Are You Lactating? And Other Notes on Academic Vocabulary

  • 26 July, 2014

Late last year, it was big news when a translator for the deaf and hard of hearing at Nelson Mandela’s funeral didn’t know sign language. The fella was very entertaining (his “signs” displayed exuberance, but not meaning).

  It reminded me of when the Dairy Council tried to translate their, “Got Milk” advertising campaign into Spanish—their translator lacked sufficient knowledge of the languages and the slogan came out, “Are you lactating?” Probably not the best way to sell milk!

Language is essential to learning and communication, so it should not be a surprise that “academic language” or “academic vocabulary” is a big deal. References to these concepts are growing in the professional literature, there are increasing numbers of commercial programs aimed at nurturing these skills, and state educational standards (including CCSS) have embraced the idea.
That all makes sense, and yet there is some irony in it, too. 
The irony? There seems to be little agreement as to the meaning of "academic vocabulary."
I’m aware of at least four overlapping definitions of the concept—and they differ in ways that matter in instruction. 
One definition of academic language is that it is text language. The language of text is the language of the Academy; as such there isn’t a specific word list to be mastered, but students have to become adept at reading the kinds of texts that educated people read. Advocates of this notion separate oral from written language, and they tend to do this quantitatively. 
Thus, knowing the 10,000 most frequent words in the language (words common in oral language) doesn’t count for much, but knowing the next 20,000-40,000 most frequent words is what distinguishes the educated from the uneducated. 
A second concept is the one espoused, perhaps most prominently, by Beck and McKeown. Their scheme partitions vocabulary seating into three sections. In the orchestra section (tier 1) are the oral language words—nothing especially academic there. In the balcony (tier 3), are the words that are specialized to the various disciplines (e.g., simile, gerund, minuend, rational number, isotope), They don’t focus on these seats either. 
The academic words are all sitting in the mezzanine—Tier 2. A good example of academic words would be Coxhead’s Academic Vocabulary list. These words are widely used in academia, and because they are words that are used in multiple disciplines, they should be taught. 
Although this idea of academic vocabulary is not as amorphous or wide-ranging as the first, it is not particularly narrow either. Beck and McKeown have emphasized words like “reluctant” and Coxhead includes words like, “apparent,” “appreciate,” and “culture.” These are words not owned by any particular discipline, but they are not necessarily general to all disciplines either. 
A third notion is even narrower. This is one of the more common schemes for describing academic vocabulary. A good example would be the Tennessee vocabulary list that Bob Marzano put together. Essentially, they went through textbooks and tests and drew out the vocabulary that is used to teach or evaluate. Thus, academic vocabulary includes terms like “alphabet,” “predictable book”, and “supporting ideas.” These aren’t the words of “well educated people,” they are a crib sheet for completing workbook pages and standardized tests.
A fourth conception of academic vocabulary is the one promoted by E.D. Hirsch (Cultural Literacy) and Chamot & O’Malley (CALLA model for teaching second language learners). These approaches aren’t as narrow—with regards to learning content. While the other schemes might advantage words like “principle” and “protean,” these approaches recognize the importance of content knowledge, with vocabulary as an index of that. Thus, terms like Adriatic Sea, relativity, or George Washington, are exemplars of what needs to be mastered. In other words, academic language needs to include the concepts, facts, and skills underlying science, mathematics, literature, and social studies. 
Which of these concepts make the greatest sense and what difference might it make instructionally? See you next time for some answers.
Milk anyone?


See what others have to say about this topic.

Heather Jun 15, 2017 11:56 AM


Great topic! I am looking forward to see future posts on this. Thank you!

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Are You Lactating? And Other Notes on Academic Vocabulary


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