Not People, Places or Dates:Using Vocabulary to Instruct Social Studies

AUTHOR: Courtney Webster, Social Studies Specialist

When reflecting on one’s experiences in history classes while growing up, one might reminisce over lists of content terms, maps and graphs in the classroom. But how much of this material is truly remembered? Access to content has dramatically changed social studies instruction, yet students are receiving similar lists, maps and graphs — only now in a digital format. Many educators strive to build conceptual patterns for students to thread content and events together, working to allow the process of learning to become holistic and not fragmented. However, teachers often find themselves frustrated by student retention in a number of humanities courses. If one were to ask students why they grapple with such courses,  vocabulary would rank high on the list of responses.

The number of words students interact with in social studies is daunting. Marzano and Pickering (2005) results indicate, in Building Academic Vocabulary, that students in grades 6-8 could potentially encounter over 1,300 words in this subject alone during those three years, amounting to more than 50% of the academic words they will encounter while in middle school (pg. 6)1. Forming the foundation of this tremendous volume of terminology is social studies’ comprising four (or more) subjects — history, geography, civics, and economics — a composition that demonstrates the patterns of human behavior while encouraging analysis of  the causes and effects of their decisions.

Vocabulary and the broad field of considerations referred to as literacy are key contributors to the intensive demands of the 8th grade Social Studies STAAR; few campuses have yet to  realize percentage growth in scores on this assessment. The faltering performance in this regard relates to the history of Social Studies standardized testing. Literacy was not a major concern during the era of TAKS, as memory allowed for students to recall and match many of the assessment items. STAAR, however, demands much more of students. They are required to comprehend Early American History at a rigor they will not yet have experienced prior to middle school. The assessment expects students to determine not only cause and effect but also main idea, point of view, and inferences of primary and secondary sources. And several of the distractors written into each test feature two possible answers, only one of which is the best response to the question. Students must demonstrate familiarity of academic words in order to discern the best answer.

The fact that students do not successfully translate their knowledge of dates, facts, and people as demonstrated on local assessments to  the STAAR assessment baffles many  teachers. Recalling information was once the paramount indication of any star pupil, however this is no longer the rule. College and Career readiness, 21st century competencies and a global view of the world have motivated changes to the standardized test to better prepare students for the future. Factual information in social studies only skims the surface of what students should know and be able to do; therefore, vocabulary selection, instruction and application must also transform. A single adjustment to the way teachers determine and the course lexicon and apply it to the curriculum could add volumes to background knowledge development and acquisition of critical thinking skills for all students. Various approaches to literacy, including word development, provide students with options for understanding unit and course content; this shift in direction provides an understanding and  changes the environment of not only the classroom but also the processes of students’ thinking, encouraging a one to seek and understand patterns rather than recall.

While selecting vocabulary for a lesson should not be an arduous process, the density of the numerous TEKS that apply to social studies instruction make matters more interesting. Many classrooms feature word walls to beautiful effect, however they must remain active tools for learning. Select words to feature based on academic comprehension and not merely content to encourage a  richer learning experience for social studies students. Andrew Jackson, a key figure in American history, is inescapable to the course. Students must know who this president was as a general and politician. An example of effective vocabulary selection functions around arriving at this key historical figure rather than using his doctrine as a starting point. His policies give rise to the term Jacksonian Democracy; in lieu of offering it to your students outright, build from the  conceptual framework or roots using demos- or the term democracy (including various versions). This supports the learners in understanding why this term is linked to the man called ‘Old Hickory’. In refraining from the use of proper nouns (people and places) and dates we provide links to the cognizance of the content. Then students can take the knowledge that they have acquired and apply the content (people, places and dates) to skills such as chronology, summary and position based writings. Thus, students use common nouns, adjectives, and verbs to explain the pattern in the people and develop connections between character and purpose.

While there appear to be an endless array of options for instructing vocabulary, one must keep in mind that it cannot be divvied into a list of definitions, wall or text and only to remain untouched until the unit assessment. Direct instruction to word development is imperative. Robert Marzano provides a six-step approach to vocabulary instruction, whereas Kate Kinsella offers three phases. Regardless of the approach, teachers must take time to teach vocabulary as opposed to assigning vocabulary. The concise description of Dr. Kinsella’s recommendation is to introduce the word, provide verbal practice and collaborate. Both researchers articulate how explicit instruction of the word is fundamental to its understanding. Some classes assign the task of transferring by writing definitions for every word, however this activity does not constitute learning. And even though the Frayer model applied variations to the application of word acquisition with pictures and sentences, many could argue its overuse. When introducing vocabulary, appeal to pre-assessments to have students apply background knowledge or lack thereof. Consider ranking words and attempting to place such words in sentences, even if they do not fit. One could also give variances of the word through cognates or patterns of the word structure. Instruction of words does not have to be lengthy, but should be engaging. Memory of vocabulary occurs only when one fumbles through the use and misuse of the term; therefore application of the terms is necessary for comprehension. In positive classroom environments, students are privy to mistakes when answering in order for real learning to occur. Furthermore, look for opportunities when words appear in social media, songs and quotes regardless of their direct relation to your unit and encourage students to do the same.

Opportunities to read, speak and write using the terms is paramount to a student’s ability to “own” the word. Dr. Kinsella (2013) states, “clearly, there is far more to truly owning a high-utility word than the ability to parrot back a single, inflexible definition when prompted to do so on a test” (p. T5).2 Students may apply their learning to a more than just the assessment when teachers encourage them to make use of their new words. Vocabulary instruction does not cease once the unit is complete. Lesson planning must include purposeful application of words. Take the time to spiral terms into current events while providing words from previous units. Rubrics can be created to ensure words are used in writing and speaking. By providing a rubric to encourage students to use words, teachers can determine what words are mastered.  Make word walls interactive through placing them in sight for students to use during their turn and talk opportunities. Innovate word walls by placing them in student notebooks in correlation with sentence stems or using online tools to provide students with a definition and picture to support their understanding of the definition. According to Marzano and Pickering (2005), “…it is critical that [students] do not simply copy what you have said, but that they construct a definition in their own descriptions, explanations or examples” (pg. 17).1 Processing with vocabulary is much different from recalling terms and definitions.

With all the technical devices derived since the turn of the century, literacy is yet an ever growing hurdle in education. Students desperately need the instruction of vocabulary in terms of social studies to have a better understanding of the world in which we live. People, places and dates are the fruit of social studies curriculum, however academic vocabulary is at the root.


1 Marzano, R., & Pickering, D. (2005). Building academic vocabulary: Teacher’s manual. Alexandria, Va.: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

2 Kinsella, K. (2013). Academic vocabulary toolkit mastering high-use words for academic achievement. Boston, MA: National Geographic Learning.

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