Tag Archives: Content Literacy

Word Wizards, Word Nerds, & the Importance of Vocabulary in the Content Areas

What are the essential vocabulary words necessary for students to succeed in your classroom? This can be discipline specific vocabulary or academic vocabulary. For example, you could not possibly comprehend a social studies chapter on the geography of Africa if you do not know the meanings of the words “desert,” “savannah,” and “rainforest.”

Vocabulary is at the heart of the content areas we teach.  Each content has its own vocabulary unique to the understanding of the content material taught.  Most researchers would agree that you improve an individual’s vocabulary knowledge and comprehension through students immersed in a wide variety of reading and writing activities. 

There is no one method for teaching vocabulary. Rather teachers need to use a variety of methods for the best results, including intentional, explicit instruction of specific vocabulary words. Teachers can also encourage creative approaches to spark enthusiasm. 

As a content area teacher, vocabulary is intertwined with reading and understanding a text. As a teacher, your task is to devise a way of teaching vocabulary in a way that does not interfere with students’ enjoyment and interest of a text. Each of our content areas has specific content area vocabulary that is necessary in building understanding of our disciplines. In the TEDx Sonoma County talk from Dr. Kelly Corrigan, “Reading Matters, Vocabulary Matters” she addresses how “word learning is a way to understand concepts more deeply, connect to topics and information intentionally, approach challenging words with strategies good readers use to make sense of complicated texts, and to transfer this understanding into consumption and creation” (Shaelynn Farnsworth).


I want my graduate students to understand the importance of teaching vocabulary in the content areas and be able to design and create word enriched lessons for their classrooms. I designed a vocabulary Hyperdoc and Choice Board to help them meet these objectives. This choice board is designed with three (3) rows and three (3) columns. Students choose one activity per row (Learn, Dig Deep, Apply) and track your understanding on the KUD Sheet. Vocabulary Choice Board

The KUD note catcher allows students to show what they Know, Understand, and can Do.

K: What Students Should KNOW

This includes information that can be acquired through memorization, such as facts or categories of facts, dates, names of people or places, names and details of important events, definitions of terms or concepts, academic vocabulary, steps in a process, or rules.

U: What Students Should UNDERSTAND

An understand goal is an insight, truth, or “a-ha” that students should gain as a result of acquiringcontent and skills. An understand goal represents an idea that will last beyond a single lesson or unit—it has staying power. An understand goal often makes a statement about or connects concepts. A concept is a broad abstract idea, typically one to two words, under which various topics and facts can fit (Erickson, 2002). They can be general or discipline-specific.

D: What Students Should DO

A do goal articulates skills that students should master. These can be thinking skills, organizational skills, habits of mind, procedural skills, or skills associated with a discipline (e.g., science, cartography, mathematics).

Have engaging vocabulary activités in your content area, share them in the comments section below.








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Writing to Learn

In her book Writing Across the Curriculum in Middle School and High Schools (1995), Rhoda Maxwell states, “Writing is not used in content areas so that students will improve their writing skills, but because students understand content better when writing becomes part of their learning activities.”

We write to learn, to deepen our understanding, emphasize skills and strategies, to deepen thinking, look for clarity of ideas, it even acts as a toolbox for our thinking.

The Common Core State Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects address the importance of both content and form to develop students’ writing skills. One of the best ways to encourage students to become critical thinkers and strategic learners is to incorporate writing into the content areas. The CCLS place a strong focus on argument writing and informative/explanatory writing. The CCLS call for students to become well-rounded individuals who write different types of texts for different purposes and audiences.

Writing doesn’t just happen in English class, nor should English teachers be the sole teachers of reading and writing. Here are three places content area teachers like science and humanities can help teach writing skills:

The Thesis Statement/Claim – The thesis is the map of an essay. It not only states the argument but also gives an indication of the organization of the essay. All subjects must standardize the need to see one thesis statement in a student’s argument regardless of content.

Evidence – Evidence is the quote, the computation, the data, the statistics, and the findings. Evidence backs up the argument made in the thesis statement.

Commentary – Commentary is individual thought. It is not just about translating the data but also bringing a new layer to the information.

The real goal is to help all students master the knowledge, procedures, and skills of the academic disciplines that run the secondary school curriculum, and which serve as the gatekeeper to success in college, work, and other facets of adult life. Teachers working to improve adolescent literacy instruction must integrate the teaching of reading and writing more fully into academic content areas.

When teachers take steps to incorporate more writing into the content areas, students begin to deepen their understanding of the steps they are taking to solve problems and to learn. They expand their capacity to answer the “why,” to understand the big ideas, and to see the real-world relevance of what they are learning. Through various literacy-based content activities that are purposeful and meaningful, students develop the skills required to successfully master content and increase problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

Here are 10 ideas to think and apply in any content area and classroom:

Create Reader’s Theater on Mitosis

Debate whether genetically modified foods are safe to eat

Write a research paper and find information Boyle’s Law: The inversely proportional relationship between pressue and volume on a confined gas

Have students write and produce a music video on factoring

Create a screencast the influence of global warming on glaciers

Write a newspaper article on whether your school should invest in Solar Panels on the Rooftop

Start a classroom blog for students to reflect on classroom inquiries

Design a RAFT (Role, Audience, Format, Topic) choice project for students

Write a persuasive letter to your state senator on the first amendment and whether or not to revise the constitution

Have students script and record a podcast on a science topic they want to know more about

The bottom line: Teachers should create assignments for real audiences and with real purpose that require students to read, write, and  think critically.


Writing to Learn

Short, exploratory, unedited, & informal writing opportunities

Public Writing

Planned, audience driven, drafted and edited





Charts and Graphic Organizers



Exit/Admit Slips


Research Papers



Projects (RAFT, Brochure, Webquests, Newspapers)


In lieu of essays:

Make a cartoon strip

Design a questionnaire

Write a play

Create a teacher’s guide

Create a scrapbook

Write a television show script, poem, commercial, song, monologue

Write a letter

Write a press release

Design a slide show, Prezi, or Screencast

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Fostering a Sense of Wonder by Reading Across the Content Areas

June is the end of the school year, time for me to clean out my classroom, and through the cleaning process, reflect on the school year. I think about what were the successful classroom activities and assessments that my students completed? What lessons can I revise? What can I do better for next year?

Looking through some teaching notebook, I came across my notes from 2010 workshop on literacy in the content areas I attended at Teachers College, Columbia University.   The keynote speaker, Dr. Hubert Dyasi,  science education professor at City University of New York spoke about science as inquiry, not something that is done in solitary confinement.  He defined “inquiry” as the gateway to scientific study of the phenomena of nature.  The idea behind his presentation was to cultivate and nourish student curiosity and a sense of wonder.  

This idea is not just specific to science educators, the idea of cultivating student curiosity applies to all content areas whether you teach social studies, English, or math.  All teachers want to foster a sense of wonder and make real world connections with their content.  When we look closer at each content area, the skills that educators want students to obtain are the same, it is the class material that differs.

What reading skills do we use across the content areas?

Connect to prior knowledge




Supporting claims and providing evidence



Building vocabulary in content

Cause and effect

Retelling in our own words



Across the content areas all teachers need to focus on reading to help students learn to read and understand class materials.  Teaching reading should not go away in upper elementary and middle school. And yet, students are doing most of their reading in these grades at home and on their own.  Teachers need to bring back reading in their classroom and help students understand, interpret, and analyze multiple texts.

As I look ahead to another school year I think about ways to strengthen students’ reading comprehension and understanding. I want my students to own the information being taught, pursue their questions that arise from learning, and give a real purpose to the projects they create. 

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Rockin’ Your Content with a little Rock n’Roll

I teach a rock history elective with connections to Language Arts, music, social studies and technology.  The goal of the class to for students to examine specific events in history and their impact on and responses to rock and roll music.  

As educators, we must help to  prepare young people for living in a world of powerful images, words, and sounds.  Young people need the tools to navigate and decode the messages and emotions sent through music.  By teaching rock and roll history my objective is to enable students to engage critically in the study of music and history by bridging music, writing, and understanding of historical events.

If you want to bring a little bit of rock and roll into your classroom, here are some ideas and activities to inspire and ignite students.

Health – Let’s be truthful, the issue of drug use is intertwined with rock and roll music, from the 1960s even up until today.  Use music biographies and lyrics to address songs and artists who have abused drugs. These lessons are pertinent to teach students about drug abuse and negative effects of drugs on the music industry.

Art – Symbols of Rock Music include the guitar, the hair, the clothing, the cars.  Students can create a collage of rock music images.  All these images and symbols help define rock and roll music.  Album covers are also great pieces of art work to examine.  Students can analyze the images of album covers or even create their own.

Business – Corporate Rock Debates.  Music is a multi-billion dollar industry.  Students can examine the economic factors on the music industry and debate about whether music should be free and accessible to all.

Language Arts – Read and Rock Out.  Students can create a music selection and soundtrack for their favorite book.  The music choices can coincide with the themes, moods, character actions, and plot points in the book.

History – Make a Rock n’ Roll Timeline that includes the most important events in the history of rock and roll. Students decide and plot out the major events in rock and roll history along with historical milestones.  Students can include pictures and images along with the timeline for a graphic representation.

Science – Cold Case File Investigations.  There are so many unsolved mysteries throughout rock and roll history.  Take the 2Pac and Biggie Smalls murders in 96 and 97, these two murders have gone cold in the past ten years.  Students can use their detective and forensic research to help solve the case and build a hypothesis regarding this rap tragedy.

For more ideas and projects that my students have completed be sure to check out our class wiki.

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