Dyan Branstetter | January 2016

Academic Vocabulary and the Arts

This week, let’s start with an experiment on Academic Vocabulary:

Take a look at this artwork by William H. Johnson. Imagine yourself as a student who has just experienced a study of William H. Johnson and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, and then running into this task:

Describe the betydelse of the Harlem in this work of art.

Academic Vocabulary and the Arts, Education Closet

Are you stuck on a certain word? You could be an expert on this topic, but without knowing the meaning of “betydelse”, it would be impossible to answer correctly. (The real word that belongs in its place is significance). This demonstrates how students feel when they don’t know an academic vocabulary word, and just how much it affects their performance.

Helping Students Understand Vocabulary

Vocabulary is crucial to students’ success in school. Dr. Isabel Beck has done extensive studies on vocabulary development. She categorized vocabulary words into three tiers:

Tier One: Basic vocabulary- words that most students know without instruction (baby, clock, plant)

Tier Two: General academic vocabulary- High-frequency words that occur across domains (influence, coincidence, amusing)

Tier Three: Domain Specific vocabulary- Low-frequency words (peninsula, lathe, decimal)

One of the best entry points for arts integration is common vocabulary. EducationCloset has numerous articles and resources providing common vocabulary words connecting both the arts and academic content. Using the Common Vocabulary documents, highlighting the words that the National Core Standards for the Arts share with the Math and ELA Common Core Standards, is a great place to start. Most of the words that these documents contain are Tier Two words. We find that students without background knowledge struggle to learn our Tier Three words, especially if they only learn them through traditional memorization of definitions.

Certain words are not included in any tier, but are essential to students’ success. Isabel Beck categorizes these words as “traveling words” because they cross disciplines and are commonly used in testing. These are words such as “determine”, “analyze”, “judge”, “elements”, etc. Students might know the eligible content needed to score well on a standardized test, but would not be able to achieve proficiency without knowing these words.  Take “text features”, for example. Students may be able to use every text feature a book has, but if they don’t remember what “text features” are, they wouldn’t be able to answer a question asking specifically how text features can help a reader. Learning these academic vocabulary words help students demonstrate what they know.

Typically, I advocate for Arts Integration to occur in the regular classroom. The arts’ specialist’s job is to provide essential foundational skills in their arts area, and that limited time should not be used to push academic content into their classroom. It is not their skill set, nor should it be. However, in this case, academic vocabulary has natural connections with the arts.  Finding shared academic vocabulary not only helps students demonstrate what they know, but it strengthens their ability to know that particular word in the arts context as well. This forms a connection across disciplines, and makes students’ understanding of the word deeper.

Next week, I’ll share more about teaching academic vocabulary connecting with the arts, as well as strategies for learning tier two and three words.




About the Author

Dyan is a fifth grade teacher in a public school district in Lancaster, PA and has over 16 years of classroom experience. With a Masters of Science Education and a passion for dance and music, she strives to integrate the arts into the curriculum whenever possible. Dyan has a background in teaching advanced learners, and is devoted to using project based learning to help her students achieve 21st century learning skills and master the PA Core Standards.