The importance of academic vocabulary has been a major focus and emphasis in classrooms for the last decade. Robert Marzano’s Building Background Knowledge has been a sacred resource for scores of teachers. School districts, and even state departments of education, created lists of domain-specific words by content and grade level to ensure everyone knew which words to teach in order to increase student achievement.
The Common Core Reading Standards have redistributed the emphasis from Domain-Specific Vocabulary – or Tier Three words – according to the classification system developed by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002, 2008) – to General Academic Vocabulary – or Tier Two words. Tier Two words, often vivid verbs and sophisticated descriptors, are carefully chosen by a writer and add meaning to complex texts. Students need to understand these Tier Two words in order to understand the author’s main ideas and point of view.
According to the information about “Three Tiers of Words” in Appendix A of the Common Core, building student understanding of Tier Two words is difficult because:
1. “Tier Three words are obviously unfamiliar to most students, contain ideas necessary to a new topic, and are recognized as both important and specific” to the subject area in which they are encountered. Because of this teachers often front-load their meaning and then reinforce their meaning throughout a lesson. Tier Two words, however, are not unique to one discipline and are therefore not the responsibility of one specific grade level or content area.”
2. “Tier Three words are often defined by content clues in informational texts. Tier Two words are less likely to be defined explicitly within a text.”
So who is responsible for teaching the word “unabashedly” or “saunter?” The suggestion from the Common Core experts is for teachers “to be alert to the presence of Tier Two words and determine which ones need careful attention.”
This shift to a focus on general academic vocabulary is going to take some practice for all of us. Teachers are encouraged to let all children practice with complex texts, giving them several opportunities to read one piece of text for a variety of purposes. I believe one of the first readings should focus on Tiered Vocabulary. I think students should be taught to differentiate between domain-specific terms and general academic vocabulary in order to enhance their understanding of the power of word choice.
When I have done this activity in classrooms, the lists created by students have been impressive in the sheer number of Tier Two words they identified and in the conversations they are having about the power of words. As a former English teacher, I love this focus on vivid word choice. In my next few blog posts I will focus on how this language development can become a natural part of every Thinking Map that a student or group of students creates.