UNIT 1: What is academic vocabulary instruction? Why is it essential to successful learning outcomes across the curriculum?

ETAP 623 Spring 2014 | Introduction | UNIT 1 | UNIT 2 | UNIT 3

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Learning Objectives

  • Participants will be able to define and describe the concept of academic vocabulary after reviewing the lesson’s text.
  • Participants will be able identify critical academic terms and distinguish between types and tiers.

What is academic vocabulary instruction?

Researchers have examined millions of pages of English-language academic texts to determine the frequency of specific vocabulary words and Nation (2001) sorted the words into three tiers:

  • Tier 1 is comprised of high-frequency words that makeup everyday speech and cover about 80% of texts.
  • Tier 2 words are what are usually designated as academic vocabulary. These are the terms which occur across disciplines and comprise about 8%- 10% of academic texts.
  • Tier 3 terms are the highly-specialized, subject-specific, low-occurrence words that cover up to 5% of texts.

Jim Burke (2003) developed a listwhich focuses on the terms that are essential to understanding directions for assignments and exams. This is what many call instructional or informational academic vocabulary. Much like the terms represented in the Wordle image at the top of the page, these are the words that students need to understand to achieve higher levels of learning.

However, these words are not encountered in everyday oral and written language. Proponents of academic vocabulary instruction argue that these targeted words require explicit teaching and frequency of exposure to ensure long term retention. Up until now, most vocabulary development was acquired through incidental learning. Systematic, intentional instruction of vocabulary was scarce with less than 6% of classroom time devoted to its cultivation. Currently, academic vocabulary instruction is being touted as one the most effective methods to prepare students for 21st century challenges.

Why is it essential to successful learning outcomes across the curriculum?

Language development experts often refer to several different types of vocabularies. The diagram on the left illustrates the categories as follows: Meaning/Oral (listening and speaking), Receptive (listening and reading), Expressive (speaking and writing) and Literate/Written (reading and writing) (Pikulski & Templeton, 2004).

The majority of children are at the corresponding level of reading in the third grade. Upon entering the fourth grade, the reading comprehension gap widens and many students fall into a downward spiral where they never “catch up.” Unfortunately, the deficiency in background academic knowledge, prompted by the inability to string words together, leaves many students frustrated and dissatisfied. This has fostered a culture of reluctant readers, who in some cases become non-readers. Their lack of word knowledge obstructs fluency in reading because word meanings constitute as much as 70–80% of comprehension (Pressley, 2002).

A study of international reading achievement delivered compelling evidence that the weakness of U.S. student performance is not the result of the inability to interpret problems or narrative texts (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study, 2003). Instead, it points to a strong weakness in the ability to understand informational texts.

Finally, vocabulary instruction is pivotal for socioeconomically disadvantaged students whose exposure to a rich, literate lexicon is often very limited (Blintz, 2011).

Critical Academic Vocabulary

Now that the definition and need have been established, let’s examine what the actual words in question are. Content-specific vocabulary is essential to grasping specific concepts. However, this is the only type of vocabulary instruction that normally happens outside of the ELA classroom. This vocabulary should be developed but is often memorized and later forgotten because it is not applicable beyond the immediate circumstances. The vocabulary words featured in this course are highly generalizable to other areas of study, and therefore lend themselves to further practice and application. Burke (2014) narrowed down his original list of academic terms to what he designated as the A-List. This is a group of words that is particularly relevant to directions and will appear before students throughout their education.

It is not enough for students to just recognize these terms, they should be able to understand them in their academic contexts. For example, students should know what it means to support their position on a topic. Many will interpret the word support as being related to providing aid or comfort. This is where repeated direct instruction should provide contextual meaning.

In order to narrow the focus on those academic words, it is important to remember that these terms are NOT the words that are usually found on advanced vocabulary exams. The image below on the left shows the Top 100 Words that High School Graduates Should Know according to the editors of American Heritage Dictionaries. These words would certainly enrich a person’s language skills but they are low-frequency words that do not provide as much as impact as other words that recur far more often in texts.


Now it is time to demonstrate your understanding of the Three Tier categories. Below is a list of words that need to be sorted into one of three columns. Print out the attached PDF file and fill out the columns. Once you complete the exercise, you can check your answers by clicking on the answer file link. If you still feel unsure about the distinction between the three tiers, please review the image at the top of the page delineating the categories.


This is the Vocabulary Sorting Activity PDF file: Media: Vocabulary Sorting Activity.pdf

This is the Vocabulary Sorting Activity Answers PDF file: Media: Vocabulary Sorting Activity - Answer Key.pdf

Academic Vocabulary Instruction – Instructional integrated with Content-Specific

Educators are under increasing pressure to meet the curricular demands. Content-specific vocabulary instruction is critical for comprehension of concepts required by the CCSS and standardized tests. No one wants to detract from this effort. However, the only way that students will gain the proper exposure to instructional academic vocabulary is if it is integrated with subject-specific vocabulary lessons.

Please click on this link to view a video where NYS Commissioner of Education, Dr. John B. King, Jr. addresses the shift in standards and the need for the strategic inclusion of these recurrent academic Tier 2 words within all classrooms.


Let’s look at an example of a focus on Tier 2 academic words in an elementary school science lesson. The content-specific words in the lesson are: volcanoes, molten, crust, mantle, magma and lava. Please click here for a full size version of the lesson: Media: File:Vocab lesson 1 full.png.

In reviewing the lesson, educators found that there were several Tier Two general academic terms that should have been reviewed as well. Furthermore, if students do not understand what layers, spouted, forth, pour and surface mean, it could prevent them from learning about volcanoes.

After seeing this lesson’s vocabulary gaps, what do you think about your own lesson plans? Do they solely focus on content-specific vocabulary? Should your lessons include more Tier 2 general terms to enhance academic vocabulary acquisition?

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Examine one of your recent lesson plans and determine if the vocabulary instruction was solely content-specific. Afterwards, please post your assessment in the Unit 1 Discussion section.

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References and Resources

Bintz, W. P. (2011). Teaching Vocabulary Across the Curriculum. Middle School Journal, 42(4), 44-53. Retrieved from http://education.illinoisstate.edu/downloads/casei/AV-4-2a%20%20article%20%20teaching%20vocabulary%20across%20the%20curric.pdf

Burke, J. (2003). The English teacher’s companion: A complete guide to classroom, curriculum, and the profession (2nd ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Retrieved from http://www.englishcompanion.com/pdfDocs/academicvocab.pdf

Burke, J. (2014). The A-List: Essential Academic Words. Retrieved from A-List-Teacher-Edition.png

Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34, 213-238. Retrieved from http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/resources/academicwordlist/awl-headwords

Hyland, K., & Tse, P. (2007). Is there an “academic vocabulary”?. TESOL quarterly, 41(2), 235-253.

Nation, I.S.P. (2001). Learning Vocabulary in Another Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pikulski, J., & Templeton, S. (2004). Teaching and developing vocabulary: Key to long term reading success. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company. Retrieved from http://www.eduplace.com/marketing/nc/pdf/author_pages.pdf

Pressley, M. (2001). Comprehension instruction: What makes sense now, what might make sense soon. Reading Online, 5(2), 1-14. Retrieved from http://www.readingonline.org/aRTIcles/handbook/pressley/

Progress in International Reading/Literacy Study.(2003). Retrieved from http://www.pirls.org/