Getting Meaningful about Content Area Vocabulary

Finding a meaningful way to teach and engage with content area vocabulary has never been easy for me.  In fact, often I tend to push this important learning to the back burner, mostly for a lack of solid strategies and routines.  I strive to have a language-rich and language supported classroom environment, but the meaningful work with higher-tiered vocabulary words often doesn’t happen as well as I’d like.  The majority of the students in my class are learning and working in English as their second language.  While content area vocabulary is important for all learners, I believe it is especially helpful for these learners to engage in this thinking.  This year, I am committed to learn some solid strategies for this work.

I am lucky enough to be working alongside and co-teaching with our G2 ELL teacher, Emma.  She brought in a wonderful structure to our newest unit of inquiry into how signs and symbols can facilitate communication. I can see using this structure for many units and inquiries.

Emma calls it the “Vocabulary Top Ten”.

Once the students had tuned in enough to the unit to have some sense of what we’d be digging in to Emma asked them to partner up and make a list of the  vocabulary words they thought would be the “top ten” words for this inquiry. It was a bit of a thinking push for the kids.  I liked seeing how they had to be risk takers in writing words, not knowing if the words they chose would actually end up being key vocabulary.

Once everyone had a list, they did a bit of sharing and Emma took their lists.  She tallied the words to find the “Top Ten” for our class.  These words will be posted in the room.  As the inquiry moves forth we can often check in on these words to see how relevant and meaningful they are.  I imagine new words will be added and other words will be deemed less important or unrelated to the inquiry.  This will be decided by the students.  It will be a clear way for them to see their thinking change and to be in control of keeping the language of our inquiry relevant and meaningful.


This model worked great!  As we continued on with our inquiry, the students had a few chances to amend the “Top Ten”.  I was struck with how spot-on most of them were in updating the list and providing reasoning for why new words should be added, or “old” words should be removed.  We even had a few heated discussions.  This is what I ultimately hoped would happen and what I loved so much about this model.  The students had ownership over the list.  By deeming it a “Top Ten” it really mattered to them that the words on the list belonged there.  These discussions also provided a chance for students to verbalize their reasons for keeping or omitting certain words.  Using sentence stems like: “The word ______ should be on our Top Ten because ______.”  engaged a lot of knowledge and higher level thinking skills.

Finally, at the end of the inquiry, with the students quite content with the “Top Ten”, we used some yarn and made a web of words, showing how each word is conceptually connected to another.

Loved it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s