Vocabulary: explicit vs. implicit

The Common Core Classroom

Guest blogger Emily Stewart, M.Ed., is a third grade teacher at Murch Elementary, a public school in Washington, DC. During the 2012-2013 school year, Emily will be sharing the real-world strategies, challenges, and successes of implementing ELA Common Core standards in her classroom.

Vocabulary: explicit vs. implicit

December 12, 2012

Vocab! Vocab! Vocab! The new Common Core Standards have incorporated a new component labeled, “Vocabulary Acquisition and Use.” Although many of us have been diligent in the past to teach vocabulary, we now have specific standards that we are being held accountable for. The writers of the Common Core wanted vocabulary expansion to become second nature to teachers and students through grasping and retaining words and comprehending text.

We find that through incremental, repeated exposure in a variety of contexts to the words they are trying to learn, we have an opportunity to create a new dimension of word ownership for our kiddos … the key words being “repeated exposure.” When we are giving students multiple opportunities for exposure to vocabulary words two things should come to mind: the types of words we are teaching and how we are teaching them.

Types of Words

Many of us are aware of Isabel Beck's Book, Bringing Words to Life. Beck suggests breaking words into three tiers, which doesn't necessarily involve levels, because students should be exposed to all three tiers in different instances. The question is, when? Let's break it down:

Tier I — Tier 1 words are the words of everyday speech. These words are typically learned and used through common language acquisition and speech on a daily basis. Although I use the word “typical,” I should note that many kiddos acquire vocabulary at different rates, so although these will be words they will eventually use daily, the rate at which they do, will vary.

Examples: look, they, label, back, walk, map, they

Tier II — These are the words I like to label as, “meaty.” Tier II words are commonly referred to as “general academic words.” They are words that students can use over a variety of curricular areas, such as language, math, science, and social studies. These words are more prevalent in written word than in everyday speech. This is why the use of complex text (see an earlier post here) has become so important to our daily instruction. These words are typically used, but are not usually explicitly taught. Let's take the words compare and contrast. We must explicitly teach our students that compare means to look for similarities and contrast means to find differences. When students are asked to compare and contrast, they need to explicitly be taught what these two words mean, so they know how to answer questions that contain them. Tier II words are typically found in a variety of texts: information, literary, technical, etc.

Examples: compare, contrast, vary, formulate, infer, accumulate, misfortune, analyze, traits, beneficial, determine

Something important to think about:
When determining your Tier II vocabulary, remember to include the verbs from the higher leveled questions and tasks you are asking of students. Verbs such as justify, determine, judge, reason, interpret, differentiate, and evaluate need to be taught explicitly and used regularly, so students know how to organize their thinking when faced with these verbs in questions.

Tier III — These are words that are considered “domain-specific.” We teach these in specific curricular units we teach at certain times of the year. When choosing Tier III words, we are looking for words that only pertain to a specific content area or standard. If a word cannot generally be used among different levels of curricular areas, then it is a Tier III word. These words are usually heavily supported with scaffolds in text by an author, because they tend to need some heavy context for students.

Examples: legislature, lava, circumference, algebraic, photosynthesis

How … you might ask?
There are two tactics to take when implementing vocabulary instruction. Both serve their own purpose, and each is important for students learning to read complex text.

Explicit — When we teach vocabulary explicitly, we choose 4-5 Tier II words that students will need to have a solid grasp on to understand multiple areas of their learning. Keeping the amount to 4 or 5 will ensure that vocabulary will be manageable for students to master and teachers are able to plan instruction in a timely manner. Explicit teaching of vocabulary enables a teacher to also build strategies within students to attack vocabulary acquisition. Using visuals, semantic, and mnemonic strategies are all strategies that explicit instruction lends itself to.

Implicit — Implicit words are words that are taught “in the moment.” These types of words are typically Tier III words, and tend to need a quick explanation, using heavy context. This is why they are useful to teach “in the moment.” Vocabulary that is taught implicitly should be taught naturally, without separate instruction, unlike our Tier II words. Teachers should give conscious thought to the words they will need to implicitly teach ahead of time, and plan short definitions to provide for the students to scaffold their understanding of the word.

Here are several good vocabulary resources to take a look at:

    –How to Teach the Common Core Vocabulary Standards
    –Common Core Math Vocabulary
    –Foldables: Pre K-3rd
    –Foldables: 4th-12th

Vocabulary is something that students must own! They need to have the opportunity to appreciate, be encompassed by, and truly see words for the dynamic presence that they hold in text. Giving students many chances to understand and use words will change the way they look at words, and open their understanding of new, rich complex text.


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