Strategies for Teaching Vocabulary

Ogle, Klemp and McBride advise against inefficient vocabulary acquisition strategies such as looking words up in the dictionary or isolated phonics instruction. They advocate for increasing independent reading in order to promote vocabulary development. It can be difficult for secondary non-ELA content teachers to provide the time and appropriate materials for independent reading in their classes.

Readers have many encounters with large numbers of words. These encounters help them relate the word to their own prior knowledge and experiences and give them practice in using their growing knowledge of these words to make inferences (Nagy, 1988, p. 32).

hunger games

A student’s vocabulary growth depends on multiple exposures to new words in a variety of contexts. Learning new words requires integration, repetition, and meaningful use. New terms need to be integrated with what students already know. New terms need to be taught and retaught in multiple contexts. Students need to use new terms in ways that are meaningful to them.

Research suggests that the human brain actively “looks” for similar information to make sense of incoming data (Jensen, 1998; Sousa, 2001; and Sprenger, 1999). Thus, learning activities that help students connect what they know to what they are about to learn can positively affect comprehension. The authors recommend concept mapping, discovering similarities and differences, and predicting ABCs as strategies that help students activate their prior knowledge.

Activating Prior Knowledge

Concept definition or semantic mapping is when students work in small groups to use context clues to guess at a word’s meaning. Then the students list all of their definitions and vote on the best one. Students also come up with at least three characteristics, synonyms and/or properties of the key word or concept. Lastly, the teacher should ask students for non-examples or contrasts. The figure below illustrates how a group of students defined “democracy”.

Concept Map

An outcome of the concept-mapping process is that students learn how to discover similarities and differences between ideas. Students  can complete a Y-chart as they read and then determine how two terms, events or people are alike. Then, students separate out the differences as they discuss the terms. Students draw lines through similarities in the top part of the chat and adds them to the bottom section.  This chart works well helping students examine the differences in social studies terms like socialism and communism.


The Predicting ABCs graphic organizer allows small groups of students to share word lists and explain to each other what each term means. After skimming a chapter, students are asked identify words they think their classmates might struggle with. Then they turn to an elbow partner and discuss the words they listed in E-F. Students can move into groups and share words with the whole class.  When a student lists a word, the entire class adds it to their ABCs sheet. Then the teacher can provide whole class instruction interpreting and explaining the words. Now the class is ready to read.

Predicting ABCs Chart

There are many more resources in this information-rich chapter. In fact, this whole book is full of graphic organizers that can be adapted for use in elementary, middle and high school Social Studies classes. I like the authors’ technique of using a model teacher that encounters and solves classroom problems in each chapter.

Practice & Activities

In the past, I have conducted vocabulary tweetathons and six word definitions/memoirs. When I was a middle school teacher, I used to have students create Foldables from Dinah Zike’s videos. A few years ago, when I moved into a 1:1 environment, I had the students create flash cards and play study games on Quizlet, which led me to experiment with other vocabulary-based video games.  What tricks and tips do you have for teaching content-specific vocabulary?


Ogle, D., Klemp, R., and McBride, B. (2007).  Building Literacy in Social Studies: Strategies for Improving Comprehension and Critical Thinking . Ch. 3 (pp. 33-52). ASCD.

Teaching Vocabulary to Older Students

This post draws from Chapter Three (pp. 33-52) in Building Literacy in Social Studies: Strategies for Improving Comprehension and Critical Thinking (Ogle, Klemp & McBride, 2007).

One of the most successful strategies in improving a student’s vocabulary is providing time to read. Students do not learn most words through direct instruction. Researchers estimate that a student learns 3,000 new words per year (Nagy, Anderson, and Herman, 1987). Wide reading is a major contributor to differences in children’s vocabularies. Increasing the volume of student reading is the single most important thing a teacher can do to promote large-scale vocabulary growth (p.32). Thus, history and social science classes that build non-fiction and historical fiction reading into their everyday classroom practices often show large gains that help students build on their prior knowledge. Marzano estimated that 55% of a student’s academic vocabulary comes from reading Social Studies texts. The state of California keeps a searchable database of recommended literature by grade level for precisely this reason.

While California takes a hiatus from standardized testing in History-Social Studies (ETS is redesigning our end of year accountability exams) I am turning my 9th grade World History class into a World History Through Literature class. I am fortunate in that I work with a great group of English teachers who support me in this endeavor. They are willing to be flexible with their pacing plans so that we can align our instruction and have students read relevant literature during World History units.  Here is draft of our book list.

Variation in Amount of Independent Reading

As you can see in the chart below, there are staggering differences in vocabulary acquisition via independent reading. This explains why educators recommend students read 30 minutes independently every day. The average student arrives in my 9th grade World History class reading below the 6th-grade level, which explains why many History teachers opt for lecturing, instead of asking students to read Social Studies texts, which are above their zones of proximal development (ZPD). Armed with this data, it would be educational malpractice to not incorporate independent reading in my classroom.

Ind Reading Variation

One strategy the authors recommend to get students reading is a Book Pass session. This is where students pass around books, reading the jacket copy and noting on a chart whether they Want to Read, Might Want to Read or Don’t Want to Read the selections. This helps reluctant readers commit to certain titles. It is important to tell students to choose something that is fun and easy to read, as struggling readers often will choose something difficult and “fake read” it in front of their peers.

My next post will discuss more strategies for teaching vocabulary to older students.

Vietnam Veteran Interview Project


This year end project is designed to teach persistence and interviewing skills. I am asking each student to call a Vietnam Veteran’s organization in a different state and conduct a 20 minute phone interview with a Vietnam Vet. All of the interview questions will be written in class, along with phone scripts, which will be rehearsed.

Please read the following directions carefully.

  1. Inform your parents about this project.
  2. Get parental permission before making long distance phone calls.
  3. Do not disclose your last name, school name, or location to anyone you interview.
  4. Do not give your cell phone number to anyone you interview.
  5. If your interviewee says anything inappropriate, or makes you uncomfortable, thank them for their time, hang up the phone, document it on your phone log, and promptly report it to your parents and teacher.

Cold Call Script

Hi, this is _________, a HS student calling from CA. I need to interview a Vietnam Vet for a school project. Would you know anyone willing to speak with me on the phone for 20-30 minutes? Later, when you have found someone willing to talk to you, ask permission to record the phone call. Explain that you will be typing a transcript of the interview.

Sample Interview Questions

Sample Transcript

Sample Veteran Interviews

Phone Numbers for Veterans’ Organizations

(See Dr. Petri, who will record every phone number you are given).

Necessary Elements for all 300 points

Original Interview Questions
Revised Iterations of Interview Questions
Phone Log
Interview Recording
Typed Transcript
1 page reflection paper

Final Research Papers

A study from The Concord Review found that 62% of teachers never assign a paper of 3,000-5,000 words in length, and 81% never assign a paper of over 5,000 words.

Cold War Research Paper

For this project, students combine three of their in-class writing assignments into a five-page (1,250 word) paper that argues: (1) which side was most responsible for the Cold War, (the Soviets, or the West); (2) elaborates on which events defined the Cold War; and (3) describes how the Cold War should be remembered in textbooks. Students will support their positions with evidence from the documents provided and independent research.

Imprtnce of Rsrh Ppr

Use parenthetical citations, i.e., (Cold War Causes, Handout 1), (Soviet Textbooks DBQ, BGE), or (Containment DBQ, Doc. A), and include a Works Cited page at the end of your paper. For your final grade, you will provide a one-page revision memo, a typed final draft on top of the original drafts, and four reports all stapled together. Save this project in your Google Drive and use it for your senior portfolio.


Section One

Which side was most responsible for the Cold War, the Soviets or the West? Include an introductory paragraph that contains background on the Cold War and a thesis statement that takes a position. Explain the three main underlying causes of the Cold War and who was most responsible for the Cold War. Justify this decision by explaining who was least responsible. Include evidence from at least three documents to support your ideas and explain how the evidence proves your point. Lastly, provide a concluding thought that reconnects with your thesis.

Section Two

How did the United States prevent the Soviet Union from expanding communism? After reading about multiple Cold War events (Long Telegram, Berlin Airlift, Korean War, and Cuban Missile Crisis), define the US Cold War foreign policy and describe three instances where containment was used. Choose which example was the most significant and explain your reasoning.

Section Three

Describe how the Cold War should be remembered in future textbooks. Which Soviet accomplishments and which US accomplishments should be included in future history textbooks? Explain your reasoning. Conclude the paper with some final thoughts on what lessons the global community should learn from the Cold War between the US and the Soviets.

Revision Memo

The one-page revision memo should explicitly report how you addressed the feedback from your PaperRater reports. For example, “PaperRater gave me a 63% on Academic Vocabulary. I went back to the background essay, found five more vocabulary words and defined them in my introductory paragraph and my next PaperRater Academic Vocabulary score was a 71%.”

Next it should highlight significant changes and point out where the final essay improved from the first drafts. The purpose of revision memos is to help you become better at revising your writing. When you write a revision memo, the following points must be included:

  1. It is addressed to me.
  2. It points out what your focus was on this draft.
  3. It lists the strengths and weaknesses in your previous drafts.
  4. It details the changes you’ve made from one draft to the next.
  5. It describes your overall impression of the revision (strengths and weakness).

Each of these points must be in the memo. Typically, memos run anywhere from one to three pages in length.

The final paper should include page numbers on the bottom right-hand side of the page, be formatted in Times New Roman 12 point font, double-spaced with one-inch margins. The final document should contain a cover page and be turned in before the end of school on Friday, May 15, 2015. This entire project, which began on March 20th is worth 700 points of your final grade.

CA State Standard: 10.9.2 Students analyze international developments in the post-WWII world. Analyze the causes of the Cold War with the free world and Soviet states on opposing sides. Describe the competition for influence in Germany, Korea, and Vietnam.

Common Core Writing Standards: 1. Students will write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence. 5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach. 10. Write routinely over extended time frames with time for research, reflection, and revision.

Sample Paper

Sample Revision Memo

Grading Rubric

Improving Historical Reading & Writing

Improving Historical Reading & Writing is a free Massive Online Open Course offered through the Canvas Network ( The course is designed to help history teachers improve their skills in teaching historical reading and writing. The MOOC will be organized into 15 online modules that will be open from June 22 – Sept. 7. Each module will contain multiple resources, 3-5 short lecture videos, 2-3 readings, 2-4 online discussions and an online quiz. Course participants will be able to choose which modules to participate in and will have flexible deadlines when completing course work. Course completers will receive a grade based on reading and video quizzes and can earn badges and/or certificates of completion.  There is also an option to purchase graduate credit from Ashland University for work completed. Themes for the modules are listed below. Click HERE to enroll.

Canvas 2015 MOOC

Module 1
Content Literacy and Building Academic Vocabulary

Module 2
Instructional Shifts: Common Core State Standards and College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework

Module 3
Historical Thinking and The Reading Like a Historian Approach

Module 4
Developing Compelling Central Historical Questions

Module 5
Sourcing, Contextualization, and Close Reading

Module 6

Differentiation, Scaffolding, and Adapting Sources

Module 7
Corroboration Evidence and Importance of Discussion

Module 8
Assessing Student Learning through Writing

Module 9
Document-based Questions / Research Simulations

Module 10
Argumentative Writing

Module 11
Informative/Explanatory Writing

Module 12
Historical Narrative

Module 13
Providing Feedback: Automated Essay Scoring Tools

Module 14
Validating Rubrics & Choosing Mentor Texts

Module 15
History Day and Independent Student History Research Projects

The Common Core State Standards call for teachers to emphasize argumentative, informative, and narrative writing in their classroom practices. This course will help history teachers become writing teachers who teach skills and content simultaneously. Click here to enroll. For questions, contact Corbin Moore at or Scott Petri at