Teaching Vocabulary in High School Social Studies Classes: General Academic Terms are Overlooked

Teaching Vocabulary in High School Social Studies Classes: General Academic Terms are Overlooked

For the last 20 years, there has been almost no change in students’ measured achievement in the area of social studies in grades 4-12 (273). According to the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP), only 45% of American 12th graders score at or above the basic level for social studies content, as they have for decades (273). In their paper, “An investigation of high school social studies teachers’ understandings of vocabulary teaching and learning,” authors Janis Harmon et al. explain that to address this issue of academic stagnation, education standards—especially Common Core—are now emphasizing “disciplinary literacy, that is a focus on the specific literacy demands unique to the various content areas and the sub disciplines within each area” (272).

“The particular language of a discipline in complex, multi-dimensional, and unique to that particular field and requires that students understand the dynamics of the language in each content area to learn about the concepts” (272).

Harmon et al. argue that an integral part of disciplinary literacy is vocabulary development within a given content area. Not only is it necessary for students to understand specialized vocabulary terms for social studies content areas—including geography, history, economics, and government—but it is also necessary for students to understand general academic words found across subjects (274-5). For example, to excel, students need to understand specific terms like nationalism, bipartisan, and opportunity cost, as well as the names of specific places and events. They also need to understand general terms such as interpret, differentiate, and function (275). 

Previous studies have shown that vocabulary instruction varies between social studies teachers. However, teachers commonly demonstrated a reliance on textbooks and worksheets to provide students with definitions (277). For this paper, Harmon et al. investigate two questions: (1) “What do high school social studies teachers understand about vocabulary teaching and learning?” and (2) “How do high school social studies teachers support student vocabulary learning?” (273).

For this study, the authors interviewed 25 social studies teachers in 5 different school districts located in South Central Texas and the North Carolina Piedmont area. Thirteen of the teachers had masters’ degrees and teaching experience ranged from 1 to 43 years (278). During the face-to-face interviews, researchers began by asking teachers about their use of texts in class, their general use of oral and silent reading in class, and their teaching of content-specific vocabulary (278). The researchers then asked the teachers to “read a passage from a history textbook, select words to highlight with students, and the explain how they would teach the selected words” (280).

The Findings

    • The majority of teachers strongly relied on the course textbook as main source of information
    • 3 of the 25 teachers reported using primary source documents “to prepare students for the state assessments that have such readings” (283)
    • Most teachers reported that the teachers’ editions of textbooks were either not helpful or not available for them to use
    • On-level classes (non-AP) were given more structured support than Advanced Placement (AP) classes, as AP students were required to complete significant amounts of reading independently
    • AP and on-level teachers reported using non-researched-based reading practices, such as popcorn reading (284)
    • When selecting vocabulary to teach, teachers relied on “boldface type, district curriculum lists, and words highlighted in state standards for social studies” (286).
  • Teachers also chose words to meet the needs to English language learners in class

“All participants, when asked about vocabulary instruction, described activities in reference to content-specific vocabulary (vs general academic vocabulary) regardless of class level or student population” (289).

    • Teachers reported using warm-ups, word walls, graphic organizers, word maps, student-drawn illustrations, and class discussions to address vocabulary (289)
      • These strategies were largely used with content-specific vocabulary (295)
    • Teachers felt pressure to cover more content rather than spend time on vocabulary instruction (294)
  • 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).

“We found a dearth of evidence that teachers provided opportunities for multiple, meaningful exposures to new terminology, opportunities needed to internalize word meanings” (295).

    • The majority of teachers did not report addressing general academic vocabulary in class, yet the teachers reported that those types of words were problematic for student learning (295)
  • Teachers reported that the vocabulary and syntax of primary sources were particularly challenging for students (297)

To conclude their paper, Harmon et al. present several questions for the reader and for future research, including: (1) How do we identify the most effective ways to teach social studies vocabulary? (2) How do we get school administrators to realize the need for vocabulary instruction in social studies? and (3) “What are the best ways to inform teachers of research-based vocabulary strategies needed in their disciplines to develop the vocabulary and concept knowledge for students of all ability levels?” (296-7).

Paper Title:  An investigation of high school social studies teachers’ understandings of vocabulary teaching and learning

Authors: Janis Harmon, Marcos Antuna, and Lucinda Juarez (at University of Texas at San Antonio) and Karen D. Wood and Jean Vintinner (at University of North Carolina at Charlotte)

Full Paper: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/02702711.2018.1430633

Published: Reading Psychology, Volume 39, No. 3, 2018, Pages 271-302

Professional Development:


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