by Becky L. Spivey, M.Ed.
What is academic vocabulary?
Academic vocabulary includes words used in academic dialogue and
texts. It does not include words students use in general conversation,
but academic vocabulary relates to other familiar words that students
do use. For example, rather than using the simple verb watch, an
academic term would be observe. Academic vocabulary words help
students understand oral directions and classroom instructions as well
as comprehend text across different subject areas.
The words in our vocabulary fall into three tiers.
Tier 1 words include basic or high-frequency vocabulary words and usually don’t include
multiple meaning words.
Tier 2 words are less familiar to students but help in comprehending written texts
and conversations shared between the teacher and student. Tier 2 words are “general
academic words” and sometimes may be referred to as “rich vocabulary.” These words
are precise but more subtle forms of familiar words and include multiple meaning words.
For example, instead of saying “he walked,” one may say “he sauntered.” Tier 2 words
cross over into a variety of domains or subject areas.
Tier 3 words are “domain specific” and are critical to understanding subject content.
Generally, they have low frequency use and are limited to specific subjects – i.e., the
geographical terms isthmus, peninsula, and cape. We find Tier 3 words in informational
texts or textbooks. Tier 3 words are best learned through direct instruction within
specific subject or content lessons.
Still, the term “academic vocabulary” may not hold the same meaning for all teachers.
Many educators think this term represents a “vocabulary of directions,” or the words
students must know in order to perform well on standardized tests. “Testing” vocabulary
represents yet another category of words. Testing vocabulary includes active verbs and
concrete nouns. The active verbs direct students to think more deeply about their subject
matter (identify, explain, organize, retell, illustrate, etc.). The nouns tell students what
they are to use to present their comprehension of the subject material for an assessment
or assignment (i.e., outline, graph, chart, essay, theme, analogy, Venn diagram, etc.).
Noted educator and author, Jim Burke suggests, “You cannot expect to succeed on
assignments if you do not understand the directions.” Burke
recently released his “A-List” of 15 academic vocabulary words
based on what his current teaching colleagues decided are central
to all subjects and are in keeping with state standards and the
Common Core. For each of the “A-List” verbs, Burke provides three
more related words to help students understand and generalize the term across the
curriculum. For example, the word analyze is followed by break down, deconstruct, and
examine. Click the following link to view this list. Teachers may photocopy the list for
classroom use only.
All students, especially English Language Learners and other at-risk students, require
explicit and direct instruction in order to learn many Tier 2 and most Tier 3 vocabulary
words. Learning academic and testing vocabulary in a variety of ways will help meet
students’ specific learning style or needs.
As early as kindergarten, direct and focused vocabulary instruction for Tier 2 and Tier
3 vocabulary, including test vocabulary, should begin. Teachers must be responsible for
selecting the vocabulary for their students to learn and not be dependent on the bold,
italicized, or highlighted words in a textbook, many of which students may already know
or do not need. Vocabulary instruction should focus on words students will encounter
throughout their academic careers, rather than those they will rarely use after passing a
Each state’s curriculum standards and the Common Core State Standards (if your state
has adopted them) provides objectives to assist teachers in selecting appropriate Tier 2
and Tier 3 vocabulary lists across all subject areas. Using these selected words, teachers
can and should create their own custom vocabulary lists as well as context-rich sentences
and definitions in order to teach and help students understand and use them correctly in
context, thus mastering their learning objectives.