Academic Vocabulary: Effective Methods for Selecting and Teaching Words


Elizabeth Kolany, Niles West High School
Debbie Labno, Maine East High School

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In this paper, we present the information that we gave in our session during the 2015 ITBE Convention. Language educators are aware of the difference between social language, which can be acquired in a relatively short amount of time (one to two years) and academic language, which takes five to seven years, or even longer, to acquire. Academic proficiency takes longer for students to develop because the vocabulary and grammatical structures are more complex than that which is found in social language (Goldenberg, 2008). Literacy development is especially problematic for ELLs who come to the United States in high school.  These students have fewer years to master English than elementary students, and they are taking academic subjects that demand background and vocabulary knowledge that they might not have learned yet (Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007). Given that high school course work requires the knowledge of about 50,000 words (Graves as cited in Short & Fitzsimmons, 2007), we can see that it is crucial to do whatever we can to boost the vocabulary of our students, especially those who come to us as newcomers with very little English. The National Literacy Panel on Language-Minority Children and Youth calls for vocabulary and background knowledge to be targeted intensively when teaching ELLs (August & Shanahan, 2006).

Which words should we teach?

Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002) brought attention to the concept of “Three Tiers of Vocabulary” in their publication Bringing Words to Life. Tier 1 words are acquired through everyday speech, usually in the elementary grades. These words are likely known in the first language, and so are easily demonstrated or translated. Examples include words such as dollar, guitar, baby, clock, happy. It is still important not to skip over Tier 1 words, especially with ELL newcomers. Teachers can show students how to use bilingual dictionaries (such as Google Translate or Word Reference) or Google images to quickly pre-learn vocabulary before attempting a text. It is important that the teacher provide the list of key words in advance.

As students become more self-sufficient with Tier 1 words, teachers can spend more time helping ELLs with the more challenging and critical Tier 2 words. Tier 2 words are those that appear across all types of texts and are more conceptual than Tier 1 words. Examples include words like coincidence, absurd, industrious, original, analyze, risk, and deny. Tier 2 words will be found in a variety of texts and are not domain specific.

Because of their wide applicability, these are the most important words to teach our students. Tier 3 words are domain specific. Examples include words like isotope, legislature, circumference, and photosynthesis. These words are often bolded and defined within context or in a glossary. These words have low frequency, and ELLs can learn these along with their native language peers in their content-area courses.

Effective Vocabulary Instruction

The use of graphic organizers has been shown to improve students’ vocabulary learning (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2011). In the book Building Academic Vocabulary, Marzano and Pickering (2005), provide a template for an organizer on which students write the vocabulary word and a definition in their own words. Teachers can help students derive a student-friendly definition by discussing the term with the class, providing context sentences, and giving examples. Then, the students draw a picture, diagram, or symbol to represent the word. Finally, there is space on the organizer where students can write a native language translation, write the word in a sentence, write a synonym or antonym, or define a word part (prefix, suffix, or root).  Word parts are useful to ELLs as knowledge of them can be transferred when learning new words. Prefixes are the most powerful word parts to teach (Graves, Juel, & Graves, 2007). Derivational suffixes, which change the part of speech, are recommended for teaching at the secondary level and up (Graves, Juel, & Graves, 2007).

Other popular organizers are the Concept of Definition Map (which features the term, its characteristics, and examples), the Frayer Model (which features the word, a definition, characteristics, examples, and non-examples), and the Vocabulary Map (which contains the word, a definition, synonyms, a sentence using the word in context, and a picture). An Internet search will provide you examples of these organizers. By creating the organizers, students are actively constructing word meaning. As students share their organizers with others and discuss the new words, they are more likely to remember them (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2011).

Vocabulary research shows that students need multiple exposures to new words through review activities. Following are some activities that you can do with your students:
Connect Two: Students choose any two words on their vocabulary list and explain the connection between them (Manyak et al., 2014).

Word Sorts: Students write each word on a notecard. In a closed sort, the teacher gives students the categories, and the students sort their words within the given categories. In an open sort, the students decide on the categories and sort the words. (Fisher, Brozo, Frey, & Ivey, 2011).

Analogies: Create analogies for your vocabulary list. Students can work with a partner to solve the analogies and state (or write) the connection between the sets of words (Clear is to ambiguous as admit is to ______).

