Word knowledge, the Framework, and the Common Core

Christine Anderson-Morehouse

Last week Christine Anderson-Morehouse, presented a session on Word Knowledge at the Department’s K-12 Summer Literacy Institute: Transition Planning for the Common Core State Standards.   Christine is both a longtime science education consultant and the director at Midcoast Professional Development Center where her work has included supporting several partner schools in a statewide, five-year Maine Content Literacy Project grant.  I am delighted that she agreed to share her insights with us in the entry that follows…  Thank you, Christine.

 Acquiring Word Knowledge—A Key to Science Understanding 

Words are not just words. They are the nexus—the interface—between communication and thought. What makes vocabulary valuable and important is not the words themselves so much as the understandings they afford.  (Common Core State Standards, Appendix A)

Language is at the core of the Practices in the Framework for K-12 Science Education, especially Practice 6 (Constructing Explanations and Designing Solutions); Practice 7 (Engaging in Argument from Evidence) and Practice 8 (Obtaining, Evaluating and Communicating Information).

The Common Core State Standards for ELA / Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects make direct connections to Science. We see this link in the Common Core State Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects (CCSS), the Language Standards, which are intended to be embedded across all other CCSS standards including reading, writing, listening and speaking.   Although we in STEM education might not think of ourselves as literacy teachers, it’s imperative that we incorporate effective word work into our daily instruction.

I am fascinated by the related and complementary research into language/vocabulary instruction that’s described in the Common Core documents (for example, CCSS Appendix A. Acquiring Vocabulary p. 32).

Academic Language and Background Knowledge:  Which Words? 

In science, we know that students come to the classroom with preconceptions about how the world works. It’s our job to provide scaffolded experiences (both hands-on and through reading) to engage students’existing understandings and lead them gradually to new concepts in order for them to learn in a way that “sticks”.  So, too, must we scaffold student use of language.  All students and especially struggling students need explicit support if they are to understand and use Academic Language, both the “Tier 2 Words” (general academic words such as “contrast”, “analyze”, “note”–words that are frequently used in school but rarely explicitly taught) and the “Tier 3 Words” (domain-specific terminology that represents both brand new concepts (“density”) and terminology that extends existing conceptual knowledge (the term “raptor” as applied to an already-understood concept of “bird”).  Our choice of Tier 3 words should assuredly be based on the standards in science.

In selecting the general academic words that we’ll take the time to teach, we’d be wise to work with our colleagues across the curriculum and identify the Tier 2 words to emphasize at each grade level in each subject.   It is widely accepted among researchers that the difference in students’ academic vocabulary levels is a key factor in disparities in academic achievement and that students struggle in school or drop out of college not because they can’t read (decode letters) but rather, because they struggle to unlock the meaning of these more general, academic words.  The AWL (Academic Word List)  consists of 570 of the most common terms used across disciplines organized by frequency of use.  An excellent book by Amy Benjamin, Vocabulary at the Center, includes similar word lists that are organized by categories of meaning.  Either of these resources, combined with the descriptions of science practices in A Framework for K-12 Science Education, can support cross-disciplinary discussions and decision-making about which words we’ll emphasize in the science classroom.

Effective Vocabulary Instruction:  How? 

Historically there has been an emphasis on the “assign/define/test” mode of studying word lists. These words were often the bold words from textbook chapters.  Research now tells us that words won’t stick when instruction follows this practice because it involves little in the way of student engagement nor experiences that build long-term memory.  Rather, students should have guidance so that they can create their own linguistic and non-linguistic representations in order gradually to shape their understandings of word meaning.   In order to support this learning, teachers must provide multiple and varied exposure over time with repeated opportunities for students to interact with one another about the words that they’re learning.  Learning word parts (roots,and prefixes and suffixes)and use of games—playing with words—can increase  a student’s probability for academic success.

Two valuable, general resources about research-based vocabulary instruction are an article by Robert Marzano about a six-step vocabulary process and an entry by Susan Ebbers on the Vocabulogic blog (scroll down to a list of “effective and engaging vocabulary practices”).  Specific to science, I’ve enjoyed using some of the practical classroom strategies such as the Frayer Model, Synectics and many other strategies described in Page Keeley’s Science Formative Assessments book.

Strengthening STEM learning requires the integration of literacy as described in the standards of the Common Core and the Practices of the Framework.