Academic Vocabulary in the Classroom

What is Academic Vocabulary?

Academic Vocabulary is simply the words that students hear and use in the classroom and while reading academic texts.

We know from research that one of the key indicators of student success in school is the size of a student’s vocabulary. 

Researchers (Baumann and Kameenui, 1991) note that differences in vocabulary knowledge are one of the main causes of the achievement gap.

Students who come from advantaged homes bring with them more extensive vocabularies than students from disadvantaged homes. 

Moats (1999) estimated that linguistically disadvantaged children (including special education students, English-language learners, and students living in poverty) enter school knowing about 5,000 words. 

This lack of vocabulary knowledge is shocking when we learn that more advantaged peers come to school knowing at least 15,000-20,000 words. 

Research (Graves, Sales, and Davison, 2009) indicates that the bottom 10% of first-graders in high poverty schools knew only about ½ of the 1,000 most frequently used English words.

This gap puts students at a disadvantage with academic vocabulary

Unless teachers make a deliberate effort to reduce the vocabulary gap throughout both the elementary and secondary years, this gap in word knowledge will only continue to grow and separate the “haves” from the “have nots.”

Types of Academic Vocabulary

Knowledge of academic vocabulary impacts school success. One way to close academic learning gaps is to deliberately provide opportunities for students to regularly learn new words. Since Webster’s Dictionary gives us 470,000 entries for the English language, the dilemma for teachers is which words to teach.

To address that concern, we can organize words into three categorizes or tiers.

Tier 1 words are words that most people know. We learn these words through every day speech. They are words like: book, wall, clock, baby, sad and so forth. Except for English language learners, we do not need to spend time teaching students these types of words.

The second category of words is known as tier 2 words. These are more academic words that students will use in classroom discussions and read in classroom texts of all types. These words are precise words that are used in place of more common words.

For example, the author may say “gallop” instead of “run” when talking about the movements of a horse. This makes writing more specific and descriptive.

Tier 2 words have multiple meanings and may be used in different content areas. For example, students may know the word “table” as a surface with 4 legs where people sit for a meal.

In math or science class, the word “table” may refer to a set of facts and figures arranged in columns and rows to organize information. In another class, students hear that the teacher will be “tabling” a discussion topic for another time.

Tier 2 words are more likely to be found in written texts rather than in everyday conversation. Since tier 2 words are useful across multiple subjects, these words are the ones we should be helping students master.

These academic vocabulary words should be explicitly taught to deepen background knowledge and build student speaking and reading skills.

Finally, tier 3 words are domain-specific words that are tied to content. Some words in this category are: isotope, lathe, peninsula, and trapezoid.

These words are considered difficult and are typically found in glossaries or highlighted in textbooks. They are explicitly taught to help students understand a specific, content concept when needed.

Teachers should spend the majority of their time ensuring that their students know and can correctly use tier 2 words. We do this by exposing students to these words on multiple occasions during the course of the school year.

We want students to know words well enough that they are able to put them into their active vocabularies.

Adolescent female sitting on a couch reading a book.
Reading is fun when you know what is going on in the book.

The Importance of Explicit Academic Vocabulary Instruction

Tier 3 words generally are limited to specific content areas. They are best learned in content classrooms when students are learning about key concepts and ideas.

A quick, online search will give you many vocabulary lists that you can use for your grade level. For example, teachers in grades K-8 can find tier 2 vocabulary lists on the Flocabulary website.

Here is an excellent resources for high school teachers for academic vocabulary instruction. You will find 10 academic word lists including the most frequently occurring word in the family and word variations.

The bigger our vocabulary storehouse, the more background knowledge we bring to learning. Marzano (2004) says that the more background knowledge a person has, the easier it is for that person to learn new content in the classroom.

When students have rich vocabularies, they understand what is being said to them. They also have good comprehension while reading academic texts and can benefit from daily classroom instruction.

Vocabulary instruction is a foundational thread in the tapestry of reading. For this reason, we must all ensure that we are weaving rich vocabulary throughout all of our teaching.

You may also be interested in reading Effective Vocabulary Instruction.