Understanding Civics and Citizenship vocabulary and concepts

Understanding Civics and Citizenship vocabulary and concepts
In Civics and Citizenship, students are exposed to vocabulary that uses quite sophisticated and complex abstraction, such as ‘democracy’, ‘freedom’ and ‘identity’. To fully understand what these abstract nouns represent, students need to:

  • comprehend what the word means
    • i.e. its definition and associated examples
  • derive generalisations from these more abstract concepts.
    • For example, what features might characterise a successful, contemporary democracy? (ACARA, n.d., p. 3).

Two strategies to support students to develop their understanding of civics and citizenship vocabulary and concepts are:

  • Base words and suffixes
  • Semantic feature analysis for concept comparison

Base words and suffixes

Suffixes are often used to transform the base word and make it more abstract and generalised (Shanahan & Shanahan, 2014). For instance, rather than write ‘an Australian minister has duties in parliament, which include …’, we can write ‘an Australian minister’s parliamentary duties include …’.

Note: This level of abstraction is common to all academic writing, not just Civics and Citizenship. Consequently, teachers can review and adapt other strategies to introduce abstract terms to students in other subjects, such as English, Science and History.

In Civics and Citizenship, base words might be transformed in the following ways:


Base words can be nominalised to create the names of:

  • types of people
  • objects
  • processes
  • states of being or condition.

Nominalisation is the process of turning word groups into nouns. Nominalisation can be achieved by adding noun forming suffixes such as [-ion], [-ity], [-er], [-or], [-ment] or [-ship] to base words.   

For example:

  • when [-ion] is added to the end of the verb represent, it is nominalised to form the noun representation (i.e. as in legal, or political, representation)
  • when [-er] is added to the end of the verb vote, the noun voter is formed
  • when [-dom] is added to the end of the adjective free, the noun freedom is formed.

Further examples are given below.

​Base word ​Suffix ​Newly formed noun
​citizen ​-ship ​citizenship
​judge ​-ment ​judgement
​crime ​-al ​criminal
​include ​-ion ​inclusion (i.e. social inclusion)
​diverse ​-ity ​diversity
​plural ​-ity ​plurality
​equal ​-ity ​equality
​obligate -​ion ​obligation

Transforming into adjectives

Base words can be also be transformed into adjectives that express capability, fitness or worth by adding suffixes such as [-ary], [-ist], [-ive], [-able], [-ic] or [-al]. 

For example, when [-al] is added to the end of the noun culture and becomes the adjective, cultural. Further examples are given below.


​Base word ​Suffix ​Newly formed word
​represent ​-ive ​representative (i.e. representative government)
​execute ​-ive ​executive (i.e. executive law)
​collect ​-ive ​collective (i.e. collective society)
​custom ​-ary ​customary (i.e. customary law)
​statute ​-ory ​statutory (i.e. statutory law)
​politic ​-al ​political (i.e. political party)
​include ​-ive ​inclusive (i.e. inclusive society)
​democrat ​-ic ​democratic (i.e. democratic country)

 Links to curriculum: VCCCG018, VCCCG020, VCCCL022, VCCCL023,VCCCC024, VCCCC026, VCCCG028, VCCCG029, VCCCG030, VCCCL032, VCCCL033, VCCCL034, VCCCC035.

Word parts

Teaching students explicitly about meaningful word parts in terms can support students to:

  • identify embedded meaning when reading and interpreting texts
  • write in a more sophisticated, technical and abstract manner.

One way to teach students to use different word forms is outlined below.

  1. Introduce students to examples of ‘base’ words and suffixes in Civics and Citizenship. Teachers might show students the examples in the tables above.
  2. As students learn new key vocabulary words in Civics and Citizenship, ask them to complete the following in a glossary for each word
​Base word ​Include
​Definition of word ​The state or action of including a person, or people, within a group or structure.
​Newly formed words with added suffix(es) ​inclusive (-ive is adjective-forming)

inclusion (-ion is noun-forming)

​An example sentence using the base word ​More organisations in Australia are trying to create an environment in workplaces to include (verb) people with different religious and cultural backgrounds.
​An example of a sentence using the newly formed word More organisations in Australia are trying to create an inclusive (adjective) work environment that recognises people with different religious and cultural backgrounds.

The inclusion (noun) of people from different religious and cultural backgrounds in the work environment is the current goal of many Australian organisations.
  1. As new ‘base words’ with associated suffixes are learned in Civics and Citizenship, ask students to add them to their glossary.

Semantic feature analysis to compare concepts

In the Civics and Citizenship curriculum, students learn about

  • broad concepts such as the law, government and citizens,
  • the different sub-categories that fall beneath these broader concepts.

For instance, when learning about Australian law, students will learn about different types of law such as statutory and common law. When learning about Australian government, students will learn about key participants such as the Governor-General, the House of Representatives and the Senate.

It is important for students to recognise the similarities, and differences, between these sub-categories of a broad concept to understand how Australia functions in a political, legal and societal context.

The following steps demonstrate how to support students to compare Civics and Citizenship concepts using a semantic feature map.


Select sub-categories of words that students will learn in relation to a broad concept. For example, for the broad concept of ‘Australian law’, the sub-categories might be executive law, criminal law, civil law and customary law. Determine the key features that students should compare for the sub-categories (see the examples in the semantic feature analysis table below).

  1. Introduce the broad concept, e.g. ‘Australian law’.
      • Brainstorm words that the students associate with the broad concept 

      • write student responses on the board.

  2. Create a joint definition of the broad concept drawing on students’ responses on the board (where applicable).

      • Students write the definition in their books.

  3. Provide students with a Semantic Feature Analysis table (see below) that looks at features of the sub-categories of the broad concept. If this is the first time that students are using a semantic feature analysis table, model a worked example [HITS Strategy 4].
  4. Students read and discuss information from a range of sources provided by the teacher or self-sourced via the internet about the broad concept and its sub-categories.
  5. Instruct students to complete their semantic feature analysis. For instance, complete a semantic feature analysis table comparing ‘rules’ with ‘laws’ initially.

    A complete worked example is shown below for sub-categories of the broad concept ‘Australian Law’.

    a table completed by a student outlining the features of four categories of Australian law: executive law, criminal law, civil law and customary law. The six features listed are: who the law is made by, who it is interpreted by, whether it is written, how widely it is accepted, its uses, and examples.

    (strategy adapted from Flanigan & Greenwood, 2007; Pittelman et al., 1991)

  6. Once students have completed their semantic feature analysis table for a particular broad concept, discuss as a class.

    Use questions to compare and contrast features of the sub-categories:

    1. What is similar between two or more of the categories?
      • Highlight similarities on your table with a particular colour. Name the similarities.
    2. What is different between two or more of the categories?
      • Highlight differences on your table with a symbol (e.g. *). Name the differences.
  7. Model to students how to write sentences to compare and contrast features of the sub-categories using conjunctions such as:
    • similarly, both, like, as, etc. for similarities
    • unlike, in contrast, whereas, however, rather than for differences.

For example: In both criminal and civil law, courts can interpret the common law if no existing statute applies.  Unlike executive, criminal and civil law, customary law is not necessarily written, and it is made and interpreted by Indigenous Australian rather than parliament or the courts.

Links to the curriculum: VCCCL023, VCCCL024, VCCCL032, VCCCL033