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Strategies and tips to help educators and school leaders close the vocabulary gap

5 min read


This post is sponsored by Curriculum Associates.

Vocabulary is an important building block to success in school and in life. Unfortunately, studies conclude that students who start out behind in vocabulary development often have a more difficult time achieving in school. This creates an ever widening vocabulary gap that we must work hard to close for our students.

In her new whitepaper, “Solving the Vocabulary Puzzle: Connecting Standards for Deeper Word Knowledge,” literacy expert Brenda Overturf examines the vocabulary gap and discusses strategies that any educator can use to integrate vocabulary throughout the ELA curriculum and support the vocabulary development of all students.

Here is our conversation with Overturf about her new whitepaper:

What is the vocabulary gap? What are its implications for early elementary learners?

The vocabulary gap starts at a young age and has implications for early learners but can also follow that learner into adulthood. Students who know more words, who know how to figure out word meanings, and who can interpret different meanings of words have a significant advantage in school and life.

Students equipped with a higher vocabulary have a greater ability to build networks and learn even more words. It becomes a virtuous cycle. Students who don’t know as many words don’t have as much to build on, and so often learn words more slowly. This creates a dangerous vocabulary gap between vocabulary haves and have-nots.

How does vocabulary connect to the new ELA standards?

If you have ever played with a Rubik’s Cube, then you know you must twist and turn it around to find the right combination. Vocabulary development in the English Language Arts and Literacy Common Core State Standards is a bit like that puzzle. References to vocabulary learning and word knowledge appear throughout the Standards, but sometimes we have to twist, turn, and connect the parts to see how they align to create a pattern for student success.

In “Solving the Vocabulary Puzzle,” I provide guidance that can help educators complete the puzzle in their classrooms and connect vocabulary throughout the language, reading, writing, speaking, and listening standards. For instance, the whitepaper examines strategies such as:

  • Word-learning strategies that help students determine the meaning of unfamiliar words and phrases.
  • Teaching strategies that help improve students’ comprehension, such as understanding figurative language, word relationships, and nuance.
  • Routines that help ensure that students understand general academic words and phrases that appear across a wide range of subjects.
  • Collaborative conversations that foster vocabulary development.
  • Tips for building classroom cultures that celebrate vocabulary development.

What’s the importance of making sure that students are familiar with “academic talk” to help with vocabulary development?

To help prepare students for success, we must make them comfortable with “academic talk,” or words such as main idea, definition, and topic. These words and phrases are important for building content area vocabulary but are critical for understanding assessment tasks across the curriculum.

When teachers create a classroom community where students routinely talk about text, students learn more words and comprehend more deeply. As students discuss text, teachers can encourage them to embed “academic talk,” so that using words and phrases like key details, evidence, and compare and contrast becomes second nature. Programs like Ready Reading provide educators with examples of routines that can help students learn and be at ease with different academic talk terms.

What are key considerations that educators should keep in mind for supporting the vocabulary development needs of struggling students?

From what we know and what we’ve learned, there should be substantial emphasis placed on word study. Creating intentional word study in the classroom is particularly important for students from lower socioeconomic status communities and English Language Learners. Vocabulary knowledge is more than knowing definitions. Students must have the ability to use strategies to determine the meanings of unknown words and phrases. Academic vocabulary, or the word knowledge that makes it possible for students to engage with and talk about texts that are valued in school, is difficult for students struggling with comprehension. For example, if a student doesn’t deeply understand the term life cycle in science or measurement in mathematics, they’re unable to understand concepts vital for attaining content mastery.

What are the tips you recommend for creating a culture that celebrates vocabulary learning?

Building a “word-conscious” culture around vocabulary is essential for us to succeed at supporting vocabulary development for all students. In order to build a supportive culture, students must hear, see, read, and participate in daily experiences with attention-grabbing vocabulary. Schools should highlight vocabulary knowledge as an important part of student learning in the classroom and throughout the school building. Some of the best practices I’ve seen include:

  • Posting word walls in classrooms, hallways, and other public spaces so that students recognize this is a school-wide effort.
  • Promoting words of the day or week that place emphasis on or connect to school themes.
  • Providing instruction on a small number of individual words, and building on those words with rich learning experiences.
  • Teaching the word-learning strategies of use of context, use of word parts, and use of reference materials.
  • Facilitating conversations that get kids excited to engage in using new words.
  • Reading aloud interesting examples of text in all subject areas.

With these tips and other strategies that we discuss in “Solving the Vocabulary Puzzle,” we have a plan for helping our students become not only college and career ready, but also lifelong learners.

Brenda Overturf is a literacy consultant and an author of Ready Reading. She is former district reading coordinator in the Jefferson County Public Schools, Louisville, Kentucky and chair of the M.Ed. in Reading program at the University of Louisville. She served as a board member of the International Literacy Association from 2009 to 2012 and as co-chair of the International Literacy Association Common Core State Standards Committee from 2012 to 2015. She is also the author of Word Nerds, Vocabularians, and numerous other publications.