Recently, my son brought me some homework that got under my skin. For math, it said, “Regroup (or take it to the bank). The “take it to the bank” statement made me crazy! As teachers, we’re trying to find ways to teach new academic vocabulary with examples, but there’s a problem when the example replaces the vocabulary.
Sometimes the examples replace the actual vocabulary word. Doing so makes it difficult for our students to master the standard because they’re not using the same vocabulary. So, when they are asked on a test to “regroup,” they don’t know what it means!
But why is this a big deal?
Using examples is sometimes confusing for English language learners. Clarity gets muddy when there are cultural or generational references. For instance, for a child to understand “take it to the bank,” they must have experience of going to the bank to get change. Many American children have never been to a bank since most adults use debit cards and mobile banking.
There’s little context for them to understand.
Let’s be careful with these references because younger kids are literal thinkers. If I told my students to “take it to the bank,” I know with certainty that I’d have a few who would wonder what we’re taking to the bank.
My neurodivergent son was confused by this. He wanted to know why we were going to the bank? What were we doing? And what does the bank look like? What if he had tons of money to give to the bank? Would he get it back?
It got his mind racing about things other that had nothing to do with his assignment.
At last, take a look at your state standards. What vocabulary do you see within the standard? I urge you to be clear about your standards when teaching your students. Our state standards are designed to progress throughout the grades. When we use the terminology within the standards, we set them up for success, not just in our class but also in future grades.
Need some ideas for teaching academic vocabulary? Make sure you read this blog post!
Now, I’m not saying you can’t use examples. I’m saying that we should use examples as examples without replacing the vocabulary! Here are some ways we can explicitly teach the language within our standards:
Use Objects to Illustrate Vocabulary
I recently came across a quote that students need to hold math in their hands before holding it in their heads. Using realia or manipulatives to demonstrate new vocabulary bridges communication gaps. Realia provides a multisensory experience that forms a natural context for learning, while manipulatives add active learning to any classroom.
Consider using seeds, play jewelry, fruits and vegetables, counting rods, etc.
Use a Frayer Model for Teaching Academic Vocabulary
The Frayer Model is the easiest thing to use. I have my second graders fold a sheet of paper into quarters. Then, they fold the corner of the center (connected pieces) to create a small triangle. We open the paper and label each quadrant as definition, picture or characteristics, example, and non-example. The students write the vocabulary word in the center of the paper and complete the model. Finally, they share their examples with partners.
Doing this exercise takes about five minutes, but it helps build understanding and fluency for all levels of your students.
Add Academic Vocabulary to Literacy Centers
I’m sure your literacy center is dedicated to reading, words, and writing. Be intentional about what’s available in your centers. For reading, offer informational texts with rich academic vocabulary. Ask a media specialist for book recommendations or websites.
Include academic vocabulary in your spelling words. I include these in our spelling lists for students to use during word work centers. Students need more exposure to these words in class since we don’t use academic vocabulary as much during informal parts of our day.
Another way you can integrate academic vocabulary into your literacy centers is through writing. Have your students write expository pieces to teach how to do a math skill. This gives them opportunities to use the vocabulary and provides you with evidence on whether or not they understand it.
The example above shows how we integrate math into our writing center. Place Value Writing is available in my Teachers Pay Teachers shop.
You can also have your students write opinion pieces comparing which math strategy is best. Encourage them to use academic vocabulary when comparing two strategies. This forces them to think critically about each strategy, thus forcing them to retain the strategy and academic language while providing you with evidence of their knowledge.
I like to use these Editable Choice Boards for our writing center. It allows me to add new writing topics for my students while giving them a choice.
Include Academic Vocabulary in Your Newsletters
I don’t recommend sending homework with younger students because there’s not enough evidence to support growth; however, I understand that some schools/districts still require it, or you may simply believe it helps.
There is a disconnect between parents and academic vocabulary. It’s not that parents didn’t learn it in school (they did); it’s just that academic vocabulary is not something most households use regularly.
If you’re sending homework, I strongly encourage you to include vocabulary words with definitions and examples in your parent newsletters. Doing so will support them with assisting their child at home.
If you use a Frayer Model, you can send images via ClassDojo or embed them into the newsletter.
I’ve included this model as well as many math words in this time-saving vocabulary list! Grab it for free here!
Finally, your students are resilient. They may not understand the vocabulary word the first day you teach it to them, but be persistent! Their minds are like sponges, and they will soak it all in. Some may be faster absorbent than others, and that’s okay. You may not see all that they’ve absorbed, but you can stand confident knowing that you’re supporting their future.