Vocab Strategies

GOAL: After this segment, teaching staff will understand the importance of teaching vocabulary in social studies to students with special needs. 

Teachers will learn how important vocabulary is to the success in ALL our students, especially to the students with mild disabilities.
Teachers will be able to identify why a limited vocabulary holds our students back. Teachers will be able to explain why we need effective vocabulary strategies and what some of those strategies are, and be able to use them in their classroom effectively.
Teachers will be able to see and use different graphic organizers that will help students with mild disabilities master new vocabulary.


Vocabulary is a crucial element in a student’s comprehension. Where there is specific instruction designed to promote vocabulary development children show substantial gains in both vocabulary and comprehension. The more focus given to vocabulary throughout school and in ALL academic areas the more student learning will be improved. (Beck, Perfetti, & McKeown, 1982; McKeown, Beck, Omanson, and Pople, 1985). There are many times that general educators who teach subjects other than language arts believe that vocabualry instruction is not a crucial element in their lessons. By teaching this segment to ALL general educators and showing them the correlation between vocabualry instruction and student mastery of social studies concepts I hope to change that point of view. This PD segment should show teachers that vocabulary development is critical to a student's success because it lays the foundation for understanding the subject matter. Often not fully understanding key words leads to a child's misinterpretation of key ideas or misconceptions. The vocabulary words are part of the framework that holds the unit together. It allows students to have common understandings in group discussions so they can understand the subject matter on a deeper level. The students mastery of a subject and ability to become fully engaged in a unit depends upon his/her fundamental knowledge of what is being discussed, i.e. vocabulary. As the students know the key vocabualry terms they then are able to know and understand the key concepts being taught. It is an anchor point so that they can remember these key concepts in the future but then also serving as an aid in tests.


Teachers will enter the PD program and grab a card from the vocabulary game "I have...Who has". Have them hold on to this until the game portion of the program.

Importance of Vocabulary

Introduce why vocabulary is important for ALL students, especially students with mild disabilities, to succeed in social studies:

The following clip from the film, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, is a humorous (albeit exaggerated) depiction of how social studies instruction may appear to high schoolers/middle schoolers.

“Given the complexity of history, it is not surprising that many adolescents have trouble mastering and developing the skills related to historical interpretation and analysis. Students with disabilities, for example, demonstrate a number of performance difficulties that affect their academic progress in social studies (Scruggs, Mastropieri, & Okolo, 2009). First, students with disabilities have documented difficulties in reading, which impact their ability to access the information in history textbooks (Harniss, Caros, & Gersten, 2007). Even when students with disabilities are fully capable of understanding textbooks and resources in social studies, their literacy skills lag behind their verbal reasoning skills because of their difficulty in decoding the technical terms and vocabulary in the conceptually-dense historical material (De La Paz & MacArthur, 2003; Harniss, Dickson, Kinder, & Hollenbeck, 2001).”

How can we prevent this…effective vocabulary strategies and tools

Go through and explain and demonstrate “Six Steps to Effective Vocabulary Instruction” based on the book by Robert Marzano, Building Background Knowledge.

A six-step process is provided here to guide the direct instruction for the targeted academic terms. The first three steps represent a set; they are designed to ensure that students are appropriately introduced to a new term and develop an initial understanding; the last three steps describe different types of multiple exposures that students should experience, over time, to help them shape and sharpen their understanding of the terms.

The six-steps are as follows:
Step 1: Provide a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
Step 2: Ask students to restate the description, explanation, or example in their own words.
Step 3: Ask students to construct a picture, symbol, or graphic, visually representing the term.
Step 4: Engage students periodically in activities that help them add to their knowledge of the terms in their notebooks.
Step 5: Periodically ask students to discuss the terms with one another.
Step 6: Involve students in games that allow them to play with terms.

After introducing the strategy and modeling it give the teachers an index word with a vocab word for them to try independently using this method.

Introduce Anita Archer’s method of teaching vocabulary with the PowerPoint and a video clip of Anita Archer, the master, teaching vocabulary.


Introduce the last strategy, which is a great book by Sarah Holbrook and Michael Salinger, High Definition. Unforgettable! Vovabulary-Building Strategies Across Genres and Subjects”. Show the printouts, which sums up the book and have the teachers look over some of the examples. Then have the teachers work in groups of 3-4 (this is always more fun in a group and is a fun exercise that both teachers and students enjoy) and try to do one with a vocab word.

Vocabulary Games
Introduce the vocabualry game "I Have...Who Has...?" This is an interactive game that the whole class can play. There are four game sets, each with 37 cards. The standards-based sets include: synonyms, antonyms, homophones, and parts of speech. There is a question and answer on each card. Students answer a previously-asked question, and then ask a question themselves.
"I have gigantic. Who has the synonym for fast?"
"I have quick. Who has the antonym for foolish?"
"I have silly. Who has the synonym for intelligent?" The students continue until the last person's card answers a question and then reads, "This is the end of the game!"

Have the teachers play with the cards they got when they entered the room for the PD meeting.

Discuss how you an create a game using s.s. vocab.

Introduce the game "Clues and Questions"

a. Type or print the vocabulary words on note cards.
b. Distribute several note cards to each student.
c. Have the students write questions that their words could answer. Teach the students to write higher level thinking questions.
d. Check the students’ questions for accuracy.
e. Have the students print the questions on the other side of the note card.
f. Have student use the completed note cards to quiz one another. They read the clues (questions) and have other students determine the word on the card.

Questions (Clues)
What is a formal agreement between two or more nations called?
What type of formal document between the U.S. and foreign countries must be approved by two-thirds vote in the Senate?
Demonstrate by plaing the game with the teachers.

Intoduce the game "Mix. Match, Freeze"

a. Write the selected vocabulary terms on index cards and the definitions on other index cards
b. Depending on the number of students in the class, pass out a card with a term or the definition to each class member. This is the “mix” part of the activity.
c. On a given signal, have the students mingle and find their “match.”
d. When they have a “match,” they should link arm and arm and “freeze.”
e. The pairs should then each give their word and definition with the class verifying the match. Students who have a word or definition that they think best fits with the pair being discussed can challenge the match. Dictionaries or the text should be provided at that point to verify the correct answer.

Demonstrate by playing the game with the teachers.

Graphic Organizers
Introduce graphic organizers that teachers can use to assist students with the mastery of new vocabulary

Have teachers comment on what they have learned, what they found useful and if they have any added strategies, organizers, games etc... that they use and feel may be useful for others.