Vocabulary is one of the strongest predictors of long-term academic achievement. So it’s crucial to know research-based vocabulary strategies that build background knowledge and reading comprehension. This resource shares how to teach vocabulary using arts integration, which can increase student achievement by up to 20% over time.

Why Vocabulary Strategies are Important

Vocabulary is crucial to students’ success in school. 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.

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.

One way to begin is by finding shared academic vocabulary. This not only helps students demonstrate what they know, but it also eliminates the barrier that unknown words are to them.

It strengthens their understanding of the word in the arts context as well, by forming a connection across disciplines, and making students’ understanding of the word more meaningful.

Arts teachers can review the lists of academic vocabulary words, and extract the words that make a natural connection to their specific arts area. Then, directly use those words when they fit into the arts curriculum.

To truly make the sharing of these academic vocabulary words effective, it’s important that teachers have a consistent vocabulary. These words would be a great addition to a “word wall”, so that they stand out to students.

The Importance of Vocabulary Strategy Development

By knowing extensive vocabulary and being able to pull from a variety of vocabulary strategies, children have the ability to describe an experience with more specificity. 

For example, when students are audience members or perceivers, they have a better awareness of what they see and hear. And in turn, they will better understand the performance or piece.

We expand children’s vocabularies so they can better articulate their experiences and understand them. Encouraging children to “use their words” is important in every subject we teach in school – from English to Math to Music.

When students understand this is important, and you insist they use that terminology, they will rise to the challenge. This leads to students who are more exact in their explanations. You’ll see the joy they have in saying “fancy” words that are either multisyllabic (like onomatopoeia in poetry) or in another language (like fortissimo in music or chasse in dance). 

If you model joy in language, they will be encouraged to enjoy it too!

Vocabulary Strategy 1: Get dramatic with it.

Say piano in a soft voice and forte in a strong voice. Say fortissimo in the strongest most operatic Italian voice you can muster! Savor the words and invite your students to do the same. The best part is that you can model the words with any tier of vocabulary words.

Three Tiers of Vocabulary Words

Dr. Isabel Beck 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)

Utilizing these 3 tiers intentionally as part of your vocabulary strategies toolkit can help ensure you’re helping scaffold student understanding over time. But how do you do that easily throughout the day?

Vocabulary Strategy #2: Using Common Vocabulary.

One of the best entry points for integrated study is common vocabulary. Using Common Vocabulary documents (like the ones below), 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.

arts and literacy vocabulary strategies


arts and math vocabulary strategies


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 wouldn’t be able to achieve proficiency without knowing these words.

Example: Look at the term “text features”. Students may be able to use every text feature a book has included. 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. Another thing to remember is that it is also important to be mindful of achievement gaps in vocabulary acquisition.

Six Steps to Building Academic Vocabulary

When teaching vocabulary, Dr. Robert Marzano found a striking achievement gap in vocabulary acquisition between students who came to school with vast background knowledge and students without.

Vocabulary Strategy #3: Using Marzano’s Six Steps. After numerous studies, Marzano developed six steps teachers can use to close that gap, allowing all students to learn and retain new vocabulary words. 

This six-step process could be used for teaching your Tier Three vocabulary words, and for introducing academic vocabulary that relates to your specialty. By combining these vocabulary strategies, you’re layering the concepts to have a deeper impact on student learning.

Marzano’s Six Steps:

  1. The teacher provides a description, explanation, or example of the new term.
  2. In an effort to understand, students restate the explanation of the new term in their own words.
  3. Next, students create a nonlinguistic representation of the term.
  4. Every now and then, students should participate in activities that add to their knowledge of vocabulary terms.
  5. Periodically, students will be asked to discuss the terms with one another.
  6. Students should be involved in games that allow them to play with the terms.

Using Arts Connections to Teach Vocabulary

One key understanding about vocabulary is that it doesn’t live in isolation. We all teach vocabulary. In the case of arts teachers, it’s the arts specialist’s job to provide essential foundational skills in their arts area. The limited time they have with students each week should not be used to push academic content into their classroom. It is not their skill set, nor should it be.

However, academic vocabulary has natural connections with the arts. Finding shared academic vocabulary not only helps students demonstrate what they know, but it also 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 words deeper.

Vocabulary Strategy #4: Look for process connections.

Sometimes the best integration stems from a skill, process, or vocabulary connection and it opens up a new world of integration possibilities.

For example, A National Arts Standard for 3rd grade that focuses on genres, states, “Demonstrate and explain how one dance genre is different from another.”

By learning and comparing the idea of dance vs. music vs. literature genres, students understand the concept of genres at a much deeper level.

Teacher-to-Teacher Tip: When you’re reviewing lesson plans or content you’d like to teach, be sure to make notes on the words that your subject area(s) have in common with the arts.

Another example of an integrated process is fluency. In the elementary classroom, we practice reading to obtain a certain fluency (the ability to read accurately and with expression) daily.

This is a natural connection with theater and the ability to convey a character’s emotions through spoken language.

Or, you can connect the Scientific Method to the writing process because of their cyclical nature. This also connects to the creative process.

Helping students discover the parallels of these processes through discussion can help students become aware of patterns. Sometimes noticing this pattern can be the framework needed for a student to be successful.

Using Illustration to Teach Vocabulary

Another way for a student to be successful is to tap into their thirst for creative connection. Students tend to be more engaged when they are able to create something before writing about it.

Vocabulary Strategy #5: Connecting Illustration and Writing.

Instead of just using a worksheet to introduce an assignment, check out these some tips on having students draw when learning academic vocabulary:

  • Landscapes or Scenes Students can illustrate a word or concept that requires them to draw an entire scene. Have them focus on space as an element of art. Things that are close to the viewer will be larger. Things that are far away from the viewer will be smaller. They will probably need to include a horizon line. For instance, if the student is trying to show the concept of a grassland as a biome, they would need a horizon line and plants that would be close to the viewer. There might be (very small) mountains in the background.
  • Nouns Have students focus on proportions. For instance, if the student needs to illustrate the concept of a graph as a text feature, they’ll need to make sure the data on the graph is shown in a proportional way. If it is a bar graph, the bar representing ten cannot be the same size as the bar representing three, and so on. Other nouns, like those of an organ system require proportion as well. If the student is trying to show the relationship between the brain and spinal cord, they need to consider the size relationship as they draw.
  • VerbsHave students think about emphasis or repetition as they draw. Let’s say a student is illustrating the term “analyze.” They might draw a person with a magnifying glass. They might draw a dark, heavy line around the circle of the magnifying glass to emphasize it. This would help one understand the magnifying glass is important to the message of the image.
  • Abstract Concepts Abstract concepts can be illustrated abstractly. The student might choose to illustrate the concept of democracy with a large circle containing many smaller circles. It might not be immediately obvious how that relates to democracy. However, if the student can tell you that the large circle represents the government and the smaller circles represent the people, they’ve done a great job with this illustration. So, have them use abstract drawing to illustrate abstract concepts.

It’s also powerful for students to showcase learning using hallway displays. You can easily share these illustrations with photos of the students working and explanations of the process. The hallway displays can be used as a teaching tool as well. 

We’ve touched on some theater and visual arts connections but what about other arts areas?

Using Dance to Teach Vocabulary

By teaching children related dance vocabulary, modeling the use of that dance vocabulary, and surrounding the students with that dance vocabulary, you are empowering your students on many levels. Even if this isn’t an area where you are most comfortable, children need to move. And often, the body remembers words and movement connection on a deeper level.

Vocabulary Strategy #6: Using BEST elements.

When it comes to dance, consider using the acronym BEST. This stands for Body, Energy, Space and Time. Once students are familiar with these elements, they can be used as a resource in discussion and in any artwork created in that classroom. You can find free Elements of the Arts anchor charts here to help make this even easier.

From Strategies to Lesson: Shades of Meaning

So how do we tie all of this together? It’s great to have a list of vocabulary strategies, but the real transformation comes when you embed them into your lessons. Here’s a sample lesson idea from 3rd grade teacher Dyan Branstetter. It’s called “Shades of Meaning” and connects her 3rd grade literacy standards with 3rd grade visual art standards.

Just reading the ELA standard with the words “Distinguish shades of meaning…” is like a neon sign flashing “natural connection to visual art!” We’ve seen many activities that teachers have created using paint chips to show gradients of synonyms. This is a wonderful idea!

However, if we pull in color theory, we are able to teach the element of value as it relates to visual art as well as shades of content vocabulary, deepening understanding for both. With the following activity, students create their own “shades of meaning” vocabulary station to use again and again throughout the year.

vocabulary strategies for shades of meaning

Connecting Shades of Color and Shades of Meaning

  1. I begin by reviewing the visual art element of value. In art class, my 3rd-grade students learn about tinting and shading. I find that it is helpful for them to hear a brief explanation of the concept from me as well. Not only does this remind them of their prior knowledge, it helps bridge the vocabulary connection from the art room to my room. This video is helpful for beginning the conversation about value with intermediate students.  (Note: Value is typically a word that naturally connects in visual art, math and music, referring to a higher or lower amount. When placing words on the lighter end of a continuum, it does not mean that the word is a “weak” word to be replaced when revising a writing piece. I explain that the word value relates to the intensity of the word in relation to the context of the sentence.)
  2. Next, I explain that just like color, words can have different “shades” or gradients. Share the words, faint, blinding, bright, and dim. Together as a class, put them in order of intensity. (Find these and more, with an activity, for free here.)
  3. Explain that we are going to match these shades of meaning with shades of color. This can be done with pre-made paint strips, but to truly have students understand the color theory and idea of color value, it is best to have students make their own paint chips. (As a helpful perk, this blows engagement through the roof.)

Making Our Own Paint Chips:

Here are directions for making paint chips from Theresa Gillespie at Splats, Scraps, and Glue Blobs:

  1. “I give students two 9×12 papers (one at a time). The first we fold into 4 sections.
  2. On a palette (I use paper plates… 3 schools… no time to clean) I give students their choice of color and white.
  3. First, they paint one section the pure color.
  4. The next step is to add a little white to the color to make one tint – paint another section with that.
  5. Add more white paint to make a lighter tint and paint another section.
  6. The last section should be white with just a bit of color to paint the last section.
  7. The other paper is split into 3 sections.
  8. I have the students fold the paper in half and then divide one of the halves into 2.
  9. Give students their color and some black.
  10. For the 2 smaller sections they should add a small bit of black to the color to make a shade… then a bit more black for the other shade… and then even more for the darkest shade that will fill the larger section.”

I would suggest cutting the 9×12 papers lengthwise so that students complete the activity with 4.5 x 6 size paper, making sure that students label the back with their name. After the painted papers dry, laminate them all, finally having the students help to cut them.

Putting it Together: Semantic Gradients — Shades of Word Meaning:

  1. Remind students of the word intensity ordering they did as a class. Try a new set of words together, and show it on a continuum such as the one found here. Explain that these words can be placed on a continuum, and they can also be matched with color value to show their intensity. Demonstrate this with a dry erase marker on one of the laminated paint swatches, writing the word with the least intensity on the lightest color, to the word with the most intensity on the darkest color. Provide students with more word groupings (found here and here), and allow them to work as partners or teams to order the intensity of their words on their own paint swatches with a dry erase marker. Have a few groups present their work, and have the class determine if they agree or disagree with the word order, sharing their rationale for the order.
  2. Once students have participated in this scaffolded activity, they are prepared to do this as an independent station or activity throughout the year. As students master the idea of word gradients, their written and spoken vocabulary will grow tremendously. As an alternative to erasing the paint chips, posting the finished products and rotating them can provide students with easy access to synonyms when writing.

Extending the Strategy to Multiple Subjects

The idea of “shades of meaning” could also apply the idea to other art forms. Once students have grasped the concept visually, they will be able to transfer it to movement.

In ballet, students could order the intensity (essentially comparing and contrasting) tendu, degage, grand battement.

In the art of tap dance, they could rank the intensity of sounds: brush, scuff, step, stamp, stomp.

This could lead to music, where students could rank the intensity of volume: the lightest tints are pianissimo, and darkest shades are fortissimo.

And finally with theater, by ranking the intensity of emotions. Have students practice acting out degrees of emotion. What subtle changes can we make to express the intensity of the words as they increase? This, of course, circles back around to enhancing the use of vocabulary in writing and storytelling.

Making Intentional Connections

As educators we all know how important developing rich vocabularies is for our students.

When you’re developing the vocabularies of your students, don’t forget the wealth of language specific to the arts. These connections can help your students be able to more fully appreciate what they encounter and be better equipped to speak intelligently about those experiences.

Additional Guides

Looking for more helpful ideas, strategies, and tools? Try one of our other resource guides:

creative thinking
student engagement guide
sel resource guide