Academic Vocabulary Paul Manning


Kinsella, K. (2005). Teaching Academic Vocabulary. Santa Rosa, CA: Sonoma County Office of Education.

“ELLs need to engage in fluent, wide reading (p. 1),” and they “need structured opportunities to use the new academic vocabulary every day (p. 2).”

Kinsella recommends reading a variety of short nonfiction pieces focused on a topic to expose students to domain-specific and high-frequency words.

Dr. Kinsella

She also urges teachers to use an interactive discussion approach – facilitated by the teacher but conducted primarily by the students - that combines reading, writing, speaking, and listening as a means to introduce new vocabulary words. Here is an example:

The teacher verbally introduces each word, discusses the part of speech (for example, a noun can be a person, place, thing, or idea), uses the word in a sentence, and then pronounces the word phonetically. In pairs, students repeat the phonetic pronunciation to each other and then the word is said aloud as a whole class. The teacher then provides synonyms and a verbal definition to students, and he or she prompts students to think of, say, and record real-life situations where they have seen this word in action. Teachers can supplement this discussion by providing a visual for each word and having students create their own example synonyms and sentences to assess understanding.


Francis, D., Rivera, M., Lesaux, N.,Kieffer, M., & Rivera, H. (2006). Practical guidelines for the education of English language learners: Research-based recommendations for instruction and academic interventions. Portsmouth, NH: RMC Research Corporation, Center on Instruction.

“Mastery of academic language is arguably the single most important determinant of academic success for individual students (p. 7).”

Reading varied texts – length, complexity, date, genre, etc. – focused on a single topic, participating in class discussion, and writing original compositions with appropriate scaffolding and verbal practice aid in the development of academic language.

David Francis, Mabel Rivera, Nonie Lesaux, and Michael Kieffer (not pictured: Hector Rivera)

In addition, the researchers recommend teaching students to anticipate and make predictions prior to learning new content, to monitor and question their understanding during instruction, and to summarize their learning after instruction.


Quinn, H., Lee, O., Valdes, G. (2012). Language Demands and Opportunities in Relation to Next Generation Science Standards for English Language Learners: What Teachers Need to Know. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Graduate School of Education.

Recognizing and applying word schemas allows students to “code-switch from everyday uses of language to the language of science (p. 7).”

Science teachers can serve as key resources for ELLs as students ask questions, design and execute experiments, interpret data, and use computational thinking because these activities require students to not only make sense of academic language but also to use it.

Helen Quinn, Okhee Lee, and Guadalupe Valdes

Effective science teachers will incorporate reading and writing into their classrooms not only to satisfy the Next Gen (NGSS) curriculum but also to meet the needs of ELLs. Strategies include: partner discussion of a text, maintaining a scientific journal, using graphic organizers to document learning, and summarizing trade literature such as journals.


Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J., Gersten, R., Haymond, K., Kieffer, M. J., Linan-Thompson, S., & Newman-Gonchar, R. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance (NCEE), Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education.

Ideal vocabulary words are those key to understanding a text, those most frequently used, those with multiple meanings, and words with affixes (p. 16).

This report counsels educators to 1) teach vocabulary words intensively across several days and 2) integrate language instruction into content area instruction, in addition to 3) providing regular, structured opportunities to develop writing skills and 4) small-group intervention to struggling students.

The US Department of Education's Institute of Educational Sciences (IES)
Vocabulary instruction is most effective when teachers provide students with short nonfiction texts catered to student interests and containing grade-appropriate academic vocabulary words used correctly in context. A 3rd Grade exemplar text would be a four-paragraph article from the American Veterinary Medical Association’s website about zoo design. A high school exemplar is a cutting from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” or an article about addiction when discussing Huck’s alcoholic, gambling-addicted father in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Smaller lists of words are ideal so that instruction can remain focused, and multiple modalities should be employed when learning vocabulary to ensure depth of understanding. Some strategies identified include guiding students to their own definitions through contextual practice, using examples and non-examples (visual or textual) to reinforce understanding, and using graphic organizers such as a word map to support active engagement.


Snow, C. (2007). Learning all-purpose academic words. Washington, DC: Center for Research on the Educational Achievement and Teaching of English Language Learners (CREATE), Center for Applied Linguistics.

The broad goals of Word Generation are divided into three strata: students will learn high-frequency words through engagement with content area literature, teachers will regularly employ best practices, and school faculties will collaborate across grade levels and departments (p. 11).

Most classroom teachers teach vocabulary only occasionally, and that infrequent instruction tends to focus on domain-specific words in lieu of general academic language. Texts read in class are difficult and not engaging for students, and productive class discussion is not the norm. To counteract these ineffective practices, Snow proposes an instructional method called “Word Generation.”

Word Generation chooses vocabulary terms from the Academic Word List. It is recommended that 15 minutes of instructional time per day be dedicated purely to academic language practice for 20 weeks.

Dr. Snow
A typical week of Word Generation looks like this: on Monday, the words are introduced to the students; Tuesday through Thursday are spent completing content-area word activities such as analyzing graphs and conducting miniature debates in class; Friday is spent on writing using the new words correctly in context.


Wong Fillmore, L. (2004). The Role of Language in Academic Development. Sonoma, CA: 13th Annual Administrator Conference, Sonoma County Office of Education.

Academic language is “extended, reasoned discourse... that is much more precise in reference than ordinary spoken language" (p. 4).

4th Grade marks a pivotal year in students’ education - academic texts tend to move away from an over-simplified model used for younger grades and become more rigorous. Textbooks cannot and should not be avoided because they are a major source of academic vocabulary in context, which is a major component of language development.

Dr. Wong Fillmore
Teachers are a guiding influence during the 8-10 years it takes for ELLs to achieve fluent mastery of English, and Wong's strategies are helpful in achieving this end. First, teachers should teach academic language in their content areas. Second, teachers should incorporate regular practice with English grammar and syntax into their daily instruction, including words that show relationships and positions in space such as prepositions and adverbs. Third, teachers should focus some instructional time on the development and practice of abstract words that clarify relationships and connect ideas.

Teachers of all levels of education should regularly meet to discuss and create materials for students that incorporate multiple content areas. Administrators should support teachers and guide curriculum development and implementation towards fostering academic language schoolwide. Finally, professional development opportunities must be made available so that teachers and administrators can more easily understand the functions of academic language and the methods of teaching it.

Created By
Peebee Andjay


Created with images by stevepb - "books student study" • senstudentclub - "DSC04750" • US Department of Education - "LEEHS 22" • sasint - "library study of classmate" • DFAT photo library - "Students at Shree Dharmasthali Lower Secondary School, Pokhara, Nepal." • UBC Learning Commons - "Student studying" • flickingerbrad - "student ipad 008" • Komsomolec - "study student dictation" • MonikaP - "school book know" • francisco_osorio - "CL Society 423: Chilean student protest" • jerrykimbrell10 - "excited smiling female"

Made with Adobe Slate

Make your words and images move.

Get Slate

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a Copyright Violation, please follow Section 17 in the Terms of Use.