Instructional Approaches to Content Area Vocabulary

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  • 0:04 Vocabulary Instruction
  • 0:41 Graphic Organizers
  • 2:10 The Roots of Words
  • 3:08 Customize Dictionaries
  • 4:25 Word Walls
  • 4:47 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Joelle Brummitt-Yale

Joelle has taught middle school Language Arts and college academic writing. She has a master's degree in education.

In this lesson, we'll learn about some ways to incorporate vocabulary instruction into content-area classes to help support student learning in a variety of academic disciplines.

Vocabulary Instruction

Vocabulary instruction was once considered the work of the English or Language Arts teacher. Now, content-area teachers are discovering that learning vocabulary specific to their academic disciplines gives students the necessary tools to comprehend the texts they use in their classes. They know that words take on specific meanings when they're used in their content areas and that understanding and applying those definitions is essential for students in order to read their class texts. Because content-area vocabulary can be quite different than the general vocabulary taught in English classrooms, particular instructional strategies seem to work best in these classes.

Graphic Organizers

Looking at a dictionary, it's easy to assume that the way this book is written, with words in bold followed by their definitions, is the way we learn new words. However, the reality is that many students learn best when ideas are organized visually rather than simply using words written in a straight line, and most often, our brains organize information in patterns more like a network of inter-connected pieces rather than a long line of ideas strung together. Graphic organizers allow students to learn in a way that's visually appealing and fits how new information is integrated into our existing knowledge.

A graphic organizer is a visual representation of an idea that uses shapes and interconnecting lines to show relationships between parts of the idea. Graphic organizers can be used to break up the parts of a content-area word's definition and show how the pieces are related to one another.

For example, take the word ''mammal.'' There are several pieces to the definition of a mammal; it's an animal, has a backbone, has hair, usually carries and gives birth to its young, and feeds its children through milk it produces. Because all of these aspects are necessary to understand the full concept of a mammal, creating a graphic organizer that shows the ideas all connected together to create the vocabulary word helps students learn the full definition.

Graphic Organizer

Graphic organizers can even be used to help develop a more full understanding of a word that has a less complicated definition by being used to connect synonyms, sentence examples, and even drawings to the word.

The Roots of Words

Many content-area words, especially those from the sciences, are built from Greek or Latin root words. They often use common prefixes, or word parts that contain meaning located at the beginning of a word, and suffixes, or word parts that contain meaning located at the end of a word.

For example, think of all of the words you know that begin with the prefix ''photo.'' Likely, your list contains a number of words that are specific to particular disciplines like ''photosynthesis,'' ''photograph,'' and ''photocopy.'' The root ''photo'' comes from the Greek word meaning ''light.'' Knowing this root word allows you to begin understanding any new words you come upon that begin with this prefix.

Teaching students sets of root words and the prefixes and suffixes that come from them gives the students the tools to decode new content vocabulary words. Creating weekly or monthly root vocabulary word lists for students gives them each a boost in his or her abilities to learn new content-area vocabulary words.

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