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Specially Designed Vocabulary Instruction in the Content Areas: What Does High Quality Instruction Look Like?

Michael J. Kennedy, John Wills Lloyd, Mira T. Cole, & Emily Ely

University of Virginia

Who is Steve - Click here to Learn More

Steve, an eighth-grader with a learning disability (LD) in reading comprehension and language processing, is a nice young man with a solid circle of friends; he hopes to go out for the cross-country team once he reaches high school. Steve is enrolled in general education sections of U.S. History, Earth Science, American Literature, and Algebra alongside peers with and without disabilities in his home school district. He is passing his classes, but his grade point average hovers in the C range, and it is thanks to his teachers using various accommodations and modifying key assignments and assessments that it is that high. Steve’s difficulties in school stem from his limited capacity to (a) read and comprehend his courses’ textbooks and other print-based materials; (b) keep up with the amount and pacing of information provided during lectures (especially vocabulary terms and concepts); and (c) demonstrate learning on typical assessments, assignments, and projects. In short, Steve wants to do well and please his teachers and parents, but he cannot keep up with the demands of his coursework.  

Mrs. Saint supports Steve and several other students with various exceptionalities in their core academic classrooms. Mrs. Saint earned her master’s degree in special education several years ago, and meets her state’s requirements to be highly qualified, but she does not think of herself as an expert in any of the core academic areas (e.g., social studies, math, science, and language arts). Steve’s IEP states that he is to receive evidence-based, specially designed reading instruction every day, but Mrs. Saint struggles to find the time, space, and support from the school’s administration to do anything but to use the admittedly limited tools currently at her disposal to keep Steve moving forward within the general education curriculum. Steve is hesitant to read any textbook on his own, and rarely reads anything other than ESPN online and some cheat sheets that help him conquer video games. As a result, Steve’s underlying weaknesses in literacy skills are causing him to fall farther behind his peers, and Mrs. Saint is concerned that his limited skills will result in course failures once he reaches high school.  Please click here to hear Mrs. Saint discussing the challenges of teaching students like Steve in general education classrooms.  

Students like Steve want to succeed, they try hard, but are often unable to keep pace.

Students like Steve, and some with much worse outcomes, are enrolled in virtually every middle and high school in the United States, if not the world. These are students who to a large extent try hard and want to succeed, but who are unable to keep pace, meet demands, and make adequate progress given the way their respective disabilities affect the way they learn (Deshler, 2005; Hallahan, Lloyd, Kauffman, Weiss, & Martinez, 2005). Although individual schools interpret it differently (Zigmond & Kloo, 2011), according to federal law, if students’ disabilities affect their academic performance, they should receive specially designed instruction that is based on their unique educational needs and that addresses their individualized goals and objectives in the least restrictive environment possible. One common problem Mrs. Saint faces in designing instruction for Steve’s content area classes is that evidence-based practices and other specially designed instruction are not consistently provided (Kennedy & Ihle, 2012). Although Mrs. Saint possesses a strong repertoire of evidence-based strategies for helping students succeed on their own (e.g., explicit instruction, learning strategies), her limited knowledge in some content areas limits her ability to implement to provide the intensity of instruction and implement it with the fidelity that her students need (see Kennedy & Ihle, 2012 for a thorough discussion of this common, but problematic phenomenon).

Vocabulary is critical to student success at the secondary level, and there are several high-quality, empirically validated strategies for teaching and learning across various content areas (e.g., D. P. Bryant, Goodwin, Bryant, & Higgins, 2003; Ebbers & Denton, 2008; Jitendra, Edwards, Sacks, & Jacobson, 2004).  In addition, educators can access content acquisition podcasts (CAPs; see the supplemental media file, "What are CAPs?"), which introduce key evidence-based practices and demonstrate various strategies and practices (e.g., watch a CAP on phonological awareness at

The Importance of Specially Designed Vocabulary Instruction

It is important to critically examine the individual building blocks of success within content-area learning tasks when searching for logical yet powerful ways to improve academic outcomes for adolescents with LD. Success in secondary-level courses requires students to read and comprehend narrative and expository texts (Faggella-Luby & Deshler, 2008), participate in higher order thinking skills during reading (Roberts, Torgesen, Boardman, & Scammacca, 2008), contribute to discussions and assignments using knowledge from various content areas (de la Paz, 2005), and create written products for a variety of purposes (e.g., informative, persuasive; Graham & Perin, 2007). A cornerstone for building learning capacity and overall achievement in each of these respective and intertwined activities is vocabulary proficiency.

The National Reading Panel (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000) and others (e.g., Gersten, Fuchs, Williams, & Baker, 2001; Mastropieri, Scruggs, & Graetz, 2003) have documented the impact of vocabulary performance on comprehension. Despite its importance for students with LD and others who struggle with reading, vocabulary proficiency is generally not attained through "typical" methods such as vast quantities of reading practice and participation in content-rich discussions with adults and peers (Baumann, Kame’enui, & Ash, 2003).  Instead, evidence-based, specially designed instruction delivered with fidelity and sufficient intensity and duration is needed (King-Sears & Bowman-Kruhm, 2010).  

Regardless of instructional methods, some students with LD struggle to remember definitions of vocabulary terms and concepts (Ebbers & Denton, 2008).  Using evidence-based practices can boost the chances that students will remember definitions, but memorization alone is not sufficient for success in secondary-level content area coursework.  Although some students can efficiently and effectively memorize definitions, many students with LD have difficulty in using learned definitions to respond to oral or written questions, comprehend narrative or expository texts, or participate in the higher order thinking skills required by the respective content areas (D. P. Bryant et al., 2003; Jitendra et al., 2004).  These difficulties reflect (a) limited exposure and opportunity to practice using new terms, (b) confusion in making cognitive connections between complex or abstract concepts and existing knowledge, and (c) the overwhelming number of new terms that must be learned across content-area courses (Kennedy, 2011).