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.

Effective Vocabulary Instruction

If we want to know more about effective vocabulary instruction, there are two important concepts to understand.

The first is how to help students add new words to their personal lexicon to increase the size of their overall vocabulary. Readers will not understand what they read unless they can recognize and understand the words they are reading.

According to Biemiller (2005), “Teaching Vocabulary will not guarantee success in reading, just as learning to read words will not guarantee success in reading. However, lacking either adequate word identification skills or adequate vocabulary will ensure failure.”

Word cloud of vocabulary words
Words All Around Us Increase Vocabulary

Helping Students Grow their Vocabularies

We learn words most often during our every day life experiences.

For example, a young child learns the word and the concept of “hot” by touching a hot surface and hearing his mother say, “No! Hot!.” After the tears subside, the child has a clear and memorable link to both the word as well as the concept of “hot. They have added a new word to their vocabulary.

People also learn words through movies, television, and listening to conversations in their daily environment.

Snow, Burns and Griffin (1998) state that from elementary through high school, students learn approximately 7 words per day or somewhere around 2,700 to 3,000 per year.

People also learn new words by listening to and reading books. Researchers found that repeated reading of a story resulted in higher averaged gains in vocabulary in young children.

When a story was read more than once, the students made an average gain of 12% more vocabulary words than children who only heard the story read once. (Biemiller & Boote, 2006; Coyne, Simmons, Kame’enui, & Stoolmiller, 2004).

While rereading texts take additional time, the researchers say that the additional learning that takes place with repeated reading is worth the time – especially for students who struggle with learning to read.

The more our students read, the better they become at reading and the larger their vocabularies become.

What are Other Effective Vocabulary Instructional Methods?

Reading aloud to students is also a good way to expand student vocabulary. When listening to someone read, students are able to process vocabulary several levels above what they might be able to read and understand on their own.

Reading aloud to students in all content areas should be a daily experience. Not only is this good for our higher performing students but this oral language exposure is absolutely vital for our struggling readers or English-Language Learners.

Another good way to encourage vocabulary development is to pique student curiosity and interest in new words. Word walls in all grades and content areas can help call attention to special vocabulary that students need to be successful in the classroom.

Collecting and featuring interesting words on a bulletin board can be fun for students and will also build vocabulary. Playing with words can also be great ways to help students have multiple exposures to words in the classroom.

The more students can connect to, visualize and enjoy adding new words to their vocabularies, the stronger and more competent readers they will become.

Vocabulary Instruction to Expand Student Understanding of Words

The second important concept is how to help students learn new meanings for the words with which they are already familiar.

Effective vocabulary instruction includes not only exposure to totally new words but also instruction that deepens a student’s understanding of the meaning of words they already know which may be used in many other conceptional ways.

Homonyms which are words that sound and are spelled the same but have different meanings be very troublesome both for beginning readers and also for English-language learners.

One effective vocabulary instructional approach for words with multiple meaning is to teach students to look at the surrounding sentence for context clues. Teach them to ask themselves, “Did what I just read make sense?”

For example a student might read, “The airplane banked left to fly north.” By asking “Is this sentence making sense?” students can the meaning of “banked” in this sentence is not the same as “bank” meaning a financial institution or “bank” meaning the side of a river.

Effective Vocabulary Instruction Also Includes Word Parts

As adults, we often use our knowledge of word parts such as prefixes, suffixes and root words to analyze a new word that we encounter.

For this reason, it is helpful for students to study and learn the meaning of affixes and root words.

Content area teachers should identify the important affixes that belong to their subject area and help students learn the various word parts so that they develop a greater understanding of how to analyze new words they encounter while reading.

For example, knowing that “hydro” means water would help students unlock the meaning of many scientific words dealing with water that they might encounter.

Learn more by reading What Works in Primary Vocabulary Instruction or

Inspiring Vocabulary

What Works in Primary Vocabulary Instruction?

Helping Students Build Vocabulary Knowledge

If you teach the primary grades, it is important to understand the research behind effective primary vocabulary instruction.

Research says that the vocabulary of beginning first grade students predicts not only their word reading ability by the end of their first grade school year (Senechal & Cornell, 1993). This measure also predicts their reading comprehension by the end of their junior year in high school (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997).

Louisa Cook Moats (2001) labeled confusion over word meanings and general gaps in vocabulary knowledge as a state of “word poverty.” She states that word poverty appears most often in populations largely made up of students from minority populations. It also includes English language learners, and students from low socioeconomic families.

Teaching Semantics During Primary Vocabulary Instruction

Semantics is the study of different meanings for words. The four types of word meanings are: denotative meanings, figurative meanings, metaphorical meanings and connotative meanings.

Biemiller (2001) tells us that developing a comprehensive understanding of a word comes through repeated exposure to the word in a variety of rich contexts.

Researchers (Nagy & Scott, 2000; Nation, 1990) report that word knowledge includes how it sounds, how it is written, and how it is used in speech. Students should also know the word’s polysemous (multiple meanings) and its morphology (how it was derived).

Understanding Word Differences

Ehri (2000) says that understanding that words are spelled differently and may have different meanings even when spelled the same helps students attend to and pronounce the different letter-sounds.

According to Juel and Deffes (2004), one of the best ways to make vocabulary meaningful and memorable for young students by anchoring new words in these multiple contexts.

Child holding a sign saying learning ABC is fun.

Researchers Learn about Primary Vocabulary Instruction

Comparing and contrasting words on the basis of various features like their spellings, their pronunciations and their meanings helps students organize and categorize words.

These characteristics give students “hooks” that they can use to access the word in the future. This results in more efficient memory storage and retrieval of newly learned vocabulary.

Juel and Deffes tested 3 different vocabulary instructional strategies to see which strategy worked most effectively with primary students.

In what they referred to as a “contextual condition,” teachers related word meanings to students’ background knowledge.

In the “analytic condition,” teachers related words to student’s background knowledge and engaged students in analyzing word meanings.

The third instructional method is “anchored condition.” In this method, teachers related words to students’ background knowledge. They then engaged students in active analysis of words. Finally, they called student’s attention to the words’ component letters and sounds.

The researchers concluded that the analytic and anchored instructional approaches helped students learn the words more effectively than did the contextual instructional approach.

The final recommendation of researchers was that teachers “should take every opportunity to connect vocabulary words to texts, to other words, and to some concrete orthographic features within the word.”

Read the full article Making Words Stick to learn more about effective strategies for primary vocabulary instruction.

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