Teach the vocabulary of school subjects

Sometimes we think vocabulary words are the kinds  found in good literature, words like “evade,” “grandeur” and “prescient.”

Math VocabularyBut many times the words children must learn are the basic words and phrases of the subjects they learn in school, words like “remainder,” “summarize” and “find the function of.”

When children are in pre-K they are taught words like “thicker than,” “thinner than,” “shorter than,” and “taller than.”  We parents and teachers take the time to instruct about these terms and then to quiz the children informally to be sure they understand.

But as children age, some terms fall through the cracks.  The third grade teacher assumes that the second grade teacher has taught words related to subtraction, such as “difference” and “minus.”  And the second grade teacher probably has.  But what if a child was sick that day, or was distracted, or was moving from one school to another?

I was reminded of this when the mother of a middle schooler told me her son was having trouble figuring out some math terms, including “at most,” “at least,” “no more than,” “no fewer than,” “maximum,” “minimum” and “below.”

Her remarks reminded me of my own trouble learning what “function” meant in my algebra class.  Whatever my teacher said didn’t help me, and for weeks I was confounded by that word.

How can we help our children learn the vocabulary basic to the subjects they are studying in school?

  • When a child starts a new learning skill, such a multiplication, or a new unit, such as erosion, teach the vocabulary the child will need to know. Page through the child’s text to see what words are used.  Then quiz the child on the vocabulary, both informally and formally.  Make definitions part of subject matter testing.  Be sure to use domain-specific words, such as “factor” and “water cycle” as well as informal words.
  • Regularly review  vocabulary in a field of study. You could offer a “spelling” bee reviewing definitions of volcanic terms, such as lava, molten, intrusive, extrusive, ring of fire and magma.  You could play a BINGO game based on figures of speech, such as simile, metaphor, hyperbole and personification.
  • Ask students to create dictionaries of terms they need to know in order to talk about a subject. Instruct students to read their dictionaries for two minutes before each day’s instruction on that topic.
  • Give pretests which include definitions.
  • Be aware of students who are absent when you teach vocabulary and give them private lessons or ask an advanced student to catch the laggard up.
  • In emails home to parents, name new words the child needs to know and ask parents to discuss these words to reinforce them.

One of the key skills in reading well is learning and remembering vocabulary.

2 responses to “Teach the vocabulary of school subjects

  1. I totally agree. When I taught art I included vocabulary with each new project. I would sometimes give a visual test. I’d show an example of the Mona Lisa and the students had to choose a vocabulary word that coincides with the painting. Portrait, not still life. I’d have the student describe a piece of art using vocabulary words such as contrast, repetition. It is empowering to be able to use vocabulary.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What is called “domain specific” vocabulary (the precise words of each subject) is moving to younger and younger children. I work with first graders who write “habitat” or “addend” with ease and accuracy. For them knowing the precise word is empowering.


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