Language of the Disclipline- Depth and Complexity for Primary

This is the first in a mutipart series about Depth and Complexity for primary students.

Today we will be covering

The Language of the Discipline, is represented by the lips or mouth icon. It focuses on content specific vocabulary or tools that we use when teaching or learning about a specific discipline.

As teachers, we often look at what words are specific to what we are learning or teaching. For example, if we were to look at a teacher's vocabulary or tools that they use during the school year, we might use words such as these...

During summer break, a teacher's tools and vocabulary might look a little bit more like this...


Funny how some of the terms stay the same all year long. :)

When applying this to students, it might look a little bit differently. Let's imagine that you are going to teach about camping, or use a camping theme. Before scrolling down, think of some content specific vocabulary that you would use related to the topic of camping.  

Was I able to capture some of the language that you had used?

So why is this important? Learning and using language pertinent to a specific discipline, subject, or topic, is essential in working toward mastery of that subject. We also know that vocabulary is a huge area in assessing, as well as every day life. 

Additionally, vocabulary and reading comprehension have very strong correlations. Students with poor vocabularies usually struggle with comprehending text. The cycle is continued when struggling readers avoid reading, thus decreasing the amount of vocabulary exposure.

So what can we do about that?

I will show you some engaging activities that are geared toward primary, but are easily applicable to any grade. I also need to point out that while Depth and Complexity was created for gifted students, these activities work very well for all learners.

Word webs or language maps are a great way to tap into what language students already have related to the topic. These work well as pre- and post assessment tools, as well. The language maps also serve as excellent anchor charts as you move through the unit you are teaching.

This cool and easy to make Fuzzy Stick Chit Chat card can be used as a whole class, independently, and with partners. Students slide the beads as they and each question and discuss each topic. The topics allow them to dig deeper into the specifics of the discipline at hand by asking questions such as "How does this discipline relate to other disciplines?" or "Tell how this topic applies to you?"

How about grabbing a beach ball and labeling it with various sentence stems and ideas related to the topic that you are discussing? Students answer the question that, let's day, their right thumb lands on. Tossing or rolling the ball across the room also helps get rid of the wiggles.  
(Be sure to set specific expectations for how the ball is to be handled ahead of time.)

Content specific vocabulary can be front loaded or as you encounter the words while teaching and learning. 

Recently during our camping unit, we came across the words bear box. That was not only a term that we had not discussed at the beginning of the unit, it was also a term I, as a desert dweller, had not heard of before. With a quick Google, we learned that a bear box is a sturdy, locked container where you pack your food and other items so that bears do not help themselves to your belongings. Bear boxes would be very important to campers who camp in highly populated bear areas. While we may all have a visual of what a bear box is, putting the name, or essential vocabulary term to the image is huge!

One of our favorite ways to teach about a specific discipline is through the Heads Above game. Students grab a card and place it inside a stretchy headband. The other students must give clues using that content rich vocabulary to help the headband wearer guess what is on the card. Super fun and engaging!

(Thank you to my amazing friend Carina for granting me permission to use this picture.)
Keeping visuals displayed in the classroom is key to reinforcing the concepts of what you want the students to learn. This poster provides a quick reference for students as they apply this to their current learning topics.

If your school allows for a little crafting time, creating these easy projects is very engaging and allows students to work on those important fine motor skills. In fact, you can add a pocket to nearly any craft activity. Provide examples and non-examples of words related to that discipline, and have students sort the words and store the words related to that discipline in the pocket. Encouraging students to add their own words to the pockets will certainly rev up their own thinking.

 (Doesn't that teacher look really, really happy? The words are stored in a pocket behind her teeth.)

As you can see, there are many benefits to using this Depth and Complexity to get your students on the path to deeper and more complex thinking. 

Have you used choice menus in your classroom? Allowing a student to work independently on a task they choose from your preselected tasks can have an enormous impact on their learning. This is a great way to differentiate for your students, engage early finishers, and, as a bonus, is easy, no prep for you.

Here is a sampling of the nine activities that students can work on to practice using the Language of the Discipline. 

If you like the activities in this post, you can grab them here.


  1. Looking forward to the next post. Great ideas on depth and complexity.

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