Addressing Academic Vocabulary in Social Studies Classes

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Addressing Academic Vocabulary in Social Studies Classes

In our post, “Teaching Vocabulary in High School Social Studies Classes: General Academic Terms are Overlooked,” we highlighted the findings of Janis Harmon et al., who explored the extent to which Social Studies teachers include academic vocabulary instruction in their lesson planning. The authors remark that there has been almost no change in students’ Social Studies content assessment scores (National Assessment of Education Progress) for the last twenty years (Harmon et al., 273). Moreover, nationally, only 45% of 12th grade students score at or above the basic level (273). This may be due not just to poor understanding of content itself, but to poor understanding of the academic vocabulary associated with content questions.

The authors argue that understanding academic vocabulary is a critical part of disciplinary literacy and that Social Studies teachers ought to be addressing academic vocabulary in class, not only subject-specific content terms. However, the majority of Social Studies teachers surveyed did not address academic vocabulary in class, even though they viewed academic terms as problematic for students (295).

Harmon et al. also make clear where Social Studies teachers look for vocabulary instruction guidance:

  • When selecting vocabulary to teach, teachers relied on “boldface type, district curriculum lists, and words highlighted in state standards for social studies” (286).

  • Harmon et al. note that “the majority of the teachers reported that they relied on suggestions provided in district level professional development training sessions and team meetings at the department level” (293).

Thus, school administrators and professional development specialists should be aware of the power they have over influencing Social Studies teachers’ decisions to address academic vocabulary in class.

Questions to Guide Educators’ Professional Development:

  1. To what extent do the Social Studies teachers in your district/school address academic vocabulary in class?
  2. For teachers who do not address academic vocabulary: Why not?
  3. Some Social Studies teachers will argue that they have too much content to cover and they do not have time to also teach academic vocabulary (Harmon, 294). How can we persuade these teachers that it is in the students’ best interest to help them understand the academic language associated with content questions and analysis?
  4. Does the school/district provide suggested academic vocabulary lists for Social Studies teachers?
  5. What (quick) academic vocabulary teaching strategies can Social Studies teachers use in their lesson planning?


  • Provide academic vocabulary lists for Social Studies teachers in professional development
  • Give teachers time to analyze the academic vocabulary terms/phrases that most often appear on their tests or assignments
  • Give teachers samples of short vocabulary teaching strategies that they can include in their lesson planning

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