We were discussing the importance of developing academic language and how critical of an issue it is not just for English language learners but for all students. Even as adults we encounter new academic language in various contexts that we must internalize to continue to be successful- think mortgage, annuity, etc. An analogy was made regarding academic vocabulary that made so much sense that I just have to share it with you.
Susana Durto and Carroll Moran, two educational researchers focused on English language development, coined the term “brick” and “mortar” to describe types of academic vocabulary words. They use the analogy of building a house to explain the importance of both types of words.
Using this analogy, imagine building a brick house. The bricks are very important, of course. Imagine if I stacked bricks, one on top of the other, to make a wall. I may have a temporary shelter in the form of a wall, but what would happen if I leaned on it? Yikes! Without the mortar holding the bricks together, my beautiful wall I worked so hard to build would fall over.
Now imagine the “bricks” of my wall are the academic vocabulary words that I pile on my students day in and day out. Durto and Moran describe “brick” words as words that are specific to content. These words would be bolded in articles or show up in your key vocabulary word boxes in a textbook. These are the words we are focused on throughout the lesson and work hard to make sure students understand. So, in my case because I teach third grade language arts, my bricks would be made up of words like plot, character, theme, detail, main idea, you get my drift.
So here I go piling on brick after brick. We’re discussing the words, they’re on the word wall, we’ve written about them in our reader response journal, we’re on a roll and I’m feeling good that my kids understand. I then give them this task: Write a sentence describing the relationship between the words ‘characters’ and ‘plot.’ How successful would my kiddos be at completing that task? Think about this task through the lens of an ELL or a struggling reader.
If you’re like me you’re probably imagining all the creative responses you might get. The point is, in order for my students to connect those two content terms and to fully demonstrate their understanding, they have to use other academic words to do so. All of these other academic words besides “characters” and “plot” would be considered “mortar” words. Durto and Moran describe “mortar” words as basic and general utility vocabulary required for constructing sentences. Your students' familiarity with and knowledge of “mortar” terms will vary.
Going back to the task I mentioned earlier, one possible response could be something to the effect of: Characters are related to plot because they drive the story with their actions. If I take the two “brick” words out of that response, look at what is left: _______ are related to _______ because they drive the story with their actions. Look at all of the language that has to be supplied by the student! But for others, whether English is a second language or not, this task would be frustrating. They may know the terms 'plot' and 'character' in isolation, but describing how they are related is equally important. Students must have familiarity with both “brick” and “mortar” words in order to communicate successfully and deeply cement their understanding. I want them to have a solid, strong house!
In our world of STAAR, these academic “mortar” words are significant. Here is a sample question from the 2013 STAAR. As you examine the question, keep the “brick” and “mortar” analogy in mind. What words appear to be “brick” words and which would be considered “mortar?”
This question is assessing TEK 3.13(b): draw conclusions from the facts presented in text and support those assertions with textual evidence. Based on this TEK, the only “brick” word in the question is “supports” or you could include the entire phrase, “supports the idea.” Looking at this question from the lens of an English language learner or a struggling reader, look at all the other academic vocabulary words that must be known before the question can be answered! Depending on your kids, you might include other words in the "mortar" column that I didn't. Scary!
Not all of the STAAR questions are so heavy on vocabulary, but even some of the straightforward questions still include important "mortar" words and phrases students need to know. Take a quick look at this question:
In this question, the only “brick” word is “problem.” Academic mortar words would include “according,” “selection,” and “bothered.”
Knowing about these “mortar” words is hugely important to me. I can plan the best lessons, but if my students aren’t familiar with the language used on the test or they struggle with "mortar" words, they will be unsuccessful and I will be left feeling frustrated. Imagine an English language learner or a struggling reader just learning and owning the term “problem” and then imagine having to learn those additional mortar words as well. I cannot simply focus just on the content objectives; I must also focus on and strategically plan the language I will use to teach those content objectives.
Luckily, the authors suggest that “mortar” words do not have to be directly taught like “brick” words because there are simply too many of them! In no way could I possibly cover all of the “mortar” words floating out there in the world. Instead, what they suggest is to scan assessments and assignments students will be completing, pull out the “mortar” words and strategically use them in your instruction.
When I question, I will still use higher-level mortar words like “according to” and “represents” but I may have to clarify the meaning of those words. However, once I’ve explained the word or phrase I will go right back to using it and expecting students to use it too. The “mortar” words aren’t being directly taught in the way “brick” terms are, but students will still have plenty of exposure to them and they will eventually become part of the natural classroom dialogue.
To sum up:
If you have any thoughts or Aha’s! or strategies for increasing academic vocabulary or for using "brick" and "mortar" words, I would love to hear them!