Tag Archives: Academic Vocabulary Instruction

History Book vs Video Lecture

I operate flipped classroom where students watch video lectures with Zaption questions embedded in them for homework, then we read, practice writing and note-taking drills and complete projects in class. After three years of this work I developed two hypotheses: 1) Students with higher reading scores prefer reading the book to viewing the video lectures; and 2) Students with lower reading scores prefer viewing the video lectures to reading the book.

This week, I asked two samples of students to describe which learning format they preferred. The results soundly debunked my assumptions. While both groups of students preferred the video lectures to the textbook, 36% of students with lower reading levels preferred taking notes from the book rather than viewing video lectures.

Book v VL

Students who favored the video lecture to the book made comments like:

  • I think I am learning more from the videos because they give off more information, they clarify what the topic is about, and I can rewind the video in case I didn’t get that last piece of information.
  • Personally, the video lectures help a lot more than taking notes on the book. I can spend more time on the video, the book is more flat. In the video, main points are emphasized. It’s slightly harder to pick out key points from the book. My brain works better when it comes to listening because when it comes to reading, my eyes tend to skim and I can miss key information.
  • I like the video lecture better because it tells us what to write. You can take your time and you can rewind the video. In the book, it takes a long time looking for what information you are going to write in your notes. When I open the book it’s just like no and it’s not interesting. The book doesn’t capture my attention.

Students who preferred the book to the video lectures made comments like:

  • I think the book helps me better because you can go back and easily find something you missed, you can easily flip through pages to find something, and it is less distracting.
  • Taking notes from the book helps you go at your own pace. You can read as fast or as slow as you want. The book is easier to go back to a sentence or paragraph than the video. The book makes it more simple because you can study and annotate in a way that you will understand.
  • I work better with books, they have less complications. I am a hands-on learner, books get to the point. Video-lectures can have complications. WiFi can go down, you run out of data, problems can happen. Books are always there to be picked up and read.

These results seem to validate the flipped classroom approach. When students view video lectures which preview vocabulary terms, names and events first, they are building background knowledge. Then, when students encounter these terms, names, and events in their reading, they have familiarity with them and it is easier for the new knowledge to “stick.” Regardless of which learning method students prefer when these two methods are paired, the video acts as an anticipation guide priming the pump in a student’s memory and reinforcing the stickiness of the information in the reading. My big takeaway? Remember to listen to your students. It turns out they also are your customers.

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.

Six Word Definitions

Thanks to #TeachWriting, my rockin’ PLN on Twitter, I was apply to apply a new technique in my World History classroom this week. Several ELA teachers were discussing #6wordShakespeare and some of the other six-word story exercises that had been done in their classrooms. Hemingway wrote one of the most famous six word stories: For sale. Baby shoes. Never worn. These teachers described the technique as a fast brainstorming tool that gets students writing and playing with language immediately. I thought it could be used in the vocabulary-intensive unit I am currently teaching about the Cold War.

These two definitions from the book and subsequent student simplifications illustrate the concept.  Containment: The U.S. strategy of keeping communism within its existing boundaries and preventing its further expansion (p. 509). Truman Doctrine: United States policy, established in 1947, of trying to contain the spread of communism (p. 491).

6 word CW Vocab

Hyland & Tse (2007) report that many teachers regard helping students develop specialist [content] vocabulary as an important part of their role and many lists of key terms have been assembled. Marzano & Pickering (2005) offer a manual with 7,923 terms so school and district teams can choose the most important vocabulary words to teach their students. The terms were extracted from national standards documents, across eleven subject areas, and organized into grade-span intervals for: K–2, 3–5, 6–8, and 9–12 writers.

Here are examples of online definitions, along with student six-word definitions.  Iron Curtain:  The political, military, and ideological barrier erected by the Soviet Union after World War II to seal off itself and its depended eastern and central European allies from open contact with the West and other noncommunist areas (Encyclopedia Britannica). Capitalism: An economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state (Google). Interestingly this term is not defined in the World History textbook, instead capital is defined as “money or wealth used to invest in business or enterprise” (p. 175).

6 word vocab

The majority of my students mastered this task and defined all seven terms in 15 minutes. I find that quantifying and charting how many terms a student completed within the allotted time helps me get a better picture of their engagement and alerts me to any comprehension problems that may be brewing.

Here some additional examples of student work:
Communism: Form of socialism advocated by Marx; Community has all power in society; All wealth and property owned collectively.
Capitalism: Private owners rather than the state; Prices are based on supply and demand; Individuals make decisions, not the government.
Cold War: Tension and hostility between two nations; Competition between U.S & Soviet states.
Iron Curtain: Prime Minister accuses Soviets of aggression. Soviets create a buffer in Europe.
Containment: Keeping communism within boundaries without spreading; America’s policy toward communist countries.
Truman Doctrine: Tried to prevent spreading of communism; 1947 USA policy stopping Soviet Socialism.

6 word stories

Kinsella (2013) argues that word knowledge is a strong predictor of academic achievement and educators cannot afford to leave vocabulary instruction to chance. She further advises that devoting attention to words that matter most is the first step in responsible lesson planning. I thought these six word definitions demonstrated understanding of Cold War terms and will continue to use it to help students master content vocabulary. It appears that finding activities like creating six-word definitions and re-tweeting favorites enable students to have fun while building their academic vocabulary. What tricks and techniques have been successful in your classroom?


Hyland, K., & Tse, P. (2007). Is there an “academic vocabulary”?. TESOL quarterly41(2), 235-253.

Kinsella, K. (2013). Cutting to the Common Core: Making Vocabulary Number One. Language Magazine12(12), 18-23.

Marzano, R. J., & Pickering, D. J. (2005). Building academic vocabulary: Teacher’s manual. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. 1703 North Beauregard Street, Alexandria, VA 22311-1714.