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September 2013 | Volume 71 | Number 1
Resilience and Learning Pages 78-79

Art and Science of Teaching / Cognitive Verbs and the Common Core

Robert J. Marzano

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) present a new mandate and challenge for K–12 educators—teaching and reinforcing cognitive verbs. These verbs, referred to as academic vocabulary, signal the type of mental operations that students are expected to perform. For example, the verb evaluate indicates that students are to determine whether something is right or wrong or good or bad. The verb execute indicates that they are expected to do something that has steps or phases.

One resource that can help teachers reinforce these verbs is the list in Figure 1, which contains 227 cognitive verbs organized into 24 categories of semantically related terms. This list was generated by analyzing the mathematics and English language arts (ELA) content standards as well as the mathematics practice standards and the ELA college and career readiness standards.

FIGURE 1. Cognitive Verbs in Semantic Categories

Add to: combine, deepen, improve, incorporate, integrate, introduce

Arrange: arrange, list, organize, sort

Big picture: comprehend, contextualize, orient, understand

Collaborate: collaborate, contribute, engage, interact, participate, share

Compare: associate, categorize, classify, compare, connect, contrast, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, link, match, relate

Create: accomplish, achieve, build, compose, construct, create, develop, draft, form, generate, initiate, produce, publish, record, stimulate

Decide: choose, decide, select

Define: define, delineate, determine, discern, establish, exemplify, identify, interpret, label, locate, name, recall, recognize

Elaborate: broaden, derive, elaborate, enhance, expand

Evaluate: assess, check, critique, evaluate, judge

Execute: advance, calculate, conduct, compute, employ, execute, navigate

Explain: answer, articulate, clarify, communicate, convey, describe, explain, express, inform, narrate, present, recount, report, respond, retell, state, summarize, synthesize

Hypothesize: anticipate, approximate, conjecture, consider, estimate, experiment, explore, hypothesize, pose, predict, test

Infer: conclude, deduce, generalize, infer, reason

Measure: gauge, measure, quantify

Metacognitive: appreciate, attend, design, monitor, persevere, plan, prepare, reflect, self-correct

Problem solve: figure out, overcome, problem solve, resolve, solve, surmount

Prove/argue: argue, assert, challenge, claim, confirm, defend, disagree, justify, persuade, promote, prove, quantify, specify, support, verify

Pull apart: analyze, decompose, decontextualize, diagnose, examine, grapple, investigate, partition, probe

Redo: redo, repeat, reread, revisit

Reference: acknowledge, cite, consult, plagiarize, refer, reference, trace

Seek information: acquire, ask, capture, compile, detect, elicit, encounter, evoke, find out, gather, listen, note, notice, observe, question, request, research, search, seek, study

Symbolize: act out, chart, conceptualize, demonstrate, depict, diagram, graph, illustrate, imagine, map, model, represent, symbolize, visualize

Transform: accentuate, adapt, adjust, alter, apply, conform, convert, edit, emphasize, manipulate, modify, paraphrase, rearrange, refine, replace, revise, rewrite, shape, shift, simplify, strengthen, substitute, tailor, transform, translate, update

Source: From Vocabulary for the Common Core, pp. 57–88, by R. Marzano and J. Simms, 2013, Bloomington, IN: Marzano Research Lab. Reprinted with permission.

Consider the category titled "compare," which contains the terms associate, categorize, classify, compare, connect, contrast, differentiate, discriminate, distinguish, link, and match. Although these terms are not necessarily synonyms, they all consider how things are similar and different.

Five Steps to Teaching Cognitive Verbs

The following steps can help teachers use semantic similarities to teach cognitive verbs.1 

Step 1. Provide an explanation or example of how the term is used and what it means in the context of the subject area in which it's being used. For example, the term analyze—which I might define as "to closely examine the parts of something so that you can see how they fit together"—means different things in different subject areas.

In language arts, when you analyze the development of a theme, you find parts of the text where the author builds the theme and examine how those parts work together to communicate the theme. When you analyze a presentation, you examine how the words, images, and information affect the overall presentation. When you analyze the role of figures of speech in a text, you examine what each means and how each affects the tone of the text.

In math, you look carefully at each part of a problem and decide what to do about that part. When you analyze a shape, you look at its sides, angles, size, and dimensions. When you analyze a graph, you look at each data point and figure out what information each element provides.

In addition to subject-specific explanations of cognitive verbs, teachers might also explain to students how they engaged in the mental action signaled by the verb. For example, a mathematics teacher might explain how he or she engaged in the activity of analyzing the previous day when reading the bar graph in the textbook.

Step 2. Have students record their own explanations and examples of the term. This step is greatly facilitated if students have academic notebooks in which they not only make daily notes about what they're learning, but also keep a record of vocabulary terms for a given subject area. The last 10 to 20 pages of the academic notebook can serve as the vocabulary section.

Students shouldn't simply copy the teacher's explanations but should generate their own. For example, for the term analyze, a mathematics student might write "analyze means you pull out the details of something you're studying, like a chart or a graph."

Step 3. Have students record a picture, symbol, or graphic representation that reminds them of the meaning of the word. The purpose of this step is not to generate a graphic representation that completely captures the meaning of the term, but to create an illustration that reminds students of the image they have in their mind regarding the term's meaning.

For example, for analyze, a student might draw a stick figure of a person looking at a book. However, while recording the stick figure, the student is creating a rich multidimensional mental image that might involve not only mental pictures, but also internal dialogue and kinesthetic sensations. She might be imagining herself in an analysis task that she performed the previous day. Her mental representation might include the things she was saying to herself as well as the sensation of sitting at her desk and listening to the teacher. The student's mental representation is the focus of this activity. The representation in the notebook simply reminds students of their mental representation.

Step 4. Once students have recorded one term in their notebook, teach other terms in that category using comparison and contrast. One purpose of organizing the cognitive terms into the 24 semantic categories is to help teachers easily introduce related terms.

For example, once students have written down the term analyze, the teacher might introduce the terms diagnose and partition. Students can work in teams to discuss how these terms are similar to and different from analyze—and each other. After the discussion, students enter the new terms in their notebooks.

Step 5. As they use cognitive verbs in class, students should update their notebook entries. Students might initially have a partial understanding of a term. However, over time, as the meanings become deeper and more robust, students will be able to provide sharper definitions.

An Easier Way to Learn

The cognitive verbs are a crucial part of understanding the Common Core standards. In this five-step process, teachers take advantage of semantic clustering to help students develop a deep understanding of these verbs.


1  I discuss these five steps in Building Background Knowledge for Academic Achievement: Research on What Works in Schools (ASCD, 2004) and Teaching Basic and Advanced Terms: A Framework for Direct Vocabulary Instruction (Cengage Learning & ASCD, 2010).

Robert J. Marzano is cofounder and CEO of Marzano Research Laboratory in Denver, Colorado, and executive director of the Learning Sciences Marzano Center in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. He is coauthor, with Michael Toth, of Teacher Evaluation That Makes a Difference: A New Model for Teacher Growth and Student Achievement (ASCD, 2013).


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