An Alternative to Frontloading Vocabulary

How do you teach academic vocabulary in your lessons? Do you front load it? Address it in a teachable point? Assume students will acquire it the midst of the lesson?

Any of these methods can work, depending upon the vocabulary in question, the lesson in which students will use it, and the English learners you are teaching.

Frontloading Vocabulary

Most lists of “best practices” advocate frontloading vocabulary. The assumption is that students will not be able to understand the content if they don’t understand the related vocabulary. Frontloading involves explicitly teaching academic vocabulary. The pronunciation and meaning of the word will be discussed, along with synonyms, antonyms, and practice using the word in context. Pictures, videos, and realia may even be used to help students understand the new words.

Active teaching like this is certainly better than copying the dictionary definition five times like I did in elementary school, but it may not always be successful. Have your students seemed to understand the new vocabulary you just taught, but then their memory of it vanishes as soon as you ask them to apply their knowledge? Maybe that’s because they didn’t have the cognitive structures necessary to attach their new learning. Perhaps their memory truly did vanish.

A More Effective Alternative

In many lessons, an alternative to frontloading vocabulary may be more effective. Instead of beginning the lesson with vocabulary instruction, allow students to complete activities with peers that allow them to talk about lesson concepts. During these discussions, they will undoubtably “talk around” the academic vocabulary using their everyday language (also known as BICS – Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills, addressed in this earlier article). They may even surprise you and use the academic vocabulary you didn’t know they knew!

Here’s an example for your consideration…

Lesson: Magnetism
Vocabulary: magnetism, attract, repel, poles

Students are divided into small groups and given a variety of magnets (refrigerator magnets, bar magnets, strong horseshoe magnets) and other objects (nails, paperclips, soup cans, cotton balls, pencils, buttons, plastic lids, etc.). Their task is to experiment with the objects to see what they can discover. They will report their findings to the whole group.

Rotating through the groups, the teacher can hear students commenting on how the nails stick to the magnets, but the plastic lids don’t. They also observe that some objects stick really hard, but others seem to slip off easily. One student exclaims their finger was pinched when two magnets snapped together forcefully. Another student marvels at how two magnets seem to be pushing away from each other when they’re held one way, but then pull toward each other when one is turned over.

As the groups come back together, they begin to report to the class what they experienced. The teacher then uses their BICS descriptions to make connections to academic language (CALP – Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency). When one child describes how some objects “stuck” to the magnets or that the magnets “stuck” to each other, the teacher says, “That’s exactly what happens! When scientists talk about this, they say attract”. 

Both ways of describing the same concept can be written on the board, demonstrating that “stuck” and “attract” mean the same thing. This method continues with the teacher making connections between the students’ everyday language and the academic vocabulary of the lesson (repel and poles). Students are encouraged to use the academic vocabulary in their remaining discussions.

*Example adapted from Scaffolding Learning, Scaffolding Language by Pauline Gibbons. See Dr. Mooney’s review of this book.

One reason this method may help students better understand and retain academic vocabulary is that the initial experimentation allows them to draw upon their background knowledge. If they were lacking this knowledge, they can develop it from the activity and the discussions with their peers. 

They experienced the magnets pinching their finger. They worked hard to pull them apart and felt the force of the like poles repelling. Then, when the teacher shares the academic language, they have something to attach the new terms to, and they won’t likely forget what those words mean. They will also be more successful when asked to read or write about their learning and will feel like scientists when they include the academic vocabulary they now truly understand.

Including hands-on experiences doesn’t work with every lesson, but I encourage you to consider how you can implement the method this week. See if it is more effective for your students than the strategies you have used in the past.


What methods have you used to successfully teach academic vocabulary to students? The Dear Dr. Mooney community would love to hear new ideas in the comments section!

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