January Tips for Tutors

January Tips for Tutors


ASCD Smart Brief12/12/2011

Developing Students’ Academic Vocabulary Helps Beat Achievement Gap


At a small school district, I faced the challenge as an administrator of diminishing the achievement gap in the student scores, especially in math and science. For example, we noticed that in science there was a 40-point gap between Hispanic students passing the test versus the number of white students passing. Having been in the classrooms and having observed teachers teaching, I knew that they were not treating Hispanic students any differently than the white students. So why was there an achievement gap?

We wrestled with this question for a while. Then one day when I was talking with my own children the problem dawned on me: I sometimes had to watch how I spoke with my own children because they would give me funny looks when I used the “big” or unfamiliar words. My own children spoke English just fine, but they did not understand words like ubiquitous, loquacious, or facetious. The solution was looking me in the face quizzically. So, were teachers using academic language that the students whose first language was English were more familiar with? To make a long story short, we decided to increase the level of vocabulary development, primarily using many sheltered language techniques. The results were astounding. Because of this and an intense college readiness focus, in two years, our schools went from the status of unacceptable to recognized and then the next year, exemplary.

Sheltered Techniques & Marzano

Sheltered instruction is designed with the idea of helping teachers of regular subjects to accommodate for English language learners in their classroom. A close look at the strategies and the techniques of sheltered instruction will reveal that many of them are suitable for all classes.

We learned a few things in the process of increasing the vocabulary readiness of our students. Notice that I did not say that we diminished the academic language of the teachers. The focus was on helping the students to better understand and speak academic language. One of the foundations of sheltered instruction is “comprehensible input.” What this means is that when the teacher is speaking to the students, the teacher should use multiple contextual clues that provide meaning along with the spoken words. A teacher would use the words verbally, but at the same time, point to the objects being described, and also show the words in written format. Gestures, pantomime, movement, actions, sounds, pictures, graphics, and video all are additional methods that teachers have at their disposal to increase the likelihood that their students will understand the message.

I wanted to share that article because we have talked many times in trainings about vocabulary and I too believe it is a big contributing factor to the Achievement Gap.

So, what can you as a tutor do?

  • First, talk to your students.  This helps with the relationship you need to build with them and will help increase their vocabulary and comfort level in using new words.
  • Second, don’t be afraid to use words that are a bit beyond the student’s vocabulary.  Mix some “big” words in with your conversation and then explain them.  Or, use a known word and then use a synonym of that word that is a more complex word.  If your student over uses a word like “good”, begin to introduce words like, “fabulous, awesome, amazing, incredible…”
  • Third, when you encounter unfamiliar words in the text you and your student are reading, make a note of the word and come back to it after you finish reading.  Give a simple, “kid friendly” definition.  Try to come up with an action or gesture that goes with it.  Act it out.  Draw the word.  Find simpler synonyms for the word that the child already knows.
  • Fourth, be sure to come back to those unfamiliar words at different sessions, because children need multiple contacts with new words in order to remember them.
  • Finally, bring in pictures, artifacts, clip art, or even real items to add a concrete meaning for a word to be formed.  Don’t assume a student has seen sand just because we are near the ocean.  Many of our students stay right in their own neighborhoods and have very limited opportunities to explore the world around them.  Share your world with them.



NOTE:  If an unfamiliar word is found while reading you can stop briefly and tell what it means so that the child can understand the passage, but don’t spend too much time on a new word until after reading so you don’t lose all of the meaning of what has been read so far.


Tara McDaniel –ExperienceCorpsBayArea Literacy Trainer

About Experience Corps Bay Area

Experience Corps Bay Area recruits and trains adults 50+ to tutor and mentor elementary school children, with a focus on K-3 literacy.
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4 Responses to January Tips for Tutors

  1. Gail Perin says:

    Excellent article, informative and lots of tips to implement. Every year I have had my students keep a vocabulary book, filled with new words they “should” learn. This year I had them not only define them by context, but at a later session we go back, look them up in the dictionary, and they write a sentence using the word, and make a flash card which I use with them in a game we play for vocabulary building. This year my students actually, not only recognize the words, they can define them, use them in a sentence and win at the “flash card” game!!

  2. Thanks for sharing Gail! It is so great to see the fruits of our labors isn’t it! Especially when it means kids are learning.

  3. True Heitz says:



    (Give words worlds.)

  4. Absolutely correct True!

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