Sunday, January 10, 2010

Content Knowledge & Vocabulary

“Of a truth, Knowledge is power, but it is a power reined by scruple, having a conscience of what must be and what may be; whereas Ignorance is a blind giant who, let him but wax unbound, would make it a sport to seize the pillars that hold up the long-wrought fabric of human good, and turn all the places of joy as dark as a buried Babylon.” (George Eliot, English novelist, 1819-1880).

If we do not already have knowledge of Babylon, Eliot's meaning is not so clear. The Tower of Babel got its name from the ancient city of Babylon and the darkness Eliot speaks of may well be the darkness of confusion and chaos. If knowledge is power, and ignorance not so blissful, let's create classrooms that promote content knowledge along with word knowledge.

If handled properly, word knowledge grows as we actively explore art and science, math and music, history and technology. As David Pearson said in a prior post, "Read it! Write it! Talk it! Do it!" Let the content drive the vocabulary instruction and provide a good deal of context, distributed over time. Build knowledge. Knowledge supports cognition (Willingham, 2006). Knowledge is necessary to comprehension (Kintsch & Rawson, 2007). Embed word learning into knowledge-building activities across content. Word knowledge and content knowledge should eventually merge through intellectually interesting lessons framed around the words (logos) that support the 'study of' the particular science, be it biology, math, or linguistics. The words are the science, in some sense. For instance, how can we discuss the science of meteorology without using the words weather, thermal, pressure, humidity, etc? We can, I suppose, and silence may be a useful device at times, but people will talk, and for that, they need words.

The real question? How do we make word knowledge a major part of content instruction? We do so in varied ways, but we must be deliberate and explicit about it. For example, in art (an important subject area for six reasons, research brief here), when creating these snowpeople with paint and fabric, we might teach the names of the fabrics used in the project. Have the students say and read the word fabric and discuss its basic meaning. Then, have students say and read the various types of fabric: cotton, felt, burlap, silk, wool, velvet, etc. Say and read the texture words, touching the cloth: rough, scratchy, silky, smooth, wrinkly, etc. Describe the patterns: checkered, striped, plaid, etc. Using a model or outline, have students generate a sentence: “My cotton fabric is gold and black in a plaid pattern.” Compare one fabric to another. When the art project is complete, brainstorm potential names or titles for the finished work and discuss why one title is preferred over another. This promotes word consciousness.

In the process of teaching art  we build knowledge, and with it, vocabulary. Did I mention how much fun important art is? For more art ideas tour the entire blog, created by a master teacher in Washington. To facilitate classroom management as well as effective communication habits, be sure to read about his settling time, the seven-minute rule. It should work in any subject area, I think.

Back to the fabric lesson, eventually students will need to make the morphological leap from fabric to fabricate and fabrication. Fabricate means "to make something out of pieces or parts" but it can also mean "to make something up, to concoct an untruth," more euphemistically called a story. The leap from fabric to fabricate ('to lie') is more obvious when we think of this as "to make up a story out of whole cloth." Also, eventually, students need to learn about other ways we use the word fabric, as in the fabric of society, the fabric of the universe, etc. How is fabric used in the quote by Eliot?

Fabric and fabricate are academic terms compared to the more common words cloth and make. In the art lesson described above, students develop artistic ability, acquire academic vocabulary, and gain knowledge of different types of fabrics. Time is in limited supply; our lessons need to accomplish several goals at once. 


Kintsch, W., &  Rawson, K. A. (2007). Comprehension. In M. J. Snowling & C. Hulme (Eds.), The science of reading: A handbook, 2nd edition, (pp. 209-226). Malden, MA: Blackwell publishing.

Willingham, D. T. (2006, Spring). How knowledge helps: It speeds and strengthens reading comprehension, learning—and thinking. American Educator, 30-37.


      1. I received a few emailed questions about the seven-minute rule. To learn more, refer also to the snowpeople link in the blog, and read down a bit. In the lesson description, Dan describes 7 minutes of silent yet reflective work followed by 3 minutes of deliberative conversation with a peer. The conversations carried out in the 3 minutes, apparently, reflect the 7 minutes of silent thought, when thoughts percolate and settle into some order.

        One might look at the book at the seven-minute rule link: Arts with the Brain in Mind. The research or theory behind this "settling time" idea may be provided in the book, but I cannot attest to this, as I have not read the book.

      2. The summer we spent in Paris I studied French, and at first slogged away with difficulty.

        Soon I discovered studying in short bursts (ten minutes or so) three or four times a day was much more productive--and I was soon speaking and reading French!

        Dolores G. Hiskes

      3. I agree, Dolores, and your point applies to learning new words in the primary language, too. Spacing study time and taking smaller bites has been found to be more effective than cramming. Daniel Willingham discussed the research base for this in 2002, American Educator.

      4. Emily Street1/15/2010

        My school has no funding for art, but we still do what we can, but finding time in the schedule is hard.

        1. Using cross-curricular themes can work well for finding extra time.

        2. Using cross-curricular themes can unlock extra time.

      5. Nancy Verhey1/16/2010

        Creation springs from the fundamentals of art and design. How will children learn who they are and what will stimulate them and encourage them to find meaning and direction if they are not exposed to art? They may never find their vocation or possess the vocabulary to describe and implement the ideas that are in their hearts and minds. If we are to raise a society devoid of art, we would be raising drones, and dumbing down rather than inspiring the intellectual curiosity that awakens sleeping hearts and minds. Art and the love of what you sense as beautiful or interesting can nurture someone who faces tragedy and poverty, it is food for the soul that gives pause to the destruction around us and helps us to accept challenges, feel hope, to have vision and to rebuild. It gives the mind respite from tedious work and the freedom to accept the challenges with new insights. Leonardo da Vinci sketched plans for a flying machine in 1485. He did not have the capability to fly but he had the inspiration. Combine inspiration with knowledge and art becomes the catalyst that allows the vision to become reality. Art is intertwined with everything in life and to remove art is to weaken the fabric of our existence and to lessen the chance for future progress. Is this what we want?

      6. I could not have said it more beautifully, Nancy, and I could not have been more succinct, Emily. Art is not a luxury; it is an essential aspect of human development, so it must be included in education. We must overcome the challenges Emily speaks of (funding and scheduling). One way to protect the arts is to show their potential for developing knowledge and vocab along with creativity, identity, interest and expression.

      7. As a history teacher, I love to use art history along with our studies of different eras. One fun activity is to have the students try to place images of art in order of the time period in which they were created. From cave art to the art of today, it is very difficult to define what is "archaic" and what is "modern". My message is that art is timeless as are human ideas. There are Golden Ages and Dark Ages in every era.

      8. Hi Ron. Glad to hear you are including art history in general history. Your art-era sorting activity requires a good deal of critical thinking. I can imagine the discussion and debate that goes on, nicely prompting oral language skills along with content knowledge and vocabulary growth.

        So, what would we call the art we see on bathroom and building walls and halls? Cave art reinvented as graffiti?


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