Strategy Guide

Using Concept Circles to Develop Academic Vocabulary

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Strategy Guide Series
Developing Academic Vocabulary

About this Strategy Guide

In this guide, you will learn how to use the Concept Circles strategy to support vocabulary development and comprehension of complex text.

Research Basis

In his discussion of the research basis around teaching students individual words, Graves (2007) notes that “vocabulary instruction is most effective when learners are given both definitional and contextual information, when they actively process the new word meanings, and when they experience multiple encounters with words. Said somewhat differently, vocabulary instruction is most effective when it is rich, deep, and extended” (p. 14).  Concept circles (Vacca & Vacca, 2001) offer one such approach, giving students experiences with several key interconnected words from an academic reading.

Strategy in Practice

  1. Carefully read through a complex piece of text that students will be asked to read and understand in an upcoming unit.  Look for a handful of words or terms that bear a significant amount of the meaning of the text, that relate to one another in multiple ways in developing the text’s main concept, and that have meaning that builds over the course of the text.  From the article “Immortal Cells, Enduring Issues,” which concerns the medical ethics around the use of patients’ cells for medical research, you might select the concepts medical ethics (central concept), and informed consent, biospecimen, genetic medicine, and commodification (supporting words/terms).

  2. Use the Concept Circles Handout to arrange vocabulary to support student understanding.  Place the four supporting words/terms (informed consentbiospecimengenetic medicine, and commodification) in the areas surrounding the central concept circle, leaving the center blank for students to determine through discussion and inference after reading.  See the Sample Concept Circles Handout for an example of such an arrangement using the selected terms.  Students should take notes and jot new understandings for each concept in the outer section of the circle; they will discuss and conclude the term from the text that is most central (and supported by the outer words) and place it in the center circle.

  3. Before reading the text, share the Concept Circles Handout and elicit students’ prior knowledge about the terms, providing any necessary clarification or additional prompting.  Explain that they will use the space outside each of the four identified terms to take notes on their developing understanding of and interconnections among them.

  4. Explain to students how they should read the text (read aloud to the group as students follow along, in small groups silently or aloud, or silently as individuals) and give them time to read, take notes, and discuss, as appropriate.

  5. Support students in a discussion of the meanings of each of the key terms and how they relate to one another.

  6. Ask students to share the central concept they feel relates all four terms and justify their conclusion.  Coming up with the same central term as the one you selected (here, medical ethics) is not as important as the conversation around and justification of the terms they select.

  7. Encourage students to use their completed Concept Circles Handouts to review meanings of key vocabulary or as the beginning of a written summary/response.


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