Engaging Social Studies Students with Vocabulary Words

Vocabulary instruction in social studies is important because it builds background knowledge that is essential when students are assigned to read complex non-fiction texts.  When students have a strong vocabulary, it makes them better readers. 

This is critically important in a word-dense subject like social studies.  I recommend teachers provide early, frequent, and targeted interventions with words.  Targeted vocabulary instruction helps students activate prior knowledge, make connections with word meanings so that texts are more comprehensive, and identify possible cultural or general misconceptions of terms.

Vocabulary Manipulative Cards

One strategy that I have found particularly useful are Vocabulary Manipulative Cards (VMCs).  These are digital or hard copy cards that students create to define, visualize, and associate word meanings through synonyms, antonyms, and analogies.  For example, if the word “trench warfare” was used in a text, students could preview this phrase prior to reading.  Students would identify other word forms such as “entrenched,” related words like “guerrilla warfare,” create synonyms such as “channel” or “canal,” write a definition in their own words, and illustrate the word meaning with primary source images.

Dictionaries are helpful but are often misused given their lack of contextual factors. Do not overemphasize teaching vocabulary in isolation.  There are limits to learning words out of context.  Text-to-speech tools are useful, but be sure to remember that some phrases are not always translatable given the relationship between content and language. Cultural and textual meanings may vary. Translation tools may not provide correct options either. Words are situated in contexts and are tethered to time and place as well as who uses them. For example, “browsing” in Shakespeare’s time meant to eat or nibble on vegetation; however, in the 20th century people browse books, shops, and the internet. Words are the roots of texts and are archaeological artifacts – anchors as symbols of culture, identity, and time.

When using vocabulary scaffolds, they should be specific to texts to ensure students understand the meaning of the word-in context.  Be sure the scaffolds match the intended lesson outcomes rather than random things like general word walls. While these are helpful, students often benefit by more specialized scaffolds.  A phrase like “hanging chad” would be difficult to understand if students were not aware of the 2000 Presidential election and the problems with ballots in Florida.  For this approach, I recommend the use of word sorts.


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Word Sorts

Student or teacher created VMCs can be used in word sorts.  Word sorts ask students to take a word set and group these into categories that have some commonality.  Students use the word information VMCs to identify relationships among words.  Once these commonalities are established, students name (e.g. label) their word groups.  The final step is for students to use their word organizations to explain the connection between words and the concept or learning segment topic (e.g. WWI).  Word sorts are quite useful to introduce student to texts.  Teachers would provide a word set from a specific text and ask students to group and label words, then predict what the text is about based on their word organization.  If additional word-meaning supports are needed, students can be asked to unpack relational word meanings by answering the 5Ws & H.

Based on the word sorts:

  • Who? Who is the story about based on these words? Who are central players/people? {central idea}
  • When? Put words into historical context. {contextualize}
  • Where? Position words in a region, place. {geographical thinking}
  • What? What are these words about? {predict}
  • Why? Why are these words important? {justify, rationalize, explain}
  • How? How are these words connected? How do I know? {metacognition}

Highlighting Text for the Three Tiers of Vocabulary

A caution that I offer is that while vocabulary instruction is important, not all word learning should be treated equally.  Educators need to consider language domains, language functions, and features of academic language to include sentence-level and discourse-level language development via intensive scaffolding.  This can be accomplished by organizing social studies words into three tiers, with greater time and instructional emphasis on the most difficult words.  Using different colors to highlight each tier can help students identify what words they should pay attention to in texts. I offer an example of a highlighted text excerpt below.


A pope, politician, and artist went out for a drink. Sound like the beginning to a bad joke? Perhaps, but in this case, it was no joke.  Of the three, one would be exiled, one would be the center of an assassination plot, and one would become great. See if you can determine who they are.

Degrees of Knowledge

Another approach that I have found to be successful is Degrees of Knowledge.  Students can sort their VMCs based on their confidence in knowing the words.  If students recognize the word but don’t know its meaning, then this is a word they will need to spend time learning through additional vocabulary strategies.  If a student is secure in their understanding of a word, then studying this word would not be an efficient use of time.  Teaching students to discern what words they know from those they don’t focuses their study time and helps promote self-regulation. Teachers can also personalize learning by recommending word-learning approaches or working with students to self-identify strategies they can use to study words.

Students who know word meanings and have the skills to use the context of a text to figure out the meanings of unfamiliar words are better at reading comprehension than students who may know words or strategies but do not have the ability or confidence to apply these to new and diverse sources. More information about the vocabulary strategies described and other vocabulary interventions can be found in Targeted Vocabulary Strategies for Secondary Social Studies, a publication of Social Studies School Service.


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Tina L. Heafner, Ph.D. is a professor of social studies education at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the 2018-2019 President-Elect of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS). Her research identifies the association among student learning outcomes in social studies, high leverage instructional practices, and teacher professional backgrounds and professional learning experiences. Tina has received awards for her sustained services to schools, high school and university teaching, and research including seven awards from the American Education Research Association, the NCSS College and University Faculty Assembly, and the Society for Information Technology and Education.

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