Answering Questions: Simply asking students to answer questions that involve the vocabulary words is a helpful strategy for word learning (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2011). For example:
  • What was the highlight of your day?
  • Have you ever denied something?
  • What are your objectives for this year?
Socrative: This is a free, online all-response system. You input questions in multiple choice or true-false format. Students login to your virtual classroom and answer the questions. Students can use a hand-held device or computer. You can set up an account at

Quizlet: Students can make their own account online. Students can input their vocabulary words and definitions and play games to review the words. They can also make practice quizzes. Teachers can set up their own accounts and invite students to view their word lists. Go to for access.
There are endless possibilities for reviewing vocabulary with students. The point is for students to use the words meaningfully; make connections between words; and to use them when writing, speaking, and reading. Students need to see, use, and review all new words (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2011).

We must not forget that students still need instruction in using a dictionary, which is an important tool for learning new words independently (Blachowicz & Fisher, 2011). Google Translate and Word Reference (both online) can help students with Tier 1 vocabulary. Students who are ready for an English-English dictionary will find that the Learner’s Dictionary online ( has very good, student-friendly definitions.
Independent Reading

In addition to their classroom learning of vocabulary, students should be engaged in independent reading. Kinsella, Stump, & Feldman (2015) note that students’ vocabulary is influenced by “the sheer volume of reading they do, especially wide reading that includes a rich variety of texts.” Marzano and Pickering (2005) also recommend the implementation of wide reading as well as direct instruction in academic vocabulary for ELLs. Marzano writes that Tier 1 words are used frequently enough in written language that they will be learned when students read fiction or nonfiction texts that interest them.

To help students be successful with their independent reading, you can have students complete interest inventories so that you can help select books they might enjoy. If you know your students’ Lexile ranges, then you can use that to help you choose books that will not be too difficult. Books at the lower end of a student’s Lexile range will be best for leisure reading. Just keep in mind that reading level is not an absolute guide to what students should read. If students have a strong interest or background knowledge on a topic, they might be able to handle a more difficult book on that topic (Jennings, Caldwell, & Lerner, 2010). If you do not know the Lexile range, you can have students use the “five-finger rule” to determine if a book is appropriate for independent reading. Students read one page of a book and count the words that they do not know. If there are more than five unfamiliar words on a page, then it is probably best to choose another book (Jennings, Caldwell, & Lerner, 2010).

Other ideas for independent reading are to have a librarian present book talks or show the class book trailers. You can set goals for reading volume, allow students to read in class, and have students discuss their books with each other. Debbie does a fun activity in her classes where students “speed date” with their books. Students talk to a partner for one minute about the book they read. When the minute is up, the next person talks. Then, new pairs are formed and students hear about more books. You can also have students respond to their books by writing responses to short prompts or writing letters to the teacher.


In conclusion, we are advocating a combined approach to vocabulary instruction in which direct instruction of academic vocabulary, especially the instruction of Tier 2 words, is combined with the incidental learning that is done through wide reading. While students can learn words through the traditional method of using a dictionary, it is better to ask students to process, practice, and play with the words.  Through active use of the words and repeated exposures, students will remember and be able to use their new vocabulary.
Elizabeth Kolany teaches ELL at Niles West High School. Debbie Labno teaches ELL and Reading at Maine East High School.

Works Cited

August, D., & Shanahan, T. (2006). Developing literacy in second-language learners: Report of the national literacy panel on language-minority children and youth. Manwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Beck, I.L., McKeown, M.G. & Kucan, L. (2002).  Bringing words to life:  Robust vocabulary instruction. New York: The Guilford Press.

Blachowicz, C.L., & Fisher, P.J. (2011). Best practices in vocabulary instruction revisited. In L. Morrow & L. Gambrell (Eds.), Best practices in literacy instruction (4th ed.), (224-249). New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

Fisher, D., Brozo, W.G., Frey, N., & Ivey, G. (2011). 50 instructional routines to develop content literacy (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson.

Goldenberg, C. (2008). Teaching English language learners:  What the research does--and does not--say. American Educator, 32(2), 8-23.

Graves, M.F., Juel, C., & Graves, B.B. (2007). Teaching reading in the 21st century (4th ed.)
Boston, MA: Pearson.

Jennings, J.H., Caldwell, J.S., & Lerner, J.W. (2010).  Reading problems: Assessment and
teaching strategies (6th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Kinsella, K., Stump, C.S., & Feldman, K. Strategies for vocabulary development. Pearson
Prentice Hall: ETeach. Web. 20 Jan. 2015.

Marzano, R.J., & Pickering, D.J. (2005). Building academic vocabulary: Teacher’s manual. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Manyak, P.C., Von Gunten, H., Autenrieth, D., Gillis, C.,  Mastre-O’Farrell, J., Irvine-McDermott, E., Baumann, J.F., & Blachowicz, C. (2014). Four practical principles for enhancing vocabulary instruction. The Reading Teacher, 68(1), 13-23.

Short, D.J., & Fitzsimmons, S. (2007). Double the work:  Challenges and solutions to acquