Narrowing the academic achievement gap by coding rich vocabulary in authentic texts.

by Kathy Powers

Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12


Research tells us that students from poverty come to us with a deficit in vocabulary and background knowledge. But that doesn’t mean they are not imaginative and complex thinkers. It’s up to teachers to give them the words to express what they’re thinking.

Rather than give students simple texts as a path of least resistance, teachers should find strategies that enable them to interact with complex texts. Primary texts are an excellent foundation to empower students through repeated close readings.

The way this works is:

-You start with a complex text, give a copy to all students, and ask them a questions like “which word appears most frequently on this page.”

-Then you ask students what other words are most important on this page? Works that they think are important are coded with a plus sign (+); words that they don’t know are coded with a minus (-).

-Then, it’s time to tell the story behind the text and build background knowledge by doing research.

-Finally, you break the students up into groups to have a discussion about which words, when defined, are most applicable to the primary text they are working with.

When we allow students to really grapple with the meanings of words, they begin to build their own comprehension and the learning sticks.


What I did well…

In this lesson, I got the text in front of the students quickly and let their natural curiosity and inclination towards problem solving fully engage. With such a rich piece of text as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the less time the teacher stands between the learner and the text, the better.  Give directions, assume competence, and let them go.  I wanted them in the text quickly in a non-threatening way, especially for many of my students who speak English as a second language.  I asked them to find the word that they thought appeared most frequently, which all students were able to do. This practice has the additional benefit of having students read over the text for the first time.  By the end of the lesson, students had read and discussed the text multiple times.

The lesson pace was brisk, but the students were able to understand the lesson and the purpose of the activity: to unlock the meaning of the text by exploring the academic vocabulary.  There was more student group work and discussion in the lesson than is evident on the video clip, which is where the real learning took place.  The group summaries and individual written reflections features in the last segment were strong evidence that this strategy works to build text comprehension, especially since this was the very first time the students had ever seen the Gettysburg Address.

What I would do differently…

This was the first time I had done this particular lesson with this group, so there was more teacher talk to explain the directions at the beginning of the lesson than I would have liked.   Next time, I would have the directions written out on the board.  I would include more group-to-group instruction where groups could compare their words and interpretation of the text instead of just sharing out to the whole group.  I would also allow time for a few video clips explaining the context of the Civil War and Gettysburg to build their historical understanding of the context of the speech.

I still want to grow this practice by…

I would follow this vocabulary coding lesson up with complex texts on the same topic using similar vocabulary.  Students would be better able to access the more complex texts because of the vocabulary knowledge that they have built with this text.  Then I could have them compare the overall structure and meaning of the similar texts.


About Kathy Powers

Kathy Powers is a middle school language arts teacher at Carl Stuart Middle School in Conway, Arkansas. During her 22-year career, Powers has taugh...

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