Content literacy in students with hearing loss: Vocabulary is key

Vocabulary is an integral part of learning. We need new words to discuss original ideas and relate them to previous experiences and knowledge. Students are often faced with a multitude of vocabulary in school.

Let’s consider 3 types of vocabulary:

  • Content vocabulary found in content classes such as science and social studies
  • Academic vocabulary
  • Abstract vocabulary

Memorizing and reciting definitions does not demonstrate comprehension of these new content vocabulary words. As an illustration, the word “characteristic” is defined as “something you can observe in a living thing.”  For the second grader immersed in life cycles, repeating this definition or even writing it on a test may be a reasonable expectation. But can the student look at a flower and provide its characteristics? If the child does not understand that a whole object can be broken down into definable parts, then the child does not comprehend the vocabulary word, “characteristic” even if he/she can give a definition for that word. Therefore, the child must have an opportunity to experience the word in order to comprehend the embedded concept. For example, students may collect different leaves or plants and group them according to characteristics. Most likely, students will need to repeat this activity with different objects to master the concept.

While a student may understand the content of a lesson, she may be unable to answer questions or complete a task related to the topic if she does not comprehend the academic vocabulary. Examples include: list, label, draw, recognize, describe, separate, combine, etc. A student who could identify all his shapes may be unable to complete a task such as “draw a line from the circle to the square.” Your student may be able to tell you countless facts about the marine life, but falls short when asked to “describe the animals that live in the ocean.” Students must learn the task related to these words before they are able to communicate the content. It’s important to practice the task associated with these words so your child understands the task when reading them in directions. Other words may appear in text and definitions that are not content-specific, but are age appropriate and must be also taught explicitly such as surface, simple, or surrounded.  It can be helpful to create a binder or poster at home to serve as a reference for these words when doing homework.

Abstract vocabulary words are often intangible and require personal experience to grasp- for all children! Some come easily like love, whereas other such as liberty may be more difficult to explain. One important point to consider is that students may overgeneralize a familiar form of a word and not know how to conjugate it into the appropriate grammatical form. For example, a student may understand that honest (adjective) describes something true. But the concept of honesty (noun) has a different connotation. As students get older these nuisances in language must be explicitly taught. Students may attempt usage with the right concept, but wrong syntax. “You should not lie, you should be honesty.”  It is necessary and important that students are provided opportunities to practice after explicit instruction. Abstract words often appear in literature or social studies texts.

The CID Vocabulary Card template provides students opportunities to explore new vocabulary words in depth. Writing a definition, linking synonyms and antonyms, identifying the part of speech, examining alternate endings and communicating meaning give a student a deeper understanding and experience of a vocabulary word.  Download it at by clicking here.

Amanda Dunaway is currently serving as the Instructional Facilitator at Central Institute for the Deaf (CID) in the Virginia J. Browning Primary School.  She is also a student in the Ph.D. program for Speech and Hearing Sciences through the Program in Audiology and Communication Sciences at Washington University School of Medicine. In 2009 she became a certified Listening and Spoken Language Specialist (LSLS Cert. AVEd). Her professional interests include mathematical cognition, academic instruction for children who are d/hh and preservice teacher preparation. She is a CODA (child of a deaf adult) and a SODA (sibling of a deaf adult).


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