Leveraging Academic Vocabulary to Build a Knowledge Base

I’ve written a number of times about the importance of background knowledge for comprehension, particularly in the form of informational text sets, or even as a way to make seemingly irrelevant texts relevant. While many teachers upon learning about the importance of knowledge may want to implement a knowledge rich-curriculum, we’re often faced with limited resources to procure new texts or are in environments where knowledge-rich texts are dismissed for low-level high interest novels. This may feel demoralizing, but it isn’t the end.

Vocabulary is one of the easiest and often most overlooked ways to make a knowledge-lite curriculum worthwhile.

Explicitly Teaching  Knowledge

The idea that the more knowledge you have the better you will comprehend a given passage is not a novel one, but in O’Reilly et al ‘s recent study, they uncovered a knowledge threshold for comprehension. They found that certain topically relevant words (e.g., ecosystem, habitat) were more important to know than others. In other words, if you don’t have the word knowledge required to comprehend a text (especially in this case where they were investigating tier 3 words in a science classroom), comprehension is minimized.

So, though we can’t explicitly teach all of the words that children would need to know, Shanahan recommends teaching particularly important or powerful words explicitly to help accelerate student progress in vocabulary. Further, in a study by Cain et al, they found that even with a student’s knowledge base being equal, less skilled readers still had more trouble generating knowledge-based inferences.  In other words, poor comprehenders were constructing incomplete representations of texts because, as they conclude, students were not successfully integrating the correct pieces of information to make inferences.  

This being said: It isn’t enough enough to teach students definitions of words and “have” the vocabulary knowledge in the brain.  Students must explicitly practice using the knowledge they are acquiring and being taught. 

Making Vocabulary Stick: Spaced and Interleaved Practice

Beck & McKeown write that “vocabulary research strongly points to the need for frequent encounters with new words if they are to become a permanent part of an individual’s vocabulary repertoire” (109). To this point, the research on memory and effective instruction is quite clear:  

  1. Spaced Review: Rosenshine in his principles of instruction writes that teachers should engage students in weekly and monthly review.
  2. Interleaving, which is essentially just rearranging the order of instead of by problem type, also strengthens connections between words.

This reinforces Beck et al’s assertion that  “building understanding of language comes through developing knowledge of both the similarities and differences among words the precise roles they play” (93). Instead of students remembering the words in the order and specific context in which you taught taught them, interleaving ensures that they make connection between and amongst words in the unit for a conceptual understanding. 

For the Classroom:

Pre-planning: To really do interleaved and interspaced practice well, Tom Needham recommends that you have the words compiled prior to teaching (can’t remember the exact blog, sorry!). While I did have some words at the beginning of the year, being a first year teacher you know, I just continued to add to the list over the course of the quarter.

Day 1 of teaching new words: Adapted from Bringing Words to Life and Reading Reconsidered

  • Give a student-friendly definition and example sentences. Students record this in the vocabulary section of their notebook. 
  • Active Practice w/low knowledge barrier and familiar situations. 
    • E.g. Think of a time when it would be good to be objective..
    • E.g. When might you manipulate someone?
    • Instructional Technique: Think-Pair-Share followed by a Cold-Call.
  • Closing discussion/exit ticket to apply word knowledge to context for the day
    • e.g. How did manipulation show up in our reading for today? Were the characters involved very objective? Why not?

**Day 2-5: Spaced Retrieval 

This looks like: low-stakes retrieval practice in the do-now. Students will often have to remind themselves of the definition from the “vocabulary” section of their notebook. The retrieval requires the student to know the word and apply to content that we’ve already learned.

Ex: Would it be correct to say that Amir feels disdain toward Rahim Khan for manipulating him? If yes, explain. If no, offer a more accurate adjective.

Beyond Day 5:  Decontextualization, Interleaving and Spaced retrieval

This looks like: low-stakes writing assignments and discussions that require understanding of the content and 2) deep knowledge of the connections between words. Here’s an example of one I gave this year.

And that’s it! Takeaways…

There are a lot of minor things I’m going to tweak for quarter two, namely that I rushed to decontextualization too fast– but overall I felt that students had success and readily incorporated academic vocabulary into the discussion and writing, even without prompting. Through the focus and emphasis of my class, vocabulary is seen as an intrinsic part of the knowledge for our class rather than an add-on.

They were required to write final essays using the vocabulary we’ve learned, so I’ll check back in a few weeks once I’ve pored through the final drafts enough to see how they fared. 

I’m on twitter @MsJasmineMN come and say hi!


  1. Bringing Words to Life : Robust Vocabulary Instruction— Beck, Mckeown, Kucan
  2. Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning— Mcdaniel & Brown
  3. Reading Reconsidered: A Practical Guide to Rigorous Literacy Instruction— Lemov
  4. Principles of instruction: research based strategies that all teachers should know — Rosenshine
  5. Comprehension skill, inference-making ability, and their relation to knowledge Cain et al
  6. Knowledge Threshold

7. Vocabulary Teaching by Shanahan

**Days are approximate/guesses based on when I taught things. Rosenshine principles recommend weekly and monthly review.

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