Academic Vocabulary

What is Academic Vocabulary?

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) define academic vocabulary words as the words that are traditionally used in academic dialogue and text. Specifically, it refers to words that are not necessarily common or that children would encounter in conversation. These words often relate to other more familiar words that students use. For example, rather than watch, observe. They are also words that help students understand oral directions and classroom instructional dialog. They also help students to comprehend text across different content areas- including math, science, and social studies/history.


Vocabulary words are often categorized into three tiers.

Tier 1 words: These words are basic vocabulary or the more common words most children will know. They include high-frequency words and usually are not multiple meaning words.

Tier 2 words: Less familiar, yet useful vocabulary found in written text and shared between the teacher and student in conversation. The Common Core State Standards refers to these as “general academic words.” Sometimes they are referred to as “rich vocabulary.” These words are more precise or subtle forms of familiar words and include multiple meaning words. Instead of walk for example, saunter could be used. These words are found across a variety of domains.

Tier 3 words: CCSS refers to these words as “domain specific;” they are critical to understanding the concepts of the content taught in schools. Generally, they have low frequency use and are limited to specific knowledge domains. Examples would include words such as isotope, peninsula, refinery. They are best learned when teaching specific content lessons, and tend to be more common in informational text.

Considerations for Selecting Vocabulary Words


Topic Questions To Ask


Representative

  • Is the word representative of a family of words that students should know?
  • Is the concept represented by the word critical to understanding the text?
  • Is the word a label for an idea that students need to know?
  • Does the word represent an idea that is essential for understanding another concept?



Repeatability

  • Will the word be used again in this text?
    • If so, does the word occur often enough to be redundant?
  • Will the word be used again during the school year?



Transportable

  • Will the word be used in group discussions?
  • Will the word be used in writing tasks?
  • Will the word be used in other content or subject areas?



Contextual Analysis

  • Can students use context clues to determine the correct or intended meaning of the word without instruction?



Structural Analysis

  • Can students use structural analysis to determine the correct or intended meaning of the word without instruction?



Cognitive Load

  • Have I identified too many words for students to successfully integrate?



Figure 1. Considerations for Selecting Vocabulary Words (Fisher & Fry, 2008)

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