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How to Build Academic Vocabulary
May 22, 2014 | Volume 9 | Issue 17
Table of Contents 

Building Academic Vocabulary and Concepts, Brick by Brick

Lori Helman

To do well in school, students must master what Dutro and Moran call "brick and mortar words" (2003). Brick words represent content, such as decimal or censorship. Mortar words are the glue that holds sentences together, such as the phrases "can be described as …." Although both brick and mortar words are essential to comprehension, I will focus on simple ways for subject matter teachers to integrate brick words and phrases within content lessons.

As students learn novel ideas, they learn the words to represent them. Often, key words in content area classrooms are new to students, so it is important to intertwine vocabulary instruction and concept development. All students benefit from a focus on vocabulary development, and this is particularly essential for English language learners. When students do not understand the terms for the concepts, they are unlikely to fully understand the material, nor will they be able to build upon foundational ideas and reach advanced levels of learning.

Here are five ways for busy teachers to seamlessly reinforce new vocabulary as they teach. Pull one of these practices out each day, and by the end of the week, your students will have experienced numerous opportunities to use, reflect upon, and compare the meanings of new content words (Nagy & Townsend, 2012).

  • Graphic organizers are visual displays of relationships—such as webs, maps, or quadrants—that can serve as powerful supports for conceptual learning (Hattie, 2009). Ask students to put a new vocabulary word in the middle of a word web and think of as many related words as they can that emanate out from the new word. Or have students use four quadrants to document four key ideas about the new word. Ideas for graphic organizers are everywhere and can be adapted to the context of almost any content word.
  • Vocabulary notebooks are sections of a student's binder for keeping track of new words, adding definitions or illustrations of the words, and listing related words. Vocabulary notebooks are especially helpful for students learning English as a new language because students can reference previously learned words and definitions that are written in the student's own language. During your lesson, have students jot down a key word or phrase in their vocabulary notebooks and write a connection to what they have already learned.
  • Multilingual word consciousness helps students make connections between words they are learning in class and other words they know from outside of school. Keep lists of the way similar ideas are expressed in many contexts. For example, the word hydrate might lead students to think of the words hidratar (Spanish) or related words such as hydrant, hydrated, hydroelectric, dehydrated, and carbohydrate. Collect any and all related words from multiple settings so students can become word investigators.
  • Show it! Ask students to stop at any point in a lesson and show their understanding by drawing a quick sketch of the key concept. Or invite a volunteer to act out a word for the group.
  • Interactive strategies provide opportunities for students to engage with others to discuss, question, or practice using a new vocabulary term. Having the time to talk—even for 60 seconds—helps imprint the new language for students. With several opportunities to use—not just hear—the new phrases, students will more readily remember new terms and have access to them in their writing and presentations.

You can easily integrate these five simple strategies into your content area instruction to support your students’ content vocabulary learning. Brick by brick, you can help students build a strong foundation of academic vocabulary.


Dutro, S. & Moran, C. (2003). Rethinking English language instruction: An architectural approach. In G. G. Garcia (Ed.), English learners: Reaching the highest level of English literacy (pp. 227–258). Newark, DE: International Reading Association.

Hattie, J. (2009). Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement. New York: Routledge.

Nagy, W. & Townsend, D. (2012). Words as tools: Learning academic vocabulary as language acquisition. Reading Research Quarterly, 47(1), 91–108.

Lori Helman is codirector of the Minnesota Center for Reading Research and an associate professor of literacy education in the Department of Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Minnesota.


ASCD Express, Vol. 9, No. 17. Copyright 2014 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit


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