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How to Teach Academic Language Vocabulary

How to Teach Academic Language Vocabulary

How to Teach Academic Language

It’s been a while (2009) since I’ve read the carefully-crafted Appendix A of the Common Core State Standards. Not light bedtime reading, but reading is the subject of this appendix. As a reading specialist, this compilation of reading research is quite remarkable. What is fascinating to me is how this appendix informs what is in the standards themselves. To understand the English-language arts Anchor Standards and the reading strands, you’ve got to know where the standards are coming from.

Nine years later, some of the authors’ comments seem prescient. For example, in discussing the need to read complex expository text, Marilyn Adams writes,

In particular, if students cannot read complex expository text to gain information, they will likely turn to text-free or text-light sources, such as video, podcasts, and tweets. These sources, while
not without value, cannot capture the nuance, subtlety, depth, or breadth of ideas developed through complex text… There may one day be modes and methods of information delivery that are as efficient and powerful as text, but for now there is no contest. To grow, our students must read lots, and more specifically they
must read lots of ‘complex’ texts—texts that offer them new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought (Appendix A 32).

So, teachers know that we have to up the level of text complexity and that includes more expository text. What is the key characteristic of complex text? Academic language vocabulary.

The importance of students acquiring a rich and varied vocabulary cannot be overstated… (Baumann & Kameenui, 1991; Becker, 1977; Stanovich, 1986), but vocabulary instruction has been neither frequent nor systematic in most schools (Biemiller, 2001; Durkin, 1978; Lesaux, Kieffer, Faller, & Kelley, 2010; Scott & Nagy, 1997) (Appendix A 32).

The authors clearly advocate explicit, frequent, and systematic vocabulary instruction. But what about reading a lot? Isn’t independent reading the most efficient means of acquiring vocabulary?

Yes, but… the question is what kind of vocabulary?

Both Tier 1 conversational vocabulary and Tier 3 domain-specific words are surrounded by context clues far more often than Tier 2 words. “What is more, many Tier Two words are far less well defined by contextual clues in the texts in which they appear and are far less likely to be defined explicitly within a text than are Tier Three words” (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2008).

So, teachers need to explicitly teach Tier 2 academic language vocabulary. Is there any research about high frequency Tier 2 words?

Grades 4-8 Comprehensive Vocabulary

Comprehensive Vocabulary

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.” Tier 1 Words
  • “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.” Tier 3 Words
  • “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

Are there any research-based word lists, divided into grade levels?

Yes. The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has divided the Academic Corpus into grade-level lists by frequency. These academic language words are included in his vocabulary programs for grades 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.

How should we teach the Tier 2 words?

Explicitly, frequently, and systematically (to borrow the language of the Common Core authors once again). Specifically, the author’s vocabulary programs use the Frayer Model: the four square (definition, synonym, antonym, and example-characteristic-picture) method. The Common Core authors and reading specialists (like me) refer to this process as learning vocabulary with depth of instruction. Check out examples of these four square academic vocabulary instructional components in the author’s vocabulary worksheets:

Academic Vocabulary

Academic Language Instruction

In addition to academic language vocabulary, the author’s programs include rigorous, grade-level instruction in each of the Common Core Vocabulary Standards:

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


For full-year vocabulary programs which include multiple meaning words (L.4.a.), Greek and Latin morphology with Morphology Walls (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), check out the assessment-based grades 4, 5, 6, 7, and 8 Comprehensive Vocabulary.

Get the Grades 4,5,6,7,8 Vocabulary Sequence of Instruction FREE Resource:

Get the Greek and Latin Morphology Walls FREE Resource:

Get the Diagnostic Academic Language Assessment FREE Resource:

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