I hear the words, but I don’t know what you are saying

I hear the words but

Mr. Ronan is an elementary school principal. When he first became principal two years ago, his school was in the bottom quartile. He worked hard to engage his staff and gain their trust. He asked them to identify their needs and together they designed professional development in response. Their scores had gone up, but over the last year they were stalled and couldn’t seem to get over the 50 percentile.

He and his coach discussed the situation. Their first course of action was to gather some data and one way to do that was the classroom visit. During those visits a pattern developed—they were seeing students who were actively engage. They were reading, comprehending, answering and asking questions, but they also saw a percentage of students struggling—they were listening, but were not asking or answering questions. When they were called on, they could tell the teacher what the question was, but were not able to provide answers. It wasn’t a behavior issue; you could see these students were trying.

Mr. Ronan and his coach returned to his office and together they used a problem solving rubric to identify the problem. First, they had to identify the problem. They knew the initial problem was student scores on tests were not increasing. The coach suggested drilling down a little deeper and eventually they agreed on student engagement was low for a good portion of the students.

At this point they solicited input from the teachers and with the additional information provided, academic vocabulary was identified. Students were not participating because they didn’t know the meaning of the words. Complicating the issue was that teachers used different language and/or taught different definitions of the same word. Although in some cases this had limited success in an individual classroom, overall it made instruction throughout the school weaker. It also was wreaking havoc with vertical alignment of content.

Think of the school as a country and each classroom as a region with its own language. You can see the confusion would bring and so did Mr. Ronan and his staff. Together they worked to learn more about academic vocabulary.

So what do we know about academic vocabulary?

Simply defined, it is the vocabulary critical to understanding the concepts of the content being taught.

Let’s examine the following Theoretical Foundations:

• Research shows a student in the 50th percentile in terms of ability to comprehend the subject matter taught in school, with no direct vocabulary instruction, scores in the 50th percentile ranking.

• The same student, after specific content-area terms have been taught in a specific way, raises his/her comprehension ability to the 83rd percentile.

• Though the absolute benchmarks have been set for grade-level performance, only about 50% of today’s population is reading at the basic level identified by these benchmarks.

Compelling Facts

Prior to entering school, a child acquires academic background knowledge through rich educational experiences. Hart and Risley provide great insights in their paper, “The Early Catastrophe: The 30 Million Word Gap by Age 3.”

Mr. Ronan and his teachers learned that what students already know about the content when they come to school is one of the strongest indicators of how well they will learn new information relative to the content.

Louisa Moats (2001) states that the word gap in word knowledge between advantaged and disadvantaged children is word poverty.

Simply knowing words is not an all-or-nothing proposition: It is a complex concept. It is not the case that one either knows or does not know a word. Rather, “knowledge of a word should be viewed in terms of the extent or degree of knowledge that people can possess.” Students’ acquisition of broad vocabulary and a rich base of background knowledge, and making meaning of text, yield to more substantial and longer-term benefits-the product of years of systematic instruction. (Beck & McKeown, 1991)


Let’s recap, Mr. Ronan and his teachers identified the problem drilling down from the larger issues of student engagement to academic vocabulary. They researched academic vocabulary gaining a deeper understanding not only of its meaning, but its impact on student performance. The next step was designing a solution. Based on their study of the issues they knew:

• When all teachers in a school focus on the same vocabulary and teach in the same way, that school has a powerful comprehensive approach.

• When all teachers in a district embrace and use the same comprehensive approach, IT becomes even more powerful.

• The structured teaching of specific vocabulary is “probably the strongest action a teacher can take to ensure that students have the academic background knowledge they need to understand the content they will encounter in school.” Marzano (2005) “Direct Instruction on words that are critical to new content produces the most powerful learning.” (Robert Marzano, “Classroom Instruction That Works”)

They agreed that this powerful statement should drive their instruction strategies. They agreed to adopt Direct Vocabulary Instruction. Research shows that a combination of indirect and direct vocabulary learning is most effective for broadening vocabulary knowledge. Wide reading provides the best opportunity for indirect vocabulary learning. Explicit instruction in individual word meanings and word-learning strategies aid reading comprehension.

Direct Vocabulary Instruction

• …provides instruction in learning the meaning of words independently

• …promotes activities leading to word consciousness

• …includes instruction on individual words

Progress Monitoring

Mr. Ronan and his team had done great work, however they made a common error. They forgot to create a monitoring system in place to see if their strategy worked or not. It is not a hard step, just a step often left off. Working again with his coach and the teachers formative assessments were created and administered often on a daily basis. Teachers and Mr. Ronan had almost immediate access to the data and they used it proactively to guide instruction. Grade levels teachers shared information as well as information being shared across the grades. This information provided even more insights, just as importantly reinforced a culture of collaboration.


When students have an understanding of terms in any content area, comprehension of the content area increases.

Context can be a powerful influence on students’ vocabulary growth. Therefore, one of the most powerful things we can do to increase vocabulary-as teachers, parents, caregivers, etc., is to encourage them to read as widely as possible.

“Every study of reading achievement points to the importance of vocabulary knowledge-both word recognition and decoding, and word meaning. Word recognition appears to be the major hurdle during the first three grades; word meaning becomes the major hurdle in Grade 4 and above.” (Jeanne S. Chall, Harvard University)

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