How to Use 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. 

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. For this reason, vocabulary instruction is a foundational thread in the tapestry of reading.  It should be woven into everything that is studied in school.

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 with the knowledge of 15,000-20,000 words. 

Data gathered in 2009 (Graves, Sales, and Davison) 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.

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

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 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.

How to Teach Academic Vocabulary

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 them well enough that they are able to put them into their active vocabularies.

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 website for high school teachers. At this site, you can find 10 academic word lists including the most frequently occurring word in the family and word variations.

Effective Vocabulary Instruction

Learning vocabulary involves two concepts. The first is adding new words to one’s personal lexicon but the second is learning new meanings for the words with which one is already familiar. We must not only help students add new words to their vocabularies, but also help them expand their knowledge about word meanings. Words have connotative as well as denotative meanings so to really understand what we are reading, requires an extensive background knowledge about language and word meaning. For this reason, good vocabulary instruction includes not only exposure to totally new words but also instruction that deepens student’s understanding of the meaning of words they already know which may be used in many other conceptional ways.

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.

People also learn words through movies, television, listening to conversations and by extensive reading. This is the reason that we need to have students read as much as possible. The more they read, the better they become at reading and the larger their vocabularies become. 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. Reading aloud to students is also a good way to expand student vocabulary since students can listen to text several levels above what they might be able to read and comprehend on their own. Reading to our students in all content areas should be a daily experience. This will not only help our good students but is absolutely vital for our struggling readers or English-Language Learner students.

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. 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.

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. Gathering interesting words and playing with words can also be great ways to help students build a large storehouse of vocabulary. The more students can connect to, visualize and enjoy adding new words to their vocabularies, the stronger and more competent readers they will become.

What Works in Primary Vocabulary Instruction?

according to Juel and Deffes (2004), teachers can make vocabulary meaningful and memorable for students by anchoring new words in multiple contexts. Other researchers point out (Nagy & Scott, 2000; Nation, 1990) that knowledge of a word includes how it sounds, how it is written, how it is used as a part of speech, the word’s  multiple meanings and it’s morphology or how it has been derived. Comparing and contrasting words on the basis of these various features can help students organize and categorize words for more efficient memory storage and retrieval.

Juel and Deffes tested 3 different types of typical vocabulary instructional strategies with primary students to see which strategy worked most effectively. 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 was called “anchored condition” where teachers related words to students’ background knowledge, engaged students in active analysis of words and also called student’s attention to the words’ component letters and sounds. According to Juel and Deffes, they found that the analytic and anchored instructional approaches helped students learn the words more effectively than did the contextual instructional approach. Their final recommendations were 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 by clicking on the article title below.

Making Words Stick