Introducing STUDENTS to the General Academic Vocabulary of the Common Core State Standards

Opinion WRITING Grades 2-5

03/30/2013  |  GARY CHADWELL
common core

Schools around the country are now grappling with the challenges of the Common Core State Standards. While the first assessments of the standards are not due until the 2014-2015 school year, educators are already addressing the standards and preparing students for the new assessments.

David Coleman, one of the authors of the standards, has described several “shifts” in instruction and emphasis that schools must address to meet the challenges of the Core. One of those shifts is more frequent and systematic vocabulary instruction, especially with general academic vocabulary terms. These are terms rarely used in casual conversation. But, while not specific to any one discipline, they are used in a wide variety of academic texts and discussions. Coleman refers to these terms as “the language of power.”

Three Tiers of Vocabulary

The Core stresses the importance of building “a rich and varied vocabulary” and emphasizes that the difference in students’ vocabulary levels is “a key factor in disparities in academic achievement.” The work of Isabel Beck, Margaret McKeown, and Linda Kucan has a significant influence on the Core’s emphasis on academic vocabulary. Beck and her colleagues outline three levels, or tiers, of vocabulary which provide a useful way to think about the vocabulary that all learners acquire and use.

Tier One words are words we use in common, everyday discussions. These are terms (like bicycle, play, happy, purple, horse) that students begin internalizing at a young age and continue to acquire throughout their school years through conversations, reading, and vocabulary development activities.

Tier Two words are general academic terms. By general, it is meant that they are words (like demonstrate, introduce, logical, evidence, point of view) that, while conveying subtle and precise meanings, appear in a wide variety of texts—informational, technical, as well as literary. Beck refers to Tier Two words as “traveling words” because they are found in so many different types of text. The terms are academic because they are not words that come up often in everyday conversation. As the Core points out, these are terms that “are far more likely to appear in written texts than in speech.” So they are not terms that most students acquire instinctively.

Tier Three words are specific to a subject or field of study. They tend to be used more in informational than in literary text. These terms (like perimeter, stamen, deciduous, judiciary) are commonly introduced as “new” vocabulary in instructional units and then used repeatedly in that unit of study. In other words, Tier Three words are taught.

Vocabulary of Opinion Writing: 20 Key Terms

The standards delineate three types of writing: opinion/argument, informative, and narrative. In the elementary grades, the standards call for approximately equal emphasis on each of the three types. But as Lucy Calkins and her co-authors put it in Pathways to the Common Core, “Argument writing is a big deal in the Common Core State Standards.” Argumentation is referred to as “opinion writing” up through grade 5 of the standards, but it is clear that even for young writers there are rigorous expectations in this area. Writers are expected to make clear their opinions and support claims with evidence and logical reasoning. The standards even make a point of explaining the preference for opinion writing (which relies on logical proof to make its case) over persuasive writing (which uses personal influence and emotional appeal to sway an audience).

In order for students to develop skills with opinion writing, they need language to describe the components and characteristics of effective argumentation. The words that follow are general academic terms that are useful in a variety of contexts. However, they were chosen for this list because they have particular usefulness when teaching, discussing, and assessing opinion writing. They are words that students should recognize and be able to use with precision.

One criterion for selecting the words in this list is how often they are used in the standards themselves. Many of the words (such as opinion, topic, reasons, support) come up often in discussions of opinion writing. Other words (such as evidence, details, facts) need to be injected into classroom discussions because they give meaning to thoughtful writing and help distinguish opinion writing from persuasive writing. Granted, many of these words are familiar to most students, but it is essential that students develop a precise understanding of how they shape effective opinion writing.

In addition to being used frequently in the standards, some of the terms in this list meet another important criterion: They are used often to describe effective writing. In the annotations to student writing exemplars in Appendix C of the standards, terms like clear or clearly, specific, information, and linking words are used often to point out strengths of the examples. Other frequently used terms in the annotations (such as point of view, organizational structure, and concluding statement) are essential to students’ understanding of important characteristics of well-formed argument.

A third criterion is met by several of the words included in this list. Besides being used regularly in the standards, they are also terms used frequently in writing prompts. While we don’t yet have many examples of the kind of opinion writing prompts to be included in the PARCC or Smarter Balanced assessments, it is hard to imagine that descriptive terms like logical, specific, and key won’t be used in task descriptions. Text, demonstrate, and introduce are other common academic terms that are likely to pop up in assessments. Below are terms that students should be intimately familiar with because they help students understand the nuances of writing expectations. [Note: While not a term specifically related to opinion writing, e.g. is included here because it is the most frequently used term in the standards — and students should know its meaning.]

  • clear/clearly
  • concluding statement
  • demonstrate
  • details
  • e.g.
  • evidence
  • facts
  • information
  • introduce
  • key
  • linking words
  • logical
  • opinion
  • organizational structure
  • point of view
  • reasons
  • specific
  • support
  • text
  • topic

Why all this attention to 20 academic vocabulary words related to opinion writing? After all, isn’t the surest way for students to improve their opinion writing is to do a lot of opinion writing? Yes, but they also need to look at and analyze examples of good — and not so good — opinion writing done by others. In addition, they need to talk about the structure and characteristics of effective opinion writing and will need a basic understanding of terms like these. The more students understand these terms, the more knowledge they have about opinion writing — and the easier it is for them to gain new knowledge and understanding.

Let Marzano and Pickering have the final word on the need for building strong academic vocabulary:

"Given the importance of academic background knowledge and the fact that vocabulary is such an essential aspect of it, one of the most crucial services that teachers can provide, particularly for students who do not come from academically advantaged backgrounds, is systematic instruction in important academic terms."

Gary Chadwell, Senior Associate with Collins Education Associates, is a former classroom teacher. He works as a writing coach and consultant with schools throughout the country. Contact him at [email protected]. For information on the Collins Writing Program go to
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New Comment 
In teaching the parts of the argument to 7th and 8th grades, are the terms- Thesis Statement, Introduction, Body of Evidence, Refutation, and Conclusion still applicable? Please email me at [email protected]
  6/7/2013 5:34:49 AM

Wonderful Article 
This is a "must read" for all educators!