How to Select & Teach Academic Vocabulary at the Secondary Level {Part 2 of 2}

Teaching Academic VocabularyAcademic vocabulary is a big deal in secondary classrooms. Why is it such a big deal? There are several good reasons. First, a large part (about 80%) of comprehending academic textbooks is dependent upon understanding academic vocabulary. And, there is an abundance of challenging terms for students to learn. And, unlike learning words in more literature-focused selections, academic vocabulary requires students to learn new words for unfamiliar concepts. So, as students are learning new words they’re often learning new and challenging concepts at the same time. Challenging, to say the least.

While academic vocabulary is challenging, it is important to remember that content area texts can actually be a help and resource in the process. For example, text features such as boldface fonts and text boxes often highlight key terms. In addition, terms that are central to students’ understanding are likely repeated multiple times so that student encounter the terms and key concepts several times within context. And, academic vocabulary is frequently clustered thematically which also helps students learn new words more easily.

In part one of this two-part series, I provided several suggestions for selecting vocabulary on which to focus instruction. To summarize, selecting words that are high-utility and key to understanding concepts within the domain is critical. In today’s post, I’ll provide a few suggestions for teaching academic vocabulary at the secondary level.

Provide Multiple Exposures to New Words

Once you’ve determined your targeted terms (Tier II and Tier III vocabulary), it is important to plan for providing multiple exposures to these key terms. One of the key characteristics of effective vocabulary instruction is providing students many opportunities to hear words within varied contexts.

Not only is providing multiple exposures important but the type of exposure is important, too. Simply providing a definition is insufficient for word learning. Students need both definitional and contextual information. Hearing words used within varied contexts deepens understanding and strengthens students’ ability to both recognize and use words within varied contexts.

Marzano’s 6-Step Vocabulary Process

Marzano frequently highlights the importance of multiple exposures within his vocabulary work. The six-step vocabulary process that he developed is one way to be certain that you’re providing multiple exposures to new vocabulary. You can find a complete explanation of the six steps and a “cheat sheet” here.

Word Walls & Vocabulary Journal

Another way to provide multiple exposures is through the use of word walls and vocabulary journals. Individual vocabulary journals can be used to store content word banks, definitions, and examples of words within Word Wallcontext.

Words walls – a visual display of academic vocabulary – is another important K-12 tool which provides a rich resource for students. Word walls can be a great teaching and learning tool. More than just a display of words, word walls should be integrated into instruction. Used effectively, they will support and extend word learning for students of all ages.

Words walls can take many different forms depending upon the age level of students, the purpose of the word wall, and content area. Check out these posts for ideas, examples, and pictures:


Introduce Words in Relation to other Terms and Concepts

Helping students see relationships among words helps them acquire new vocabulary at a deeper level. When students can see words and how they relate to broader concepts, it helps them expand their vocabulary more quickly.

Semantic Mapping

Strategies such as semantic mapping are one way to accomplish this. Semantic mapping is an approach to word learning that makes explicit the semantic maprelationships between words.

For example, specific words within content areas typically fall within concepts. And broader concepts make up the conceptual flow of a given content area. Showing students how terms relate to concepts, and how concepts relate to other concepts provides a mental model for how terms and concepts are related to each other. And, learning words in clusters, tends to increase the size of students’ vocabulary more quickly.

The example above shows a semantic web related to life sciences and health care. The map shows the relationship between key academic vocabulary as well as broader concepts within life sciences.

Semantic Feature Analysis

Semantic feature analysis is another easy-to-implement strategy that is useful for teaching academic vocabulary and its relationship to broader concepts. Semantic feature analysis is a strategy that uses charts or grids to visually show how terms relate to a concept or how concepts are related to one another by highlighting their similarities and differences.Semantic Feature Analysis

It can be used as a before reading strategy to elicit prior knowledge on a topic and key vocabulary or as an after reading strategy when students are more familiar with the topic and vocabulary.

Simple in concept, simply create a chart similar to the one above. Key terms are listed in the left-hand column and key features are listed across the top of the chart. Then, through discussion, students determine the absence (indicated by “-” or left blank) or presence (indicated by a “+”) of specific features. When the chart is completed, it is easy for students to see the similarities and differences between transition metals, halogens, and alkali metals, for example.

Use Linguistic and Non-Linguistic Strategies

We often tend to focus more on linguistic strategies when teaching vocabulary. Providing students nonlinguistic opportunities (step 3 of the 6-step vocabulary process) to learn vocabulary is important as well. Nonlinguistic strategies include constructing a picture, pictograph, symbolic representation, or acting out terms or concepts. According to Marzano, nonlinguistic strategies have high impact on word learning. In addition, nonlinguistic strategies such as visual representations appears quite helpful for English language learners.

So, step out of the box and integrate non-linguistic strategies into your vocabulary instruction or review. Several digital tools such as Lexipedia and Shahi hold great promise for providing visual references as students learn and review academic vocabulary. You can find these digital tools (and 19 more) reviewed here.

Provide Opportunities for Deep Processing

While deep processing may sound a bit highfalutin, I simply mean that providing students opportunities to learn words beyond the surface level is critically important. Moving students through the four stages of word learning is not an easy task, but it is an important one.

Deep processing occurs when students not only recognize a word (definition level), but also understand the concept to which it is related and how to use that word in speaking and writing (level four). For this to occur, students need practice reviewing words and using words.

Save the Last Word for Me

“Save the Last Word for Me”  is a strategy that allows students to practice using words in an informal setting. It requires all participants students to participate as active speakers and listeners. The clearly defined structure is perfect for reviewing vocabulary and providing examples specific to content/terms. Secondary students need to review words, too.

I’ve provided a detailed explanation of the strategy and downloadable tools here.


Games and review also allow students to deeply process words by hearing and using them in a different context. Games and review can take many different forms; however, what they have in common is providing the perfect context for allowing students to play with words and reinforce word meanings within a no-pressure context.

Listed below are few links to simple games:

Develop a Repertoire of Effective Vocabulary Strategies

Teaching academic vocabulary doesn’t have to be boring or dull. There are numerous strategies you can use to spice up your vocabulary instruction. Do you have to directly teach each term? No, but for some terms, intentional and focused instruction helps deepen word learning.

As you select instructional strategies, it is important to keep in mind the key characteristics of effective vocabulary instruction. I’ve previously featured several vocabulary strategies that can be used for introducing or reviewing terms. These are highlighted below.

In addition, there are numerous excellent professional resources to support vocabulary instruction. I’ve listed a few of my favorites below.


Finally, I would be remiss not to mention digital tools. In today’s 21st century classrooms, digital tools should coexist alongside more traditional tools. Online tools, compared to their more traditional counterparts, provide a broader array of information about words and word meanings. In addition, some tools allow teachers to easily customize words so that students can practice, review, and play games with content or unit-specific words. I’ve reviewed numerous tools that show promise to support word learning, review, and play with language. They’re grouped into four categories: Reference Tools, Word Clouds, Games and Review, Word Walls and Virtual Field Trips. Check them out – you’re sure to find several to support your vocabulary instruction.


 Final Thoughts

Teaching academic vocabulary is critically important at the secondary level. There are challenges and there are proven ways to meet those challenges. Navigating the challenges can support students as they tackle the important task of building their academic vocabulary.


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Kimberly has been a teacher, administrator, and literacy consultant who worked in districts across the country to improve student literacy achievement. She currently serves as an Educational Specialist with Solution Tree and project manager for large-scale PLC implementations. Her new book, Blended Vocabulary: Harnessing the Power of Digital Tools and Effective Instruction, was recently released in February, 2017.