Teaching Academic Vocabulary in the Secondary ELA Classroom

Teaching Academic Vocabulary in the Secondary ELA Classroom

Vocabulary. It is one of the foundational building blocks to teaching English language arts. Yet, vocabulary is also frequently thought of as an afterthought as we plan our classes and units. And I get it. Each year, there is more content to teach and even less time to teach it. Or at least, that is how it feels some years. Even so, it is essential to dedicate class time to teaching vocabulary, especially academic vocabulary.

Academic vocabulary differs from traditional vocabulary words that might accompany novel studies or language-building skills. When teaching academic vocabulary, you focus specifically on teaching words that students traditionally find in an educational setting. These are words that students will frequently encounter in directions, textbooks, and general academic settings.

Teaching academic vocabulary in the classroom is so important because having a working knowledge of content-specific words and terms will help students succeed in all areas of the curriculum. A middle school ELA student will not be able to identify a claim in a nonfiction passage if they do not know what a claim is.

Ever since I started incorporating ELA-specific academic vocabulary in my instruction, I've seen so much student growth. Not only do students have a better understanding of basic ELA-focused concepts, but they also have more confidence in the class, which leads to higher achievement and more efficacy. Teaching academic vocabulary is a win-win scenario.

Here is how I implement a successful academic vocabulary teaching program into my secondary ELA classroom.

Teaching Academic Vocab Step 1: Stick with the Content

Teaching Academic Vocabulary in the Secondary ELA Classroom

When I first introduce academic vocabulary to my students, I make sure that I integrate it in conjunction with my current teaching unit. In doing so, not only will the vocabulary-specific work benefit students in the unit as a whole, but similarly, other unit activities and lessons help students with their vocabulary-specific work.

For example, I teach a short story unit at the beginning of the school year with my sophomores. As part of this unit, I integrate my Academic Vocabulary Volume #2: Words about Fiction and Narrative Writing into the unit to help my students build their knowledge about fiction and short stories. This unit has 25 words that are directly related to fiction and writing narratives, so this vocabulary unit seamlessly integrates into my short story unit, it helps students gain a deeper understanding of literary elements, and it helps prepare students for our novel study that happens later in the semester.

When I created these academic vocabulary teaching resources, I paired them with units in my secondary ELA curriculum to be beneficial for the students' learning. For example, when I am teaching argument writing, I also incorporate academic vocabulary words about informational text and argument writing. When it is time for my poetry unit in the spring, I have my students study poetry-related vocabulary words. At the end of the year, when it is time to complete the year-end research project, my students also learn academic vocabulary terms centered on research paper writing.

You can incorporate this academic vocabulary teaching strategy to brainstorm a list of content or skill-specific words for each unit you teach. Then, introduce those words to your students at the beginning of the unit. By the end of the unit, your students will have a solid understanding of these terms. Furthermore, by grouping academic vocabulary words with their respective units, students will authentically learn the words as they work through the skills and content in the curriculum.

Teaching Academic Vocab Step 2: Establish a Routine

Teaching Academic Vocabulary in the Secondary ELA Classroom

One of the easiest ways to truly implement a successful vocabulary routine into your curriculum is to make it a routine and stick to it. When I recently redesigned my Academic Vocabulary Units (the bundle includes all of the volumes in print and digital formats) I kept routine in mind, and I created a daily-activity component for each unit that follows the same structure.

Here is how I set up the routine. Each unit contains 25 words, and I focus on only five words a week. At the start of a new week, I give the students a quick 5-question pre-test that they self-grade to gauge their understanding of the terms. After students complete the pre-test, which should take no more than 5 minutes, we move onto the routine.

