There has been much discussion around the topic of academic language instruction for English learners, and for all students. The discussion has revolved around the need to teach students the language of academia, the language of college and career readiness, and language needed to be successful in our ever-changing society.

Within this discussion, the topic of vocabulary often comes to the surface. Vocabulary is one key component of academic language, and one with which teachers are very familiar. Given the high importance of vocabulary in instruction, teachers should use every available opportunity to emphasize key vocabulary in the classroom.

Some of the ways to emphasize vocabulary, however, are subtle, and some are more overt.

General academic vocabulary vs. domain-specific vocabulary

It is important to start off with a clear understanding of different types of vocabulary. While any word could be considered vocabulary, in terms of academic language, vocabulary can be broken up into two basic groups: general academic vocabulary and domain-specific vocabulary.

General academic vocabulary includes words that are utilized in various academic contexts and materials, and that do not necessarily pertain to one specific content area. These words may also be words that are seemingly common, but may change meaning in academic contexts, such as table or process.

Domain-specific vocabulary, on the other hand, refers to words and phrases that pertain to specific subject areas, and are often only encountered within a specific topic or area of study. The following short lists illustrate some general academic and domain-specific vocabulary words:

  • General academic vocabulary: analysis, objectives, critique, evidence, excerpt, precise, trace
  • Domain-specific vocabulary: photosynthesis, tectonic, personification, monarchy

When people think of vocabulary instruction, they often focus on domain-specific vocabulary words. However, research points to a greater benefit in teaching and emphasizing general academic vocabulary for English learners, as these words are cross-cutting; they benefit students in multiple ways by helping to deepen their understanding of both texts and discourse.

Moreover, general academic vocabulary often appears in high-stakes standardized texts. Students may be asked to distinguish, compare or evaluate. They may be asked to examine an excerpt and interpret its meaning as it compares to another article or text. While students may understand the concepts being discussed in the article, if they do not understand the directions, they may not be able to successfully complete the task.

Exposure to mastery

Exposure to general academic vocabulary can and should begin as soon as students enter the classroom. Even in kindergarten, students can learn that the objective for the day is what they will be attempting to accomplish. While some teachers use the term targets, we can expose students to the term objectives from day one, sharing that this is what we are going to accomplish.

Consider the following statement for any grade level, and how the contextual definitions add scaffolding for more beginning level English learners and younger students: "Our objective today, or what we are going to accomplish or get done is the following ..."

While this may seem a bit forced, the idea is that we can expose students to higher levels of academic language while at the same time building in the scaffolding needed to help them understand what is being communicated.

Exposure to general academic vocabulary should not be underestimated; students do not have to understand every word that is uttered. Over time, though, they will begin to assimilate the meanings of words as they are repeated.

A young child, for example, quickly learns the terms "appropriate" and "consequences," often without formal instruction. The same can be said of students; they learn to analyze, argue, contribute, etc., through context and repeated exposure.

Teachers can begin by incorporating more general academic terminology into their speech and writing. Asking if students have something to contribute to a discussion, rather than asking if they have something to share or add, is one example. Often times, students will ask when they are unsure of a word's meaning, other times the word may go unnoticed.

They key, of course, is not to overwhelm students with vocabulary they do not understand, but to continue to utilize vocabulary that will benefit them in the long run. Contextual definitions or explanations can always be used to increase comprehension when necessary.

It is also important not to underwhelm students. By simplifying our language too much, we inadvertently send the message that students are not capable of understanding complexity and of learning complex, academic terminology.

Student use of academic vocabulary

As teachers begin to increase the quantity of general academic vocabulary in their speech and writing, students will often follow suit. Students will mimic the words the teacher uses. Additionally, teachers can set the expectation that students incorporate more formal, academic terminology in their speech and writing.

For example, consider the following short dialogue:

Teacher: What is the first step in solving equation?

Student: We need to take four away from seven.

Teacher: What is another word for "take away"?

Student: Subtract.

Teacher: Now restate the first step, please.

Student: First, we must subtract four from seven.

Teacher: Thank you.

General academic vocabulary can and should also be added to word walls or on anchor charts throughout the classroom. Students can then be directed to not only incorporate those words into their speech, but also into their writing. Teachers can set specific criteria for including general academic vocabulary into writing by stating the number of words to be utilized ("please include at least three of the words from our word wall") or which specific words should be included in the writing piece.

By increasing our own use of academic vocabulary, we both increase the rigor of our own classroom discourse, expose students to higher levels of academic language, and encourage students to utilize the words themselves. Through repeated exposure, students begin to learn these words even when they are not always explicitly taught.

While this does not negate or underscore the importance of explicitly teaching students general academic and domain-specific vocabulary, it allows us to incorporate words into our speech and writing that students may not be familiar with yet, but begin to build familiarity.