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Kaye Wiley
Teaching the Full Range of Academic Vocabulary
Kaye Wiley

When is vocabulary "academic"?

When we hear the term academic vocabulary, most of us think of key words from subjects like social studies (nomad, artifact, revolution) or science (photosynthesis, protein, and molecule).  Certainly these specific content words are important within a given field, but research in linguistics tells us that teaching academic vocabulary to English language learners involves much more than specialized content words.  To comprehend the language of textbooks, ELLs — and indeed all learners — need a broad knowledge of general academic words that occur frequently in many contexts and across different disciplines.

Consider, for example, this sentence:

She buys meat and eggs. 

Compare it to this sentence:

Proteins from animal sources like meat and eggs are called complete proteins because they contain essential amino acids.

Teaching the terms proteins and amino acids is just the beginning.  Do the students understand the concept of sources of things?  Do they know larger things can contain smaller things?  Do they understand what it means if something is complete as opposed to inessential?

Where do we start?

Since vocabulary acquisition is cumulative, teachers should first make sure that student know the 2,000 most frequently used English words.  Research by Nation and Waring shows that the 2,000 most frequently used words make up more than 80 percent of all the words in any given text.  Different versions of this high-frequency list exist for different age groups, but the words should be carefully reviewed.  Given that some of these words are prepositions, conjunctions, and modals, we cannot assume that beginners will be familiar with them, especially when they are used in long and complicated sentence forms.

What words come next?

A second category of valuable words for new learners is general academic vocabulary.  These are frequently used textbook words, such as source, contain, and essential, which appear across various academic disciplines. A good reference for high-use academic words of this type is the Academic Word List (AWL), complied by Averil Coxhead.

Although drawn from college texts, many of the 570 word families in this list are helpful for student at all levels.  Teachers should point out, however, that some academic words, such as dimension and vision, can have different meaning in different contexts.  Words from the AWL have been integrated, whenever possible, into the vocabulary pages, readings and exercises in Keystone Building Bridges.

What about cognates?

A majority of the words on the AWL and many content-specific words are also cognates. More than 40 percent of English words have Latin roots, for example. These provide a natural bridge from words in English to counterparts in romance languages, such as Spanish and French.  Linguists estimate that English has over 15,000 cognates with Spanish. Since students don't always recognize cognates, teachers should take time to teach these language links.  Also, care must be taken to explicitly teach false friends, or words that look the same, but have distinct meaning in each language. Explicit teaching of cognates can increase word consciousness and reading comprehension for all learners.

If we target these three areas of academic vocabulary — high-frequency words, general academic word and cognates — we are helping English learners gain a critical foothold into the vast world of text.

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