The Importance of Vocabulary Instruction in Social Studies

Few would argue with the importance of vocabulary knowledge in all school subjects. 

Researchers make many strong statements:

  • Knowing more words is linked to greater comprehension of text and talk
  • Knowing more words makes learning new words easier
  • There is a strong relationship between knowing more words and academic achievement

Simply put, the more words our students know, the greater chances they have for academic success.

Vocabulary Instruction: Then and Now

Teaching vocabulary within the disciplines is not new. Consider that over 100 years ago, Around the World With The Children, published 1917, offered only four pages of suggested instructions for teachers, yet vocabulary learning was emphasized repeatedly. Over 100 years later, the Common Core State Standards and the C3 Framework for Social Studies emphasize the importance of vocabulary. Consider Standard CCSS RH.4: “Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary specific to domains related to history/social studies.”

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One reason that social studies vocabulary is unique is related to the complexity of the discipline. Bailey (2007) estimated that students encounter over 600 discipline-specific words in one secondary social studies course alone, which is precisely the reason social studies has been called an overloaded curriculum (Bailey, 2007). Given that most states require multiple high school social studies courses, the task of learning as much as 2400 words by high school graduation is overwhelming.

Teaching Vocabulary

The most (in)famous way of teaching vocabulary in school has been rote memorization. Mr. Lockwood, my seventh grade geography teacher, was a big believer in memorization with accountability and the opportunity for public humiliation. Every Friday, he divided the class in half and lined us up against two walls facing each other. He gave us a word or a definition, and we were required to provide the part that was missing. I remember precisely one word from this time—archipelago. Sadly, I have too few opportunities to show how well I learned this definition.

Obviously I’m not arguing for that type of vocabulary instruction. The question remains, “What could vocabulary instruction look like?” Ideally, vocabulary instruction is framed by two principles: encouraging curiosity and awareness about words and providing systematic instruction. Traditionally, we have jumped to instruction before providing students with an awareness of words. In the rest of this blog, I will make the case for why we need to cultivate word curiosity and consciousness. A second blog will address systematic vocabulary instruction.


Vocabulary Principle 1: Encourage Curiosity and Word Consciousness

One reason vocabulary instruction fails is that we neglect to cultivate curiosity about words. We understand words as powerful things; young children are taught about the power of words to hurt and help others. However they are also created things, and the stories of their creation provide a platform to talk about not only the stories behind the creation of the words, but the contexts in which they were created.

Erin McKean offers a wonderful TedTalk, Go Ahead, Make New Words, explaining how words are created, including the way that we put words together to create new compound words (e.g. bookworm, sandcastle). Words can be blended (e.g. brunch, hangry). Words change parts of speech. We love to “verb” our nouns—in the ways that friend and Google have become actions as well as nouns.

Of course, the English language is well known for borrowing from other languages. At this point, critics are saying, “That’s language arts—it’s not social studies!” Except that words are most definitely history. Consider; the early inhabitants of the British Isles were invaded over and over. Each new visiting or conquering group brought wave after wave of language influences that exert their power today. The sounds of /g/ in "goat" and /sk/ in "skin" come from the sounds brought to the English language from the Vikings. The invasion of William the Conqueror brought a mix of French to the language, such as "literature," "liquor," and "bureau." As the English explored the new world, they borrowed (and bastardized) words from the American Indians such as the names for animals like "raccoon." As French trappers came to North America, they introduced words like "rapids" and "chowder" to the English language.

Words are not just words

Big data allows us to study more than words and word usage. It also provides a window into many of the social studies disciplines. Consider the Words of the Year (WOTY) that are published by multiple dictionaries and societies. Most dictionaries track the most frequently searched words and arrive at a list of Words of the Year. chose “complicit” as the 2017 WOTY. Understanding why complicit was important is a study in politics and sociology. Looking back at other words of the year yields words such as subprime for 2007 and Chad for 2000. These words carry little meaning without the context of the mortgage crises or the 2000 presidential election for context.

My point is that words are not just holders of meanings. They’re stories, stories of writers such as Shakespeare who created hundreds of words, stories of conquering nations and common people who refused to use the official language. If we want our students to learn vocabulary then we need to approach words as interesting, not just inanimate items to be memorized and tested.

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Dr. Dixie Massey is the program coordinator of the reading endorsement at the University of Washington, where she also teaches courses in the Department of Language, Literacy, and Culture. She has published in such journals as Social Studies and the Young Learner, The Reading Teacher, and The Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. She is co-author of the curriculum series, Comprehension Strategies for World History and U.S. History in the Social Studies Targeted Vocabulary Instruction, and the Seeds of Inquiry series published by Social Studies School Service.


Bailey, A. L. (Ed.). (2007). The Language Demands of School: Putting Academic English to the Test. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Bryson, B. (1990). Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.