content-area writing · vocabulary

Developing Students’ Content Vocabulary


A few weekends ago, I was reading an article in the New York Times. The word “miasma” stood out as one word I have not heard before and hence not knowing its meaning. To understand it, I read this sentence twice: 

He doesn’t blame his addiction on it, but he writes that the miasma of unease afterward left him always feeling alone in a crowd.” 

I looked for parts of the word that I know, nothing. I read it in context and gained some understanding that maybe it means something not good. However, I wanted to hear its correct pronunciation as well as a clear understanding of its meaning. Therefore, I turned to provided two meanings:

After reading both definitions, the second one matched the context of the article.

Processing this vocabulary word took me some time. I thought about how times students have come across this same problem. Perhaps they have heard of it but do not know its meaning. Perhaps they have never heard a word being used either in any area, but especially in social studies or science. However, I recalled a strategy I have used to help students acquire new vocabulary words. Here is a glimpse at a tool I have used to help students.

Cognitive Content Dictionary

The Cognitive Content Dictionary (CCD) was first introduced to me in my tier 1 Project Guided Language Acquisition Design training. It is both linguistically and culturally responsive and, above all, brings joy into the classroom. In their most recent book, The Responsive Writing Teacher, Melanie Meehan and Kelsey Sorum describe linguistic responsiveness as “knowing students development of language, home language(s) and dialect(s), language processing.” Additionally, they explain cultural responsiveness as “honoring and reflecting diverse cultural and social identities and experiences.” As a result, it is an equitable practice for all learners while teaching kids academic vocabulary words and word study skills through comprehensible input. 

When this strategy is used in tandem with other Guided Language Acquisition Design (GLAD) strategies, the classroom becomes a place where students quickly access academic vocabulary words. 

However, it can also be used on its own. A quick tip is to use it before a reading of a specific content area. For instance, right before reading a space chapter, introduce the word solar-system. 

Take A Quick Survey

To get started, introduce the word to the whole group or small group. As you teach the word, record it on chart paper divided into four sections; New Word, Prediction, Final Meaning, and Oral Sentence.  

In the chart above, you’ll notice I had written “Kinetic” on the left side of the chart. This was during a 4th grade unit of study on Energy. I introduced the word explain by saying and writing, “Your new signal word is Kinetic.” To help students feel comfortable pronouncing it, I invited students to repeat the word multiple times. Rhonda Barnes, our district’s GLAD coach, demonstrated by asking students to say the word to the ceiling, say it to your hand, say it to your neighbor, and say it to the windows. This part always brings a smile to students’ faces. 

After introducing the new word, take a quick survey of the class. Ask the group who has heard of the new term. To keep track, record underneath the word using the keys Never Heard (NH) and Have (H) heard. 

From Survey to Predicting

I was working with a whole class, so I had divided the students into small groups. Next, I asked students to negotiate on the prediction of the word “Kinetic.” I circulated the room to coach each member to provide a prediction and for all team members to reach a consensus on which group member’s prediction they will share with the whole group.

 Next, I called on one group member to share out their group’s prediction of the word. Remember that some predictions may be unrelated to the word, and an instinct will be to scaffold. My tip, don’t do it. After each member shared, I paraphrased their prediction. 

Teach Signal

In this step, I let students know the word “Kinetic” will be used as a signal. It can be used as a signal to invite students into listening for instruction or a signal for transition periods throughout the day.  In the signal, I provide a synonym and a physical gesture to go along with it. Some ways I have introduced the signal is “When I say the word, join me in saying it and doing this (provide a gesture).” For instance, in the word “Kinetic” the synonym used was “move,” and I moved my hands back and forth.

When I said “Kinetic” and moved my hands back and forth, the students in the class echoed and mirrored my moves throughout the day. 

Final Meaning

Later on or the next day, the small groups renegotiated the final meaning of the word. I moved from one small group to the next to coach them into using the signal and gesture we used to help determine the final meaning. 

Shortly after small groups have renegotiated on the final meaning, I asked a group member from each group to share the final meaning. Once all groups have shared, I recorded the final meaning on the chart. 

One thing missing in this image is a sketch to match the final meaning. However, I gave a quick word study on the word “Kinetic.” You will see I provided a part of the speech and the word’s origin as I was working with upper-grade. You may want to refer to your local state standards for word study.

Oral Sentence

In this final step, I asked each group member to come up with an oral sentence using the word “Kinetic.” I took some time to model what a verbal sentence sounds like because students have provided the final definition as an oral sentence. The goal is for students to acquire the new word and use it in context.

After each member shared their oral sentence, I made a quick checkmark to record that each group has provided a sentence. 


One inclusive measure we can take is to ask our multilingual learners to write this newly acquired vocabulary in their home language(s) and teach it to the whole class. I let students choose if they want to write it on the chart paper or sticky-note.  Through this, I have learned how to say volcano in Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish. 


All learners can familiarize themselves with otherwise unfamiliar words. The Cognitive Content Dictionary is a tool that does just that. 

2 thoughts on “Developing Students’ Content Vocabulary

  1. Yes, I tried this over summer school as well. If you are familiar with the app Seesaw, that had been my go to for predicting and sharing their oral sentences. I small groups into breakout rooms to predict, and once they had a consensus for prediction, they went into Seesaw and shared their prediction.
    For the final meaning, they went into breakout rooms to renegotiate, came back into main room for groups to share out while I listened. Then, they went into breakout rooms for oral sentence, and came back to main room. Lots of toggling, but it kept the session lively.


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