The Common Core ELA standards for grades 3 and up invite students to explore words that are specific to a field of study. The standards call this “domain-specific language.” That’s a fancy way of saying vocabulary words that often appear in glossaries or bolded in textbooks. The concept is introduced in grade 3, where students learn how to figure out what these words mean in context. Older students incorporate domain-specific language in their own informational writing.
If you’ve read my books, you know I love domain-specific language, whether it’s aviation-related words in WOOD, WIRE, WINGS or astronomy-related words in THE FIRE OF STARS. I know that using rich vocabulary in picture books, especially domain-specific vocabulary, adds another hook to my books. It offers one more way my books can be used in classroom, specifically in ELA lessons.
Exploring domain-specific language
With domain-specific language, a little bit goes a long way. If you go overboard, your book can start to lose its musicality and read more like a textbook. We don’t want that.
To see how writers strike a balance, I encourage you to grab a stack of recent nonfiction or informational picture books off your library or bookstore’s shelves. If you see a glossary or list of “key terms” you’ve definitely found a winner, though not all books include them. Mine don’t.
If you need some recommendations, here are a few recent picture book titles I grabbed from my current library stack that do domain-specific language really well:
- A RIVER’s GIFTS: The Might Elwha River Reborn by Patricia Newman, illus. Natasha Donovan (rivers/dams)
- WOVEN OF THE WORLD by Katey Howes, illus. Dinara Mirtalipova (weaving)
- MAKING MORE: How Life Begins by Katherine Roy (life sciences)
Making the most of mentor texts
Once you have your mentor texts, go ahead and read them. Jot down any domain-specific language you find. Then consider:
- Are the vocabulary words easily understood within the context of the page?
- How do the images add to the reader’s understanding of the words?
- Does the book include text features like definitions on the page? Or are the words defined in a glossary?
- What is the balance of these new vocabulary words compared to the rest of the book text?
This spread from THE FIRE OF STARS reads: “shrinking and smashing — and Cecilia’s sphere feels smaller and smaller still when she realizes her new school is a black hole with none of her favorite classes.
No algebra. No German. No cinch. Not even any friends for a shy and studious girl like her…”
This book includes two vocabulary words related to astronomy/STEM — “sphere” and “black hole,” though I use them metaphorically. I don’t define either in a glossary or in a sidebar. Yet by studying the pictures and words together, readers can get the idea of what the words mean. Notice Katherine Roy’s gray circular marks, which help define Cecilia’s space and convey the idea that all the light and joy is being sucked away, much like a real black hole’s gravity prevents light from escaping. The dark colors in the illustrations reinforce that idea of a black hole, as does the repetition of the word “no.” Cecilia’s world has an absence of anything joyful and bright, an emptiness, like that real black hole.
Now you try
Are you working on a manuscript where you could inject some domain-specific language to add another hook? Can you do this (sparingly, please)? Do you need a glossary or sidebars to explain the words, or can you rely on the context of your words and potential illustrations?
Please let me know in the comments if you have any breakthroughs!