Common Core Connections: Unpacking Academic Vocabulary

Are you wondering where to begin to adopt the Common Core Vocabulary Standards? While there are many specific vocabulary standards clearly listed in the K-12 Language strand, it's helpful and important to look at Academic Vocabulary from the big picture view known as Shift 6. Let's unpack it.

Shift 6: Academic Vocabulary
Overview: Three Tiers of Vocabulary
  • Tier 1:
    Words acquired through every day speech, usually learned in the early grades
  • Tier 2:
    Academic words that appear across all types of text. These are often precise words that are used by the author in place of common words. (i.e. gallop instead of run). They change meaning with use.
  • Tier 3:
    Domain specific words" that are specifically tied to content. (i.e. Constitution, lava) These are typically the types of vocabulary words that are included in glossaries, highlighted in textbooks and address by teachers. They are considered difficult words important to understanding content.
The Common Core suggests that it's important to target specific instruction on Tier 2 and and Tier 3 vocabulary words to help students develop deep understanding that cannot be acquired through independent reading. Since Tier 3 words are typically targeted in content specific instruction, it's particularly important and challenging to identify and target Tier 2 words, since they appear across all disciplines. The task at hand, then, appears to be identifying the Tier 2 words and finding effective instructional strategies to support acquisition of those words.

Understanding: Watch a Video by EngageNY

It's clear that identifying the Tier 2 Vocabulary words in a passage can be both challenging and time-consuming for teachers. While it is important for the teacher to be the decision-makers about identifying Tier 2 Vocabulary, and it's understood that a digital tool is no substitute for human decision-making, it's helpful to have a tool to jump start the process and provide a starting point. Wordle, a simple word cloud generator can be a handy tool for this task.

Digital Tools to Help Identify Tier 2 Words

Included in the collection of Common Core resources from EngageNY is a high school level exemplor lesson that devotes three days of instruction to carefully examining and interacting with the first three paragraphs of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The focus of vocabulary instruction in this lesson centers around one important word, dedicated. I decided to pop the of text of The Gettysburg Address  into Wordle to see if the tool would  identify this important Tier 2 word and the results were consistent with the findings of EngageNY. The word dedicated jumped off the page along with some other significant words. 

First 3 Paragraphs of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address

The Find Tool
Taking this one step further, I returned to the original text and used the Find Tool (control + f) to find occurances of the word, dedicated. This was helpful for jump starting the process of examining the important word and how it is used in context.

Use the Find Tool to Identify Tier 2 Vocabulary in Context

I performed similar experiments on other significant documents, including Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech. The tool does appear to be helpful as a starting point for identifying significant words, but again, it is no substitute for human decision-making.

Digital Tools for Helping Students Construct Knowledge about Tier 2 and Tier 3 Words
If you are looking for digital tools to help students build deep meaning of vocabulary words, there are quite a few that are well-suited for the task.  I have created a MentorMob playlist of tools to guide the journey and exploration through some previous blog posts with more information about the tools.

Create your own Playlist on MentorMob!


What a fantastic resource for all of us trying to wrap our minds around Common Core Appendix A. Thank you for bringing it to life with beautiful graphics and engaging activities!