  • Monday: Students take a quick pre-test, score their responses, and write down the words and definitions. I try to keep this whole process to less than ten minutes. The more you complete the routine, the quicker it goes.
  • Tuesday: On Tuesdays, students create a drawing or visual representation for each of the words.
  • Wednesday: This day is Word Web Wednesday. Students create a word web for each term. The word web can be similar words, words that remind them of the word, or anything that will help students remember the word. One of the goals for Word Web Wednesday is to help students develop study habits that benefit them.
  • Thursday: On Thursdays, students write a brief reflection about the words. The reflection can be what they learned, how they've used the words, or how the words will help them grow as learners in the future.
  • Friday: To wrap up the academic vocabulary routine, students take a quiz on Fridays. They then write down words that they did not get correct to help them learn and remember these words.
This type of routine can work in several ways: you can choose to include your academic vocabulary work at the beginning of the class period as a bell-ringer activity, at the end of the class period as an exit ticket, as independent work, or as homework.

Teaching Academic Vocab Step 3: Focus on a Few Words at a Time

Teaching Academic Vocabulary in the Secondary ELA Classroom

t is so easy to completely overwhelm students with an entire list of vocabulary words at once. To avoid this, I try to focus on just a few words and have some focused and repeated practice with those few words throughout the week so that students have time to learn the words truly.

One of the best ways I've found to do this is by introducing just a few words each week. I like to introduce my students to no more than five new words a week. That way, the list is not overwhelming, and it seems more manageable for the students.

Another benefit of introducing just five words a week is that students will be less likely to mix up words because they focus on fewer words at a time. Keeping vocabulary lists short will help make the vocabulary words really stick. You can read more about helping students learn vocabulary words in this blog post.

Teaching Academic Vocab Step 4: Make Vocabulary Fun

Teaching Academic Vocabulary in the Secondary ELA Classroom

Do you remember learning vocabulary as a student back in the day? I sure do, and it was not fun. I remember vocabulary tests each week when my teacher would hand me a blank paper, and then I had to write down the words and definitions verbatim and in alphabetical order on the paper. If I didn't write the definition perfectly word-for-word, I would be marked wrong. It was terrible and anxiety-inducing.

However, working through academic vocabulary doesn't need to be daunting, boring, and anxiety-inducing. Here are several ways that I strive to make teaching and learning academic vocabulary fun in my classroom. (Activities marked with an asterisk are included in all of my academic vocabulary teaching resources).

  • *Table match: With this fun vocabulary activity, create a document with strips of paper. Some strips will have the definition, and others will have the word. Place all of the paper strips in a Manilla envelope and group students up into groups of 3-5 students. Then, have students empty the envelope's contents and work to match up the definitions and terms. To make this activity even more engaging, have students race to the end.
  • *BINGO: Playing BINGO in the classroom is a timeless activity. For academic vocabulary BINGO, pass out blank BINGO cards to students and have them write just the words on the squares. To add some challenge to this activity, only call out the definitions. This fun classroom activity will challenge students.
  • Pictionary: Who doesn't love Pictionary? To play vocabulary Pictionary, write all of the words on separate strips of paper, fold the strips up, and place them in a container (I use my pen caddy). Have students for 2-4 teams start the game. A student will draw a term from the container and draw it on the board. The team that first to guess the correct vocabulary term wins a point.
  • Charades: Use all of the Pictionary game steps, but have students act out the vocabulary words instead of drawing them.
  • Vocabulary Headbands: If you have the game Hedbanz, you can use the headband cardholders and play the game in your classroom. Have students create 3x5 inch notecards -one for each vocabulary term. Place students in small groups and have them all draw a notecard. Students will have to ask one another yes or no questions to guess their vocabulary terms.
These fun vocabulary activities add more than just fun and engagement to your classroom, though. By taking time for fun vocabulary games during instructional time, you are also dedicating class time for review, which benefits every student.

No matter how you include vocabulary and academic vocabulary in your classroom, it is essential to give your students that extra educational advantage of knowing content-specific academic vocabulary terms. If you still aren't convinced about why teaching vocabulary is so important, you can read this blog post about five reasons why you should include vocabulary in every unit.

Here are some other academic vocabulary activities to try:
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