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Voices from the Middle Moving from Print to Practice, September 2012 (20.1) - Previous Revision

This Issue’s Focus: Background Knowledge and Vocabulary

This issue focuses on background knowledge—acquiring it, building it, and supporting readers to be independent learners and thinkers. The first articles focus on building background knowledge through investigation. Investigation takes multiple forms, ranging from the investigator role in literature circles to reading product labels and critically analyzing content.

Another major topic is vocabulary instruction. How do we identify, teach, and support vocabulary that is necessary for readers to comprehend content? New teachers will find this issue particularly helpful when it comes to identifying how readers struggle with content vocabulary and how to choose new words to teach. Experienced teachers will benefit from teaching ideas and new ways to think about vocabulary instruction, especially if Marzano’s notion of tiered vocabulary is new to you.

The reality is that if readers do not understand the vocabulary of the discipline they are studying, they will not be able to grasp the larger concepts. It is our responsibility as teachers to support them in those efforts. The material that follows will help you do just that.

Building Background Knowledge as Readers and Writers

General Discussion Topic

This combination of articles, when read as a trio, helps us to see our middle school students as unique individuals who bring a level of knowledge and expertise into our classrooms—expertise that we sometimes fail to recognize. But they still require our support to expand what they know and can bring to a reading experience.

Gabriel, Allington, and Billen, in their article “Background Knowledge and the Magazine Reading Students Choose,” show us how middle school students will often stretch to read difficult text of their own choosing, in part because they come to magazine reading with a certain level of background knowledge and engagement with the topic.

In “Building Background Knowledge within Literature Circles,” Barone and Barone describe their experience of motivating and engaging readers with the investigator role in literature circles. They found that when students were able to investigate their own questions with a level of autonomy regarding the methods and the sources to find the answers, they were more engaged in building background knowledge and filling in gaps.

Beatrice Newman’s “Mentor Texts and Funds of Knowledge: Situating Writing within Our Students’ Worlds” explores the concept of funds of knowledge to help students recognize that they have stories to tell. By fostering student writing in this way, she incorporates the notion of mentor texts and a way to inspire students to find their own stories. This idea can connect with other articles in this issue. For instance, magazines can provide a rich source of mentor texts to help students tell stories about events in their lives or share with others the sports and hobbies that interest them. Magazines and online publications written by teens for teens can also provide accessible mentor texts that bridge to more sophisticated literary examples, such as those Newman used in her classroom.

Key Points

  • Students will choose to conquer and enjoy texts that are challenging by any measure when they have background knowledge, vocabulary, and interest.
  • Magazines provide a bank of texts in a variety of formats and on a variety of levels.
  • Magazine excerpts may be effectively used either to introduce or practice standards related to informational or literary texts.
  • The role of investigator in a literature circle allows students to personally learn about topics, words, and people that are important to understanding a novel.
  • The investigator role helps with background knowledge and positions students to be active readers, constantly rereading and searching for information to satisfy their curiosity.
  • All students have something to write about, and all students can be guided and nurtured toward successful and personally satisfying writing experiences.
  • Students’ funds of knowledge serve as a vast treasure trove of writing possibilities for writers of all ages and all backgrounds.
  • Magazine reading can be a source to tap into those funds of knowledge as well as a source of mentor texts for students.

Common Core Connection

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading

Standard 7: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Standard 8: Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.

Standard 9: Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Standard 10: Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing

Standard 2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Standard 3: Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Using These Articles with Your Team

  • At the beginning of the year, as you survey students for other information to get to know them, ask about magazine reading preferences. Start a class or team list of favorite magazines. Create a resource to share or showcase popular magazines or articles. This could be as simple as a bulletin board or showcase in your team hallway or as complex as a blog or wiki space on your team webpage. Once you know what your students are reading, discuss how content area teachers could use magazine articles to supplement or complement content area texts.
  • Involve the community in collecting magazines for classroom use. Ask parents and community groups to donate back issues to your school.
  • As an advisory activity, choose or ask students to recommend a magazine article that they are interested in, then read and discuss in small or large groups. These discussions could lead to idea-collection sessions for writing prompts, as described by Newman.

