Academic Vocabulary -- Part II

  • 04 August, 2014
My last entry focused on disagreements over the nature of academic literacy. 
One notion of academic language was that it was any text language (formal book language versus informal oral language). A second conception also separates oral language and text language, but it also sets aside the specialized terminology that belongs to particular disciplines. In that view, words like rhombus and mytosis would be too specialized to deserve much instructional attention. A third conception is that academic vocabulary are the words used to teach and assess, and a fourth is the language that labels the essential content of the various disciplines.
Obviously these varied conceptions of academic vocabulary are not total distinct—there are overlaps and some are subsets of the others. And, while the differences among them have to do with which words should be emphasized rather than about how to teach them, that doesn’t mean there aren’t implications for teaching.
It also is evident that some of these have greater research support than others. Research shows that students who know the meaning of more words comprehend better, so having students read a lot and learn the meanings of a lot of words makes sense. Studies also show that teaching vocabulary explicitly can have a positive outcome on reading comprehension, particularly if the words taught show up in the texts that students read.
However, there is no evidence that teaching the words used for teaching and assessing make any difference in learning. It seems likely that students will pick many/most of these up just by being students, so it doesn’t make sense to spend that kind of time on them. These often are not the words that make someone college and career ready.
The idea of teaching the cultural literacy terms—that is the names, places, dates, and so on, that represent the knowledge of educated people—might make sense. Though it might make sense to identify frequently used vocabulary terms and to then teach these, that approach makes little sense for this cultural literacy terminology. Develop knowledge of those literary, historical, and scientific concepts through a strong content focus, not through studying the items themselves (though I had a friend who used to study the Trivial Pursuit cards like this--it didn't make her a better reader, but she was tough to beat in Trivial Pursuit).
To teach the first of these conceptions--book language--it makes sense to encourage students to read a lot at and outside of school, and to teach the fourth one (content knowledge and cultural literacy) the emphasis should be more on the content—with the words becoming familiar from the wider study. That doesn't mean that students wouldn't study the vocabulary of such content, only that they would do so while learning that content. And, the third conception, the language of lessons and tests, should not be the focus of instruction at all.
The only one of these that makes sense as a focus of formal and even decontextualized language instruction are those non-content words that are not common to oral language. Words like: hierarchy, emotion, criteria, process, generation, symbol, visible, conduct, etc.
What isn’t clear is who should be teaching these. While there is no doubt that science teachers should teach the content words of the concepts that they teach (e.g., photosynthesis, atom, molecule), should that they also be responsible for teaching the meanings of non-science words like contrast, distinct, arranged, etc. that often are used to explain science content?
The answer to this is not clear. This year, one of my doctoral students, Elizabeth Birmingham, carried out a study on this. She didn’t find that studying those kinds of words gave students a measurable benefit—though the problem is a complex one and we all learned a lot from her study design. She had students in one group studying the content words and in another they focused on the enabling words. The content word group did best, but mainly because they learned the content words better (and that was one of the outcomes of concern). We have a long way to go to understand how this works best, however. 
In the meantime, engaging students in lots of reading and providing them with many opportunities for content learning—supplemented by a narrower focus on explicit vocabulary teaching. That teaching definitely should not be as narrow as those conceptions of academic literacy that focus on “instructional” language, but exactly how it is best arranged is not yet clear. 


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Academic Vocabulary -- Part II


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