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.

3 thoughts on “Teaching Vocabulary to Older Students”

  1. Thanks, Scott. A useful reminder for the history teacher! I’m going to do a little digging this summer for more readings to give my students. I also like to give students choices about reading level. I let them know, reading #1 is pretty straightforward, reading #2 is a little more challenging, etc.


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