Words Matter

A part of developing curriculum is that of determining core vocabulary a student needs in order to learn the concepts we want them to learn.  How important are words?

Take a look at this list of words I once shared with a group of Earth Science teachers.  I asked teachers to take the list and circle the words they had confidence their students would know at the moment in timeI asked them to do the task.  The time of the year was late spring – and just weeks away from a state test that students would be taking.

I also asked teachers to count the number of words they circled and figure out the percent of words they thought their students knew.  (This is an easy one since I put one hundred words on the list.)  We then looked at the data.

In a room of forty three teachers, not one indicated that their own students would know over fifty percent (50%) of the words on the list.  Now why is this important?  Because these words came from a state test;  from the released test items for Earth Science for the prior year’s end-of-course test.  Now why is that important?  If students do not know the words, they will not perform well on the test – whether it’s a state test or one of your own.   And guess whose job it is to make sure students learn the words?  That’s right – the classroom teacher, who hopefully teachers the words and related concepts in a direct and explicit way.

So here’s what I like to do.  Whenever I develop vocabulary lists, I like to look at the content words from released test items.  This is not the only place to go, but it is one source of developing solid lists.  If you haven’t done this yet for the tests for which you are accountable, give it a try.  Just go through each test item and circle all of the content words that students need to know in order to answer the questions.  Then use those words to refine your own vocabulary lists.  You’ll end up with lists that you really like to use.

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