Academic Vocabulary and Background Knowledge

Topic: Strategies

Too many times teachers are pressured to focus on test scores. The pressure can often create an overwhelming urgency that only tested subjects receive instructional focus. We understand.

We understand the tremendous pressure, but here’s one area that’s not tested, yet benefits students tremendously!

Plus, it is shown to increase test scores as well…

What is it?

Academic Vocabulary and Background Knowledge.

In this post, you’ll find out about:

  • Words With Leverage
  • Vocabulary With Significance
  • How To Offer Multiple Opportunities

But first, a little background about background knowledge.

Academic Background Knowledge

Educators realize that all subjects are critical to student success. The content area background knowledge in one subject like social studies can help other areas. Case in point:

  • Science mastery is helped when students learn about physical geography (i.e. climate, landforms) in social studies.
  • Math skills are boosted when students learn how math is applied in areas like science.
  • When a student picks up a literary book from the library that references history, background knowledge is needed to comprehend the story, setting, or characters.

It’s impossible to give students the background knowledge they need for every scenarios. However, high leverage words can help. Teaching high leverage words can build students background knowledge. 

Would you be interested in free word study warm-ups? Sign up today >>

Words with Leverage

Terms such as conclusionsproduct, and factor. These terms are high leverage vocabulary because they don’t belong to just one subject.

The word “conclusions” represents a skill that students learn in reading class. However, a conclusion is also a skill used in science and in social studies.

A product isn’t just an economy term. It’s meaning is very similar to the math term used when teaching multiplication.

Leverage is when students learn one concept that increases and accelerates learning in other subject areas. By learning high leverage vocabulary, learning is accelerates.

High leverage vocabulary allow students to create a network of background knowledge. That network actually accelerates learning over time.

Vocabulary with Significance

When selecting vocabulary terms to teach, use words that come straight from national and state standards. They are important to teach because they are necessary for foundation knowledge.

Let’s look at the term text evidence for an example.

When a teacher is teaching about inferring, the students may be directed to use text evidence. If a student has never heard those academic terms before, one of three things could occur.

  1. First, the teacher may have to stop the lesson and teacher the vocabulary word.
  2. Second, the teacher may not have time to stop the lesson, and the student will be lost.
  3. Third, the brief one-time vocabulary exposure in the middle of the lesson may be too shallow and off-topic for the student to gain any benefit.

What’s the solution?

Multiple opportunities to learn vocabulary.

Multiple Opportunities with Academic Vocabulary

Successful vocabulary instruction provides students with exposure over time. Most students can not learn, remember, or understand academic terms with only one exposure or explanation – much less an explanation in the middle of a lesson.

It’s just not enough for the teacher to use the word in a lesson or for a student to hear the concept explained. There has to be real learning opportunity.

Students need multiple opportunities from difference viewpoints learn these terms.

  1. The first opportunity could be a brief visual of the word.
  2. The next exposure could be the students making a quick note in their journals and sort words by different categories.
  3. The third exposure might be in a read aloud or quiz.

Hearing the meaning of the word or concept from other students helps to expand student understanding also.

Over time, students will become comfortable using the words themselves. More importantly, as the teacher uses the academic vocabulary to teach, students have hooks to hang additional meaning. The network builds, and that background knowledge creates academic success.

What Are Ways to Practice Vocabulary?

It’s important to allow students to deal with words in a variety of ways. Here are a few basic ideas.

  • Students will experience the concepts through visual examples and non-examples.
  • Students will work with the words in word sorts and matching games.
  • Quizzes, fill-in-the-blank and a variety of game formats are also a part of the learning process.

Select activities that can be used as a warm-up (like these word meaning warm-ups), a cool-down game, a review activity before a test, a slideshow for a flipped classroom, and many other ways.

The key is to design a variety of expereiences to be used throughout the year, over and over.


Take a look for yourself and see how we can help you build the background knowledge and academic vocabulary needed for long-term student success!

Published/Updated on August 16, 2016  

Related Reading in the Topic: Strategies

About the author 

TeamTom Education

TeamTom Education is dedicated to creating engaging teaching resources and strategies that make learning awesome!

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

Receive a notification next time we publish a blog article.

>