3 Simple Strategies For Improving Comprehension

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Welcome!  I am a secondary science teacher in an urban district in upstate NY.  I am taught Earth Science, Biology, Environmental Science, AP Environmental Science, as well as middle school integrated science. I am excited to share some strategies with you to help your students be more successful.  You can see more of my teaching ideas and resources at my website.

Many times I teach students content, and I do believe that they know the content.  However, when given test questions, they cannot demonstrate their knowledge.  So frustrating!   I have tried a lot of different strategies to be help them be more successful with mixed results.

What’s the problem?

A few years ago I did an analysis of previous records and test scores to find out what could predict success on these type of test questions.  The strongest predictor — reading scores! Especially if you work with students (as I do) who are often reading below grade level, their reading really impedes their understanding of the questions and their ability to answer them.  Much of this difficulty is not due to content vocabulary (which we are often teaching), but due to Tier 2 Vocabulary.  We need to start explicitly teaching Tier 2 Vocabulary.

What is Tier 2 Vocabulary?

Here is a good definition of Tier 2 vocabulary “Tier two consists of high frequency words that occur across a variety of domains. That is, these words occur often in mature language situations such as adult conversations and literature, and therefore strongly influence speaking and reading.” it comes from this site, which has a good handout on the vocabulary tiers.  Another resource is available here, which has great lists of suggested tier 2 vocabulary by grade level. It includes words such as: abrasion, specific, universal, evidence, and many others.

What Should I Do About it?

These Tier 2 Vocabulary terms need to be explicitly taught.  Students need to realize that these words are important, and they need to practice using them.  There are numerous ways to do this, but here are three simple methods that I used

Method 1

Tips for teaching tier 2 vocabularyExplicitly teach the tier two vocabulary words.  I did an action research project (explained more thoroughly here) where I chose about 5-10 terms per week. I gave the terms a few at a time for bellwork throughout the week.  I first had students infer the meaning of the terms, either through sentences written specifically for that purpose or through pictures. Then I had them use them in a sentence, match with the definitions, etc.  At the end of the week we had a quiz on all 10.  There was marked improvement. There was also improvement in students’ confidence levels, which is so important.

Method 2

Tips for teaching tier 2 vocabularySome of this explicit instruction can be done at home. Students can practice with these sentences for homework, either mixed with content vocabulary or on their own.  In this case students would have to be given the terms and definitions (to make sure that they are working with the definitions you want them to have).  Then they could do various things with these terms on their own, at home.  One of my favorites strategies is to use a vocabulary menu (or a similar strategy is a tic-tac-toe board), which gives students some choice over their homework.  

Method 3

A third way to use these vocabulary words in class, and to increase student comprehension level, as well as to see the connection and importance of this lesson is to tie it directly to test questions.  You could give students questions that have these keywords, and have them infer what the words mean, or even re-write the question into their own words, to practice with inferring meaning and interpreting the question. Alternatively, students could write their own questions (and answers) using either a word bank of content words and tier 2 vocabulary, or using sentence stems (including tier 2 vocabulary). To really learn and understand the vocabulary, it is critical that students practice USING the vocabulary themselves.  

Now, when I give my students standardized test questions, or practice state questions, I hear them discussing both the words they know, and the strategies to work with the ones that they don’t know!  

Please come share your ideas of teaching science, literacy, or otherwise helping each other and our students. Follow me on Pinterest or Facebook, or visit my Teachers Pay Teachers Store.   I’d love to continue this conversation with you.

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Written by
April Smith

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