California Department of Education
Taking Center Stage – Act II

Vocabulary development

Middle level students are moving from the learning-to-read phase of their education to the reading-to-learn phase. For example, students may have skills that allow them to read a sixth-grade novel but may lack the academic vocabulary needed for interpreting sixth-grade history or science instructional materials.

The Reading/Language Arts Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve (2007) (PDF; 6.05MB; 386pp.) recommends vocabulary development as an important strategy in each grade level. In the framework, the Criteria for Evaluating Instructional Materials (DOC; 1.22MB; 67pp.) emphasize vocabulary words from science, history, and mathematics in developing students’ vocabularies.

For many middle school teachers, the need to focus on vocabulary and reading is a new concept. In the past, most middle grades educators assumed that reading instruction was an elementary teacher’s job.1 However, because nearly 44 percent of California’s children ages five to seventeen speak a language other than English at home (more than twice the national rate);2 all teachers must be skilled in helping students gain an academic vocabulary.

Vocabulary development can help to close the achievement gap, particularly for students from low-income or non-English-speaking homes. For example, research by Hart and Risley found that low-income children might have a more limited vocabulary than more affluent peers.3 By the time they are in first grade, children in low-income families have gained 5,000-word vocabularies. In contrast, children from more affluent families enter school with vocabularies of 20,000 words.4

Robert Marzano is a proponent of building student vocabulary. His Six steps to Building Academic Vocabulary (Outside Source) outlines a six-step process for helping students learn academic vocabulary. It gives alternatives to rote memorization, which research has shown to be ineffective. Marzano advocates:

  • Building ways for students to explain new terms in their own words.
  • Allowing time for students to explain new concepts to each other to build on the power of relationships.
  • Finding multiple ways for students to apply the new words. This latter concept underscores the importance of interdisciplinary team teaching—teams can even post new academic words in common spaces and brainstorm games, songs, and interdisciplinary projects to reinforce new concepts across disciplines.

The Preliminary Report on the 2004-05 Evaluation Study of the ASCD Program for Building Academic Vocabulary reported the findings on the effectiveness of building academic vocabulary (based on Marzano’s book, Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement). The study found that the ASCD program helped students read and understand content and gain academic background knowledge that raised their achievement. Furthermore, "ELL and students on free and reduced lunch programs demonstrated gains in achievement after using the vocabulary program."5

When academic area teachers regularly use proven vocabulary strategies with words from their own textbooks, students develop their vocabulary and achievement improves. Students can expand their academic vocabulary through structural analysis—the study of classic roots. Equally important is to have all teachers in academic subjects use text-based strategies, including regular review of the basic structures found in expository texts such as:

  • Compare/contrast
  • Problem/solution
  • Description
  • Spatial order
  • Chronological order
  • The transition words that identify each of the above (such as "if . . . then," "in order," or "like")


In addition, many educators appreciate the research and strategies developed by Kate Kinsella. Access Dr. Kinsella's presentations about teaching explicit vocabulary, engaging middle grades learners, and developing academic language across the curriculum by visiting the TCSII Dr. Kinsella Professional Learning Index.

In the Spotlight

Gaspar De Portola Middle School, San Diego Unified School District
The library/media teacher sponsors a student Literacy Council that both chooses and reviews books. The council also prints a quarterly newsletter for all students. (For more about how the library/media center increases student engagement in learning, refer to Recommendation 4—Relevance).


Related Links

Academic literacy

Critical thinking


1Michael L. Kamil, Adolescents and Literacy: Reading for the 21st Century (PDF; Outside Source). Washington, D.C.: Alliance for Excellent Education, 2003, 4.

22006-07 California Report Card: The State of the State’s Children (Outside Source), Oakland, Calif.: Children Now, 2007, 1.

3B. Hart, and T. R. Risley, Meaningful Differences in the Everyday Experience of Young American Children. Baltimore, Md.: Brookes Publishing, 2003.


5Robert Marzano, Preliminary Report on the 2004-05 Evaluation Study of the ASCD Program for Building Academic Vocabulary (PDF; Outside Source). Alexandria, Va.: The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2005.

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