Stress-Free Literacy with Content Vocabulary

What is Content Vocabulary?

Content vocabulary is vocabulary in all subjects in addition to language arts, such as math, science, and social studies. It is important to teach these words in context, especially with our primary students. They need repeated exposure to…

  • words in meaningful contexts
  • connection to prior knowledge and experiences
  • and an active role in the learning process.

Like other primary teachers, I believed that the only vocabulary I needed to focus on was the vocabulary from my students’ guided reading books. I soon discovered that was not the case when I realized the majority of my students didn’t understand many concepts in their other subjects.

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My classroom makeup was over 50% ELL students. Every day the evidence pointed to the fact that they didn’t understand the content vocabulary.

We would do group lessons about different science and social studies topics using content vocabulary. I simply glossed over them without giving them much thought. My big aha moment happened when one of my students asked, “what’s an umbrella?” After doing my best to mask my surprise, I quickly explained the concept of umbrella. Not long after, another of my students asked, “what’s a chicken?” I was completely in shock!

What I came to learn over time was that my students needed more context. Some of my students didn’t have the background knowledge necessary to connect to what I was teaching and that wasn’t fair! In fact, research says:

English language learners who experience slow vocabulary development are less able to comprehend text at grade-level than their English-only peers. Such students are likely to perform poorly on assessments in these areas and at risk of being diagnosed as learning disabled(Critical Role of Vocabulary Development). 

It was time for a change in my teaching strategy!

If you watch Friends, then you will understand this picture of Ross saying “pivot!” I had to pivot and find a new way to help my students.

picture of Ross pivoting


Thematic Vocabulary

I started thinking about ways that I could expose my primary classroom to rich content vocabulary, so I discussed my dilemma with my daughter, who is my business partner and a teacher! We decided to create tools that would help teach vocabulary to primary students, and

Daily Concept Builders was born.

We created weekly themes out of my content vocabulary units, then brainstormed key content vocabulary to connect to each theme. I wanted to also focus on a word each day so we created vocabulary calendars.

CLICK HERE to see that routine!

picture of September Vocabulary Calendar
My students started getting excited about this “word of the day” and started finding the words in other places.

I introduced the theme for the week, then focused on one of the words each day. For character education we used kind, quality, responsible and understand to name a few.

We practiced the definitions, clapping syllables, and phonemic elements like the qu in quality.

Reading Comprehension

I wanted to include these words in my daily reading, so Brittany and I decided to create our emergent readers!

Using real photos, our students made connections with this rich content vocabulary. We produced simple songs using the words from the books, and often I would see my students singing the songs as they read!

We used these words to practice phonics using small literacy boxes on the pages for children to write in.

An example is the -ay for day in Earth Day. The exciting thing for me was when my students started pointing out the phonetic features before I said anything. This daily routine also helped my primary students with rhyming. I also wanted to check their comprehension and that is why we added the questions in the back of the books.

pictures of emergent readers

Word Wall Cards

I talked to other teachers that were using these vocabulary resources and having great success. However, they wanted a tool that their students could see that showed them pictures of words, besides just seeing them in their books. Brittany and I listened and designed word wall cards that showed pictures of the content vocabulary every week. I displayed the word wall cards and asked students how the cards related to each other, and we had great discussions that got them thinking about the theme we were studying. For example, we discussed words like principal, teacher, student, school and supplies for back to school and words like scientist, observations, experiment, data, conclusion, and hypothesis when we studied the scientific method. Kids love and relate to the pictures! They also used these words in their writing. It gave them confidence and kept them on topic.

picture of word wall cards

Digital Reading and Vocabulary

I was so excited to discover Boom cards! It gave me the perfect way to make our books and vocabulary digital. These tools are great to display on a smart board and use to teach the vocabulary to your students. Each vocabulary deck starts with the pictures of the words, then gives the definition, claps syllables, emphasizes a phonetic feature, students click the feature, and find the word in the sentence. Teachers like how they can leave this with a substitute teacher because it includes audio, so it goes step by step for them.

There is also Boom decks that go with our emergent readers. There is audio if you want to use these readers in a center. The deck starts with the story, then song of the words, then questions,  students play word detectives and phonics detectives. They love this!

Take advantage of all these amazing resources to provide stress-free literacy in your classroom. Click below for info!

Have an amazing day!

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