Kelsie Syverson, EngEd 275 DL, Chapter 7: Expanding Academic Vocabulary

Academic Vocabulary


Academic vocabulary are words that are used frequently during math, social studies, science, and language arts. There are three tiers of words:

  1. Basic Words: Common words that are used during conversation at home or on the playground. These are words that native English-speakers will know without being taught.
  2. Academic Vocabulary: These words typically appear more in written language than oral language or found in literature. Other words are more complicated words for something a student might already know, such as the terms scent or odor instead of smell.
  3. Specialized Terms: These terms are content specific. These words typically don’t get a lot of time spent on teaching them except during the specific unit that the word is involved in.

Levels of Word Knowledge:

  • Unknown Words: not recognized at all
  • Initial Recognition: has seen or heard the word before but doesn’t know what it means
  • Partial Word Knowledge: knows one meaning of the word and can use it in a sentence
  • Full Word Knowledge: knows more than one meaning for a word and can use it multiple ways

Word Consciousness

Word consciousness is the students interest in learning and using new words. Students who have word consciousness show these characteristics:

  • Use words skillfully
  • Gain a deep appreciation of words
  • Are aware of differences between social and academic language
  • Understand the power of word choice
  • Are motivated to learn the meaning of unfamiliar words

Word Study Concepts


Multiple Meanings of Words: Many words have more than one meaning. Students will gradually gain the meanings of these new words, usually through reading.

Synonyms: These are words with the same meaning such as cold, chilly, and freezing. Even though these words have similar meanings there is also a small difference that should be pointed out.

Antonyms: These are words that have opposite meanings such as hot and cold.

Homonyms: These are words that confuse such as right and write. They are pronounced the same but have different meanings.

Root Words and Affixes: Root words are the base of a word or could be a whole word such as cent which means hundred but can also be combined with affixes to mean different things such as century. Affixes consist of prefixes (added to the beginning of the word) and suffixes (added to the end of the word).

Etymologies: These are word histories, this tells where the word originally came from such as Greek or Latin.

Teaching Students to Unlock Word Meanings


Explicit Instruction: Teachers explicitly teach students academic language. Teachers provide multiple encounters with the words; present a variety of information including definitions, contexts, examples, and related words; and involve students in word-study activities to provide them multiple opportunities to interact with words.

Word-Study Activities: Students examine new words and think more deeply about them as they participate. Some activities can be visual representations or they can categorize words. These activities could include:

  • Word Posters: Students design a poster about a word, this could include pictures. They should write sentences using the word.
  • Word Maps: Students write the word and draw a box around it. Then they draw lines off of the box to provide more information.
  • Dramatizing Words: Students choose words to dramatize for the class and the class needs to guess the word.
  • Word Sorts: Students sort words into categories. Categories are usually chosen by the student but can be picked by the teacher too.
  • Semantic Feature Analysis: Students learn the meanings of conceptually related words by examining their characteristics. The teacher selects a group of related words such as planets in the solar system and then makes a grid to classify them according to other distinguishing characteristics. Students then study the word and put a mark in the grid if it represents that characteristic or not, or if they are unsure.

Word Learning Strategies: When students come across an unfamiliar word when reading there are a few things they can do:

  • Use context clues
  • Analyze word parts
  • Check a dictionary

How to Figure Out Unfamiliar Words:

  1. Students reread the sentence containing the word
  2. Students use context clues to figure out the meaning of the word
  3. Students examine the word parts, root words and affixes
  4. Students say it out loud to see if they recognize it once they hear it
  5. Students check for the word in the dictionary or ask a teacher

How to Assess Vocabulary Knowledge:

Step 1: Planning – Teachers look at the students current vocabulary knowledge, choose words the students need to know, and plan minilessons or word-study activities.

Step 2: Monitoring – Teachers use informal assessment tools to monitor students progress such as observations and conferences.

Step 3: Evaluating – Teachers use rubrics, quick writes, word sorts, and visual representations made by students to evaluate their vocabulary knowledge.

Step 4: Reflecting – Teachers take time at the end of a unit to evaluate their teaching. Students can also reflect on their growing word knowledge.

All above information comes from:
Tompkins, G. E. (2017). Literacy for the 21st century: A balanced approach (7th ed.). Boston: Pearson

Classroom Application


I would make sure to teach the students many new words according to their grade level and their abilities. I would use strategies listed above especially the word-study activities. While students are reading they would have a piece of paper next to them to write down words they don’t know and write the definitions as they figure them out. If the students are all reading the same books, lists can be shared and a discussion of meanings can be had by students and monitored by the teacher.

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