The Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core and 7 Things I Learned From Using It

by: Michelle Marzelli, Kearsarge, NH District ESOL Teacher

What am I going to teach next? What skills and information would be MOST beneficial to my high school ELLs Should we focus on US History? Culture? Language of Algebra? Biology? Literary Terms? Text structure? Grammar? Vocabulary? Where do we go from here? … oh the possibilities!

I ask myself these questions every day that I teach ELLs. These vast possibilities are one reason I love my job, but they can also make it challenging. Many of our ELLs need so much and prioritizing is a skill! I strive to teach language through content so that students are gaining the knowledge that they need to be successful academically while also increasing their language skills. To be candid, as the solo K-12 ELL teacher in my low-incidence district, I am often overwhelmed by the abundance of curriculum and content that I am responsible for helping my ELLs learn and retain. What should I focus on? How do I best meet the needs of my diverse learners in a timely fashion? Well… I recently found a wonderful resource to help me narrow my focus.

SprengerMarilee Sprenger’s Teaching The Critical Vocabulary of the Common Core: 55 Words That Make or Break Student Understanding has changed my teaching habits at the secondary level.  While it is an excellent resource for ALL students across grade levels, it is extremely helpful for students who are learning the English language and are new to the Common Core. I used the book this year with a small group of high school ELLs. Here are 7 things I learned from this experience.

  1. Get student buy-in: What defines critical, and what is the “So what?” Nouns and Verbs from the book include evaluate, analyze, figurative language, and argument. Why are these words so critical? Who cares? What is the point? I started off by showing students a short response question from the Common Core practice tests and an example of how a student mis-understood it. The student had clearly spent a lot of time answering this question carefully and thoughtfully, but had completely missed the point. The question asked the student to analyze  the author’s purpose, but all he did was retell the story. I explained to my students that we don’t care if they memorize a story or not. We want them to become thinkers. Reading is thinking, and teachers are simply using literature and texts as a tool to help them become thinkers. The words in Sprenger’s book are critical to students becoming lifelong learners and thinkers. I also ensure students that they will see these words in all of their classes. In high school. In college. In graduate school. In their jobs, whatever their career path may be. And I make sure to point the words out as we come across them throughout the year. I always get a smirk or a comment like, “oh yea. I remember that word!”
  1. Understand what students think they know The book’s introduction is wonderful, and something you won’t

    Example of completed pre-assessment

    want to skip over. It suggests exactly how to pre-assess what students know or think they know! Sprenger suggests that for each word being studied, “students can simply place a checkmark in the appropriate column… ‘I might know it’ and ‘I know it’” (25). I used this idea, but changed it slightly. I broke down the verb list and noun list into smaller sections of 8-10 words each. Then I asked students to place a check indicating whether they had “no clue,” if a word “sounds familiar,” or if they “know it well”. I also had a short answer option entitled “if you think you know it well, what does it mean?” This worked well as a starting point for each of the lists we studied. Then, at the end of each set of 8-10 words, we did some review and practice on Quizlet and I asked  them to write meaningful sentences using each of the words. It was also important to revisit past words throughout the year.

  1. Make it authentic. The book provides some really clever and fun ways to study the words and help students truly retain them so that they become automatic. But I often found myself with opportunities to connect their learning to specific content (usually from their English or History classes) and/or pop culture! I used Newsela articles for real world news. I used songs that are currently on the radio. I used upcoming holidays. I used To Kill A Mockingbird, a book that a student was reading in English class. There are so many ways to teach the critical vocabulary, and that’s why I loved using this book. You can take the suggestions from the book itself, but you also have opportunities to make it truly relevant and authentic for your students and to target what gets them engaged.
  1. Take your time with each word. There’s no rush, really. If these words are critical , then why speed through them? Most language arts teachers will make their students study 10-20 words per week. That’s approximately 360-720 words per year. (I’ll be candid… I can’t retain that many new words a year.) I took the entire year to study 55 words with my high school students. That’s slow as molasses! But I know that they will stick.
  1. Demonstrate each word in a variety of ways. Back to my thoughts about making the vocabulary authentic for students… I think it can make a HUGE difference when we teach vocabulary in a variety of ways. You can’t simply learn the word “suggest,” by saying you suggest a great movie for the weekend. Many of these words have multiple meanings. Multiple variations. Multiple purposes. I taught collocations and word forms along with
    Excerpt from a student's vocab log for the letter "C".

    Excerpt from a student’s vocabulary log for the letter “C”.

    each word. For example, “suggest” could also be “suggestion,” “suggested,” “suggesting,” “suggestive.”  What words would typically come after “suggesting,” and in what situations might we use that word in that form? “Suggesting that,” “suggesting otherwise,” “suggesting an idea or a connection, etc.” I’d give examples and help students come up with their own examples based on topics of interest to them or topics being covered in their core classes. “Atticus’s actions throughout the novel suggest that he is a kind and compassionate man for both his family and his community.” Students also kept a running vocabulary log in the back of their portfolios and were able to refer back to and update the words throughout the year.


  1. Students needs scripts. I was recently impressed with a colleague who teaches 6th grade social studies. She gives her students a script whenever they’re asked to participate in a discussion or debate, providing them with sentence starters/frames  “I like that you mentioned ____ , but here’s what I think…” or “I disagree with ____, because _____.” I use scripts or sentence starters/frames all the time and I was really excited to hear that a general education teacher was using this strategy in the mainstream classroom. It’s one of my favorite tools to share with other teachers who have ELLs. With much of the critical vocabulary in Sprenger’s book, you and your students can come up with sentence frames or signal words and phrases. For example, we came up with a long list of “the language of compare/contrast” when studying compare and contrast. When we provide our students with scripts, we teach by example. The more opportunities  students have to practice with scripts, the better they’ll get at it. Practice, practice, practice! Eventually, they will be able to do this on their own… (gradual release of responsibility), but for now, it’s OK to help with structure!
  1. Resources don’t have  to be used in their entirety. With any resource, we can take some and leave some. This book is no different. What you choose to use  depends on your specific students’ needs. I found myself referring to this book quite a bit as I taught my 55 vocabulary lessons, but I also pulled resources from many different areas to tie them all together. The main take-away is that students need opportunities to practice using and saying the words, otherwise they’ll walk out of the room not remembering what they just heard.

Sprenger writes that the time to teach and reinforce these words is now. “These words will be indispensable on assessments and in life.” I hope you enjoy this book as much as my students and I did.


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