done at a level that I consider proficient or complete. You can see that the student effectively draws pictures to help remember the definitions of the words we are studying instead of just drawing pictures about the terms. The pictures here will allow this student to use the triple-entry vocabulary journal as flash-card-type review material.


Figure 2


Essentially, for me, vocabulary is where it all starts. By beginning every new topic using this triple-entry vocabulary journal, I am able to work with the students to help them understand the vocabulary that we will be seeing for the next few weeks. My vocabulary focus, thus, becomes the foundation for further lessons down the road. For example, studying the vocabulary for the English colonies, my students can answer an anticipatory guide question without saying, "What does impose mean?" or "I don't get what they mean by accumulate goods?" I try to help them understand that it is difficult to effectively communicate—by spoken word or in writing—if they do not know what words to use. I broaden the idea of the importance of vocabulary by stressing that the more words that we all make a part of our vocabularies, the better we will be able to understand what we read and to express our ideas.

Anticipation Guide. Some literacy strategies I use are "broad spectrum." They include but are not exclusive to the teaching of vocabulary. A strategy that has worked very well to help my students read with a purpose—and that often includes understanding and learning vocabulary—is the anticipation guide. The anticipation guides I use are simply true-and-false questions from the chapter we are about to read. I have found that my students love these guides. Their positive feelings may be linked to the fact that it is okay for them to be wrong; whatever the reason, I have found that they are more actively reading to try and find the answers to the questions. Without even realizing it, the students are improving their reading skills, including their knowledge of important words and terms.

Knowledge Rating Chart. Another useful strategy for teaching vocabulary is the knowledge rating chart. On this chart, students list terms, indicate the depth of their knowledge of the meanings, and then write down the meanings taken from their text. This has worked well for vocabulary study and also is useful in studying events, concepts, and so on.


What I have learned

When I started incorporating these strategies into my units, the students had some difficulty with them, merely because the strategies were new to them. "Hang in there," I encouraged them. "We know that an expert at anything was once a beginner!"

They did hang in there, and I am amazed at what my kids are capable of achieving. I am now a firm believer that if we don't teach literacy, our students' abilities to learn the content will suffer. In my experience, using a few strategies on a consistent basis will go much farther than trying a new strategy each week. The idea is to find strategies that fit us and our students and stick with them. Working with literacy should not be looked at as another thing added to the plate of things we teachers need to do in our classrooms; it is the plate—it holds together everything we do.


Mark Dewar has been teaching social studies at Fostoria Middle School for two years. He is a graduate of Bowling Green State University and is currently working on a pilot program with Honeywell and SAE International called Student Automotive Design Challenge, where students are challenged with interdisciplinary skills each day. The challenge is an international competition for the best new toy car.

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