How to Select & Teach Academic Vocabulary at the Secondary Level {Part 1 of 2}

Selecting Academic VocabularyEffective vocabulary instruction is important at every level. However, as a secondary teacher, you have an especially important task. Understanding academic vocabulary is essential to content area reading and learning. So important that research reveals 80% of comprehending informational text is tied to understanding the vocabulary (Nagy & Scott, 2000; Pressley, 2002).

While the task of teaching vocabulary is important, it can sometimes feel daunting. So many words. How do you choose? And, after the words are selected, what’s the best way to teach them so that students really learn them?

In today’s post, I’m focusing on two ways to select academic vocabulary at the secondary level. Part 2 will focus on how to teach words and select instructional strategies to further word learning.

Focus on Specific Words that Students Don’t Know

Recently, I wrote about the 4 stages of word learning (Dale, 1976) which range from unknown (no familiarity) to known (can use the word in speaking and writing). In the example below, I’ll use these 4 stages to serve as a formative assessment tool that can help you select words on which to focus instruction.

Chart - Vocabulary

Click to Enlarge

Let’s say, for example, you’re teaching a unit in Science or World History. You’ve selected vocabulary words you believe are important in order to understand the content. Frontload the vocabulary (doing so will increase comprehension) by pronouncing each word and briefly explaining the meaning. Now you need a quick and simple strategy to get a sense of students’ familiarity with the targeted words. I’ve listed simple steps below.

  1. Using a simple template (see image), have students write the words in one of the four columns which represent the four stages of word learning. Remind students that there are no “right” or “wrong” responses. Rather, their responses will help you select vocabulary for the unit and will help them gauge how well they know the terms.
  2. Collect and review the completed charts. Use the student responses as a formative assessment. You’ll quickly be able to see the words that students are unfamiliar with.
  3. Create or revise your vocabulary based on the terms that students are unfamiliar with. Those words become the targeted terms for the unit.
  4. Have each student add words to the class list.  I always think it’s a good idea to have students personalize their learning by adding a few words to the list. No two students are the same and their vocabulary proficiency can vary widely. Some students may add 1 or 2 terms to their list while others may add many more depending on their word knowledge.

Using Common Core Tiered Vocabulary to Create Content Lists

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) place an importance on academic vocabulary. Tiered vocabulary (Beck, McKeown & Kucan, 2002), described in the CCSS, is an organizational framework for categorizing words. It can be a very useful guide for selecting vocabulary.

The three tiers are summarized below. (I’ve written a much more in-depth post about tiered vocabulary entitled “No Tears for Tiers” for those who’d like more information.)

Tier 1: Common, Known Words      examples: big, small, house, table, family

Tier I words are basic, everyday words that are a part of most students’ vocabulary. Typically used every day in conversation, many Tier I words are acquired orally.

Tier 2: High-Frequency Words (aka Cross-Curricular Vocabulary)

examples: justify, explain, expand, predict, summarize, maintain

Tier 2 words include frequently occurring words that appear in various contexts and topics and play an important role in verbal functioning across a variety of content areas. These are general academic words and have high utility across a wide range of topics and contexts.

Another way to think of Tier 2 vocabulary is that these terms are often cross-curricular terms. For example, the term “justify” and “predict” frequently appear in Science, Social Studies, and English texts.

Tier 3: Low-Frequency, Domain-Specific words                                         

examples: isotope, tectonic plates, carcinogens, mitosis, lithosphere

Tier 3 words are domain specific vocabulary and are low frequency, specialized words that appear in specific fields or content areas. Many students are unfamiliar with Tier 3 words. Beck suggests teaching these words as the need arises for comprehension in specific content areas.

Academic vocabulary, a focus of the CCSS, is made up of tier 2 and tier 3 words. When creating content lists for units or courses, it is helpful to keep in mind that technical Tier 3 words are terms that are likely to be in bold in the text, found in the glossary, or set off in a text box. These words do not necessarily need to be taught to mastery. Sometimes I call them “just-in-time” terms. Students need to understand them just in time to understand the material in a given unit.

Focus your vocabulary lists on Tier 2 words. Understanding these terms will go further toward supporting comprehension not only in a specific content such as history/social studies but in other disciplines as well.

Finally, use the three tiers to narrow and focus your vocabulary lists.Using the lens of tiered vocabulary, review lists you’ve previously developed. Too frequently, vocabulary lists are unnecessarily long and are made up largely of Tier 3, highly technical content terms. Long lists often lead to just-in-time cramming and students who promptly forget words following the quiz or test.

Final Thoughts

Words. Words. Words. Sometimes all the words students should know can be overwhelming.

A plan to select and teach vocabulary can make the task not only doable but breathe some life and energy into word learning as well.

In the second installment of this two-part post, I’ll provide a few tips for selecting and implementing effective instructional strategies. Come back and feel free to add your own thoughts below.

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Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G., & Kucan, L. (2002). Bringing words to life: Robust vocabulary instruction. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Dale, E. (1976). The living word vocabulary. Elgin, IL: Dome Press.

Nagy, W.E., & Scott (2000). Vocabulary processes. In M.I. Kamil, P.B. Mosenthal, P.D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook of Reading Research (Vol. 3, pp. 269-284). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Pressley, M.I. (2002). Comprehension instruction: What makes sense now, and what might make sense soon. Reading Online 5(2), Retrieved August 1, 2013, from

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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.