What I've Learned!

Vocabulary in the Classroom -- Matthew Kowalski

#1: Tiers dictate the "no fly zones" for language in the classroom!

According to the Shift6 Theory (which appears to follow Vacca and Vacca's (2009) conceptualization of vocabulary), there are three levels of vocabulary:

Tier 1: Common, Known Words

Examples: big, small, house, table, family

These words can be found in everyday language, and often are encountered in normal conversation. These can be learned outside of an educational setting through use in speech and listening.

Tier 2: High-Frequency Words (aka Cross-Curricular Vocabulary)

Examples: justify, explain, expand, predict, summarize, maintain

These words are "general academic words" that are encountered across various disciplines. These are the "toolkit" words used to interact with specific information.

Tier 3: Low-Frequency, Domain-Specific words

Examples: isotope, tectonic plates, carcinogens, mitosis, lithosphere

These words are content-specific, meaning they are encountered as part of specific information in specific contexts (for a social studies example: vassal - the subject in a feudal relationship).

Big image

To illustrate:

The students' comprehension of the lesson can be visualized as a group of aircraft trying to avoid being shot down. There is a "sweet spot" that will get them through enemy fire--anything above or below is dangerous. These "no fly zones" can be applied to thinking about student learning.

The example I previously mentioned: "vassal", is a good way to walk through this thought process. Teaching students about the system of feudalism is necessary to understand social structures and governmental ideas in any world history or US history class. The relationship can be simplified, moving from Tier 3 to Tier 1, as follows:

  • 3: The Dominion of New England was the vassal of the King of England.
  • 2: The Dominion of New England was the King of England's direct subject.
  • 1: The Dominion of New England was under England's control.

Tier 3, the most accurate (and technically complex) version of the sentence is also the one that would have students lost if they did not already know what "vassal" meant or implied. Conversely, at Tier 1, despite being easiest for the most students to understand, there are so many variations of being "under control" (stabilized, for example) that the nuance of the situation could be lost and comprehension weakened. Tier 2 (as mentioned in Frey & Frey (2012 p. 42) offers a content-flexible word (subject) that will be more useful in a student's vocabulary toolkit as they interact with text inside and outside of the classroom.

#2: Semantic Feature Analysis is a great way to bridge Tiers 2 and 3!

(Image retrieved from: http://camill3.weebly.com/uploads/1/3/5/4/13548719/4031478_orig.jpg)

Semantic Feature Analysis is an instructional strategy aimed at learning vocabulary in a visual framework. According to Fisher & Frey (2012, p. 47), a chart arranging vocabulary and features is introduced alongside a relevant text. Students will mark each cell in the table with a "+" or a "-" to denote each word's relationship with the listed features.

In the example, Tier 2 words such as "focus", "known", and "marked" are used, bringing each into disciplinary context. Tier 3 words are used as the vocabulary itself, seemingly avoiding too much "cognitive load" (Fisher & Frey 2008) by separating the "assignment words" (Tier 3) from the words that are merely being used to get the job done (Tier 2). This also fulfills our goal of teaching disciplinary literacy, by modeling for the students how to think about the Tier 3 words in a discipline-specific framework.

#3: Vocabulary in Context is Key!

Harmon and Wood (2008) present compelling arguments that show that it is infinitely preferable to include vocabulary instruction in context rather than in a glossary-like isolation. They offer strategies for vocabulary instruction that involve anticipatory activities and writing activities. However, based on my own experiences, this leaves room for the vocabulary lesson consuming the instructional day if the students are not rigorously policed, or guided step-by-step through each answer.

In my classroom, my lecture style has attempted to situate each Tier 3 vocabulary word (usually specific events, people, and actions) in context so as to establish A-->B-->C style relationships between them. This saves time that can otherwise be spent on

How will I incorporate these lessons?

However, more time spent on ensuring student interaction and engagement with the vocabulary is essential. I will attempt to incorporate 30 minutes of instruction at the beginning of the week to do an anticipatory vocabulary lesson, as well as incorporating a Semantic Feature Analysis chart for the week. This will ostensibly have a significant effect on my students' retention and understanding of the concepts for each unit.


  • Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2012). Improving Adolescent Literacy: Content Area Strategies at Work. (Chapter 3). (3rd ed.) Boston: Pearson.
  • Fisher, D., & Frey, N. (2008). Word wise and content rich: Five essential steps to teaching academic vocabulary. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Harmon, J., & Wood, D. (2008). Content-Area Vocabulary: A Critical Key to Conceptual Learning.
  • Vacca, R. T., & Vacca, J. A. (2007). Content area reading: Literacy and learning across the curriculum (9th ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.