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Academic Word List

Not too many teachers would argue that vocabulary acquisition is unimportant.

It is widely accepted among researchers that the difference in students’ vocabulary levels is a key factor in disparities in academic achievement (Baumann & Kameenui, 1991; Becker, 1977; Stanovich, 1986)

As cited in the Common Core State Standards Appendix A 

However, the average ELA teacher spends little instructional time on vocabulary development.

Vocabulary instruction has been neither frequent nor systematic in most schools (Biemiller, 2001; Durkin, 1978; Lesaux, Kieffer, Faller, & Kelley, 2010; Scott & Nagy, 1997).

As cited in the Common Core State Standards Appendix A 

Vocabulary Instruction

Depth and Breadth

The Common Core authors and reading specialists advocate a two-fold approach to vocabulary instruction: 1. Explicit and multi-faceted vocabulary instruction and 2.  implicit vocabulary acquisition through independent reading and listening. Depth and breadth.

What does in-depth explicit vocabulary instruction look like?

The Common Core authors provide the most detailed vocabulary Standards in The Language Strand: Vocabulary Acquisition and Use (Standards 4, 5, and 6):

  1. Multiple Meaning Words and Context Clues (L.4.a.)
  2. Greek and Latin Word Parts (L.4.a.)
  3. Language Resources (L.4.c.d.)
  4. Figures of Speech (L.5.a.)
  5. Word Relationships (L.5.b.)
  6. Connotations (L.5.c.)
  7. Academic Language Words (L.6.0)

Most ELA and reading teachers are familiar with #s 1–6, but are confused about #7: Academic Language Words (L.6.0). By now, most teachers know that Academic Language Words are the Tier 2 words, which reading specialists and the Common Core authors tell us to teach because they are the most generalizable across all text genre. As a reminder, Tier 1 words are those used in everyday speech and Tier 3 words are domain-specific words used in content area instruction. However, what many teachers don’t know is that we have a research-based list of high frequency Tier 2 words.

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Dr. Averil Coxhead, senior lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies developed and evaluated The Academic Word List (AWL) for her MA thesis. The list has 570 word families which were selected according to certain criteria:
  • The word families must occur in over half of the 28 academic subject areas. “Just over 94% of the words in the AWL occur in 20 or more subject areas. This principle ensures that the words in the AWL are useful for all learners, no matter what their area of study or what combination of subjects they take at tertiary level.”
  • “The AWL families had to occur over 100 times in the 3,500,000 word Academic Corpus in order to be considered for inclusion in the list. This principle ensures that the words will be met a reasonable number of times in academic texts.” The academic corpus refers to a computer-generated list of most-frequently occurring academic words.
  • “The AWL families had to occur a minimum of 10 times in each faculty of the Academic Corpus to be considered for inclusion in the list. This principle ensures that the vocabulary is useful for all learners.”

Words Excluded From the Academic Word List

  • “Words occurring in the first 2,000 words of English.”
  • “Narrow range words. Words which occurred in fewer than 4 faculty sections of the Academic Corpus or which occurred in fewer than 15 of the 28 subject areas of the Academic Corpus were excluded because they had narrow range. Technical or specialist words often have narrow range and were excluded on this basis.”
  • “Proper nouns. The names of places, people, countries, for example, New Zealand, Jim Bolger and Wellington were excluded from the list.”
  • “Latin forms. Some of the most common Latin forms in the Academic Corpus were et al, etc, ie, and ibid.” http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/information

What’s the best way to teach the Academic Word List? The author’s grades 4, 5, 6,7 and 8 Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits  use the Frayer model four

Common Core Vocabulary Toolkit Grades 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8

Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits

square (definition, synonym, antonym, and example-characteristic-picture) method to learn these words in-depth.

Wouldn’t it be great if we had an instructional scope and sequence of the Academic Word List by grade level? In other words, a 4th Grade Academic Word List, a 4th Grade Academic Word List, a 4th Grade Academic Word List. a 4th Grade Academic Word List, and a 4th Grade Academic Word List? We’ve got it and it’s your FREE download! the Grades 4-8 Vocabulary Scope and Sequence

Would you like to check out our CCSS-aligned vocabulary worksheets from the Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits ?

Here are FREE samples of vocabulary worksheets from this comprehensive program–ready to teach in your class today. Each resource includes directions, four grade-specific vocabulary worksheets, worksheet answers, vocabulary study cards, and a short unit test with answers.

Get the Grade 4 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 5 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 6 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 7 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 8 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

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Vocabulary Scope and Sequence

According the the authors of the Common Core State Standards…

“The importance of students acquiring a rich and varied vocabulary cannot be overstated. Vocabulary has been empirically connected to reading comprehension since at least 1925 (Whipple, 1925) and had its importance to comprehension confirmed in recent years (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, 2000). It is widely accepted among researchers that the difference in students’ vocabulary levels is a key factor in disparities in academic achievement (Baumann & Kameenui, 1991; Becker, 1977; Stanovich, 1986) but that vocabulary instruction has been neither frequent nor systematic in most schools (Biemiller, 2001; Durkin, 1978; Lesaux, Kieffer, Faller, & Kelley, 2010; Scott & Nagy, 1997).” Common Core State Standards Appendix A 

Words are important. Of course, every teacher would agree. But which words should we teach? And in what instructional order?

Here’s what the authors have to say about which words

Tier Two words (what the Standards refer to as general academic words) are far more likely to appear in written texts than in speech. They appear in all sorts of texts: informational texts (words such as relative, vary, formulate, specificity, and accumulate), technical texts (calibrate, itemize, periphery), and literary texts (misfortune, dignified, faltered, unabashedly). Tier Two words often represent subtle or precise ways to say relatively simple things—saunter instead of walk, for example. Because Tier Two words are found across many types of texts, they are highly generalizable. Common Core State Standards Appendix A 

Tier Three words (what the Standards refer to as domain-specific words) are specific to a domain or field of study (lava, carburetor, legislature, circumference, aorta) and key to understanding a new concept within a text. Because of their specificity and close ties to content knowledge, Tier Three words are far more common in informational texts than in literature. Recognized as new and “hard” words for most readers (particularly student readers), they are often explicitly defined by the author of a text, repeatedly used, and otherwise heavily scaffolded (e.g., made a part of a glossary). Common Core State Standards Appendix A 

So, every teacher should be focusing on Tier Two words because they are generalizable and they are most frequently used in complex text. For example, the following Standards would be applicable for teaching Tier Two words in ELA classes:

The Language Strand: Vocabulary Acquisition and Use (Standards 4, 5, and 6) 

The Standards focus on these kinds of words: multiple meaning words (L.4.a.), words with Greek and Latin roots and affixes (L.4.a.), figures of speech (L.5.a.), words with special relationships (L.5.b.), words with connotative meanings (L.5.c.), and academic language words (L.6.0). CCSS Language Strand

Tier Three words should be introduced in the context of content study. For example, the following Standard would be applicable for teaching Tier Three words in ELA classes:

The Reading Strand: Literature (Standard 4) Craft and Structure

Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings; analyze the impact of rhymes and other repetitions of sounds (e.g., alliteration) on a specific verse or stanza of a poem or section of a story or drama. CCSS Reading: Literature Strand
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Is there any research about the instructional order of Tier Two words

Yes. Dr. Averil Coxhead, senior lecturer at the Victoria University of Wellington School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies developed and evaluated The Academic Word List (AWL) for her MA thesis. The list has 570 word families which were selected according to certain criteria:

  • The word families must occur in over half of the 28 academic subject areas. “Just over 94% of the words in the AWL occur in 20 or more subject areas. This principle ensures that the words in the AWL are useful for all learners, no matter what their area of study or what combination of subjects they take at tertiary level.”
  • “The AWL families had to occur over 100 times in the 3,500,000 word Academic Corpus in order to be considered for inclusion in the list. This principle ensures that the words will be met a reasonable number of times in academic texts.” The academic corpus refers to a computer-generated list of most-frequently occurring academic words.
  • “The AWL families had to occur a minimum of 10 times in each faculty of the Academic Corpus to be considered for inclusion in the list. This principle ensures that the vocabulary is useful for all learners.”

Words Excluded From the Academic Word List

  • “Words occurring in the first 2,000 words of English.”
  • “Narrow range words. Words which occurred in fewer than 4 faculty sections of the Academic Corpus or which occurred in fewer than 15 of the 28 subject areas of the Academic Corpus were excluded because they had narrow range. Technical or specialist words often have narrow range and were excluded on this basis.”
  • “Proper nouns. The names of places, people, countries, for example, New Zealand, Jim Bolger and Wellington were excluded from the list.”
  • “Latin forms. Some of the most common Latin forms in the Academic Corpus were et al, etc, ie, and ibid.” http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/information

Furthermore, computer generated word frequencies have determined the frequency of Greek and Latin word parts. 

  • Over 60% of the words students will encounter in school textbooks have recognizable word parts; and many of these Latin and Greek roots (Nagy, Anderson,Schommer, Scott, & Stallman, 1989).
  • Latin and Greek prefixes, roots, and suffixes have predictable spelling patterns.(Rasinski & Padak, 2001; Bear, Invernizzi, Templeton & Johnston, 2000).
  • Content area vocabulary is largely Greek and Latin-based and research supports this instruction, especially for struggling readers (Harmon, Hedrick & Wood, 2005).
  • Many words from Greek and Latin word parts are included in “Tier Two” and “Tier Three” words that Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002) have found to be essential to vocabulary word study.
  • Knowing Greek and Latin word parts helps students recognize and gain clues to understanding of other words that use known affixes and roots(Nagy & Scott, 2000).
  • “One Latin or Greek root or affix (word pattern) aids understanding (as well as decoding and encoding) of 20 or more English words.” 
  • “Since Spanish is also a Latin-based language, Latin (and Greek) can be used as a bridge to help Spanish speaking students use knowledge of their native language to learn English.” 

A Model Grades 4-8 Vocabulary Scope and Sequence

Preview the Grades 4-8 Vocabulary Scope and Sequence tied to the author’s comprehensive grades 4-8 Language Strand programs. The instructional scope and sequence includes grammar, usage, mechanics, spelling, and vocabulary. The grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 vocabulary instructional scope and sequence appears at the end of the document and include multiple meaning words (L.4.a.), words with Greek and Latin roots and affixes (L.4.a.), figures of speech (L.5.a.), words with special relationships (L.5.b.), words with connotative meanings (L.5.c.), and academic language words (L.6.0). Teachers and district personnel are authorized to print and share this planning tool, with proper credit and/or citation. Why reinvent the wheel? Also check out my articles on Grammar Scope and Sequence, Mechanics Scope and Sequence, and Spelling Scope and Sequence.

Pennington Publishing's Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 Programs

Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand) Grades 4-8 Programs

The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based grades 4-8 Grammar, Mechanics, Spelling, and Vocabulary (Teaching the Language Strand)  programs to teach the Common Core Language Strand Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics worksheets and includes sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.

The program also has the resources to meet the needs of diverse learners. Diagnostic grammar, usage, mechanics, and spelling assessments provide the data to enable teachers to individualize instruction with targeted worksheets. Each remedial worksheet (over 200 per program) includes independent practice and a brief formative assessment. Students CATCH Up on previous unmastered Standards while they KEEP UP with current grade-level Standards. Check out the YouTube introductory video of the author’s program.


Here are FREE samples of vocabulary worksheets from this comprehensive program–ready to teach in your class today. Each resource includes directions, four grade-specific vocabulary worksheets, worksheet answers, vocabulary study cards, and a short unit test with answers.

Get the Grade 4 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 5 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 6 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 7 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

Get the Grade 8 Vocabulary Worksheets FREE Resource:

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