Why Not Try This?

One of the popular magazines cited by students in Gabriel, Allington, and Billen’s study was North American Whitetail. Here is an example of one story that illustrates how to tie these ideas together:

  • Examine the vocabulary in this story. Students who are avid hunters will probably know words like bleat can, yearling, and crosshairs. These are probably Tier 1 or 2 words for them, but will be Tier 3 words for many other students. Have students with different interests teach their peers vocabulary related to their hobbies.
  • Something like the investigator role in a literature circle could help with defining unknown terms. Investigate why the geography of Ohio is a good area for deer hunting, or learn about the equipment the author describes.
  • The “funds of knowledge” concept comes into the discussion when we use this article as a mentor text. How could students who are familiar with deer hunting use this piece as a model to write about their own hunting experiences? How could a teacher use this article as a bridge to reading about Brian Robeson’s first kill in Hatchet?


Using Literature to Teacher Inference across the Curriculum

General Discussion Topic

William Bintz, Petra Pienkosky Moran, Rochelle Berndt, Elizabeth Ritz, Julie Skilton, and Lisa Bircher address students’ struggles to understand what it means to make an inference, as well as how to do it successfully, in “Using Literature to Teach Inference across the Curriculum.” Making inferences is an essential reading skill in all content areas. How is teaching readers to make inferences related to 21st century skills? How is inference an interdisciplinary concept?

Key Points

  • Inference is a powerful way of thinking and an important 21st century skill for all students to use and develop across the curriculum.
  • Inference means readers go beyond surface understandings and delve deeper into meanings of text.
  • Making inferences is integral to the reading process. It posits that readers must do more than just read words in a text; they must go beneath them.

Common Core Connection

College and Career Readiness Standard 4: Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone. (This standard is repeated in English Language Arts, History/Social Studies, and Science and Technical Subjects as a “reading in the content areas” standard.)

Anchor Standard 1 for Reading Grades 6–12: Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. (This standard is repeated for informational text and carries through all of the content areas.)

Using This Article with Your Team

This article is constructed with teaching strategies for each content area. Begin by sharing it with your colleagues. Have a discussion about teaching readers to make inferences in all types of content area reading. Reinforce this discussion with the Common Core Standards that emphasize making inferences in all content area reading. Model for colleagues in other disciplines how to use picturebooks as short, accessible texts that allow for discussion of a concept or skill before moving on to more complex content texts.

Why Not Try This?

Science: The authors use Uno’s Garden by Graeme Base to illustrate the What It Says, What It Means strategy. Pair this text with Window by Jeannie Baker. Baker’s wordless picturebook shares a similar environmental theme about the destruction of woods and forest for human expansion, but the reader must rely totally on illustrations to infer the story she is trying to tell.

Social Studies: The authors use Fly Away Home by Eve Bunting to examine the relationships between context clues, inferences, and actual outcomes. They focus on two relationships in the story and piece together those elements to help students make inferences. Try Judith Hendershot’s picturebook In Coal Country for a similar activity. Hendershot tells the story of growing up in a coal-mining town in southern Ohio in the 1930s. Using inferences, context clues, and actual outcomes, students can discuss what life was like during this era in this part of the country. There are also relationships to be explored within the family and the gender roles of the mother and father, much as found in the examples from Fly Away Home.

Mathematics: The authors feature One Riddle, One Answer by Lauren Thompson for a “Collaborating with the Author” strategy. In this activity, the teacher divides the text into strategic passages and marks them with sticky notes. As he or she reads aloud, the sticky notes provide a marker for information students will record on a separate sheet. Students will record predictions as well as text, clues, or pictures, and then check predictions at each stopping point. For another text option, try any of the number of titles by Laura Numeroff, starting with If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. As a large-group activity, this leads to a very simple discussion of cause and effect, and the process of inferring based on context. Use this as a stepping stone to more complex logic problems, or discussions of proofs, plausibility, and probability. For more ideas, see: and

Language Arts: The authors begin with The Watertower as a mystery story used to illustrate the “BK+TC=I” (Background Knowledge plus Text Clues equal Inference) strategy. Before introducing the chapter book, try The Mystery at the Club Sandwich by Doug Cushman. This is an old-fashioned whodunit that would prepare students for the genre as well as practice in making inferences as they solve the mystery alongside detective Nick Trunk. There are also several examples of verbal irony that will appeal to older readers looking at a picturebook.

The authors provide examples of literature across the curriculum that they used to teach inference (see Appendices A and B in the full article). Add to this list from your classroom library in the comments below. Share these titles with your team and use them as a basis for interdisciplinary units.


Language and Vocabulary Building

General Discussion Topic

One way to build background knowledge and help readers become independent learners is through vocabulary building. We need to help our students add to their repertoire of words, and we cannot take for granted that our students share words we know readily and easily from our life experiences.

Three articles in this issue focus on building background through vocabulary instruction. Robert Marzano leads us through “A Comprehensive Approach to Vocabulary Instruction.” Sarah Davis gives classroom examples that build on Marzano’s work in “Language and Learning under the Microscope.” Then Antony Smith and Robin Angotti use mathematics teaching as an example of using a 5 Cs strategy for identifying and teaching content and contextual vocabulary in “'Why Are There So Many Words in Math?': Planning for Content-Area Vocabulary Instruction.”

Key Points

Not all words in the English language should receive equal consideration from an instructional perspective.

  • It is useful to organize words into three tiers for instructional purposes:
    --Tier 1— high-frequency words common in written and oral communication
    --Tier 2—terms that appear so infrequently that students would not learn them incidentally
    --Tier 3—subject-specific terms that are not frequently found in daily reading or conversation, but are necessary for subject matter literacy
  • The more robust a students’ vocabulary, the more they are able to make detailed observations, to articulate complex concepts, or deepen content understanding.
  • Academic language is not limited to words in bold or italics in the textbook. Teachers need to use their knowledge of students and community as well as content to determine which vocabulary words will cause students to struggle with understanding.
  • A challenge for content area teachers is to choose vocabulary that will help young adolescents both understand new concepts and make connections between real world experiences and existing background knowledge.
  • The 5 Cs strategy: concepts, content, clarify, cut, and construct, can help teachers make those decisions.

Common Core Connection

The Common Core Standards for Vocabulary Acquisition and Use include:

College and Career Readiness Standard 4: Determine or clarify the meaning of unknown and multiple-meaning words and phrases by using context clues, analyzing meaningful word parts, and consulting general and specialized reference materials, as appropriate.

College and Career Readiness Standard 5: Demonstrate understanding of word relationships and nuances in word meanings.

College and Career Readiness Standard 6: Acquire and use accurately a range of general and domain-specific words and phrases sufficient for reading, writing, speaking, and listening at the college and career readiness level; demonstrate independence in gathering vocabulary knowledge when encountering an unknown term important to comprehension or expression.

In language arts and the content areas, each of these standards moves through the grade levels in similar fashion, expecting development of these skills with grade-level appropriate fiction and informational texts.

Using These Articles with Your Team

Lead your colleagues in a discussion of important content vocabulary and help them to divide words into tiers. Use this as a basis for interdisciplinary instruction or thematic units. How can teachers of language arts and other content areas work together to strengthen students’ vocabulary? If you teach more than one content area, how can you use Tier 3 words from one discipline in another to strengthen vocabulary building?

In team planning, use the 5 Cs as a group to select vocabulary across content areas. In interdisciplinary planning, teachers across disciplines may be able to incorporate concepts and content from multiple disciplines. Teachers may also be able to clarify terms in more than one classroom, giving students multiple exposures to words. Students will internalize more words if they are shared in multiple subject areas.

Why Not Try This?

Marzano talks about creating clusters and super clusters of basic Tier 1 words as part of unit planning for teachers. This does not have to be the sole responsibility of the teachers. How can students create these clusters and build on them throughout a unit of study?

  • Word walls
  • Semantic feature analysis activities (see examples of this strategy at
  • Word sorts using Tiers 1, 2, and 3 as sorting criteria
  • Vocabulary cards—students create cards for vocabulary words that include the target word, definition, characteristics or description, examples, nonexamples, and an illustration or visual representation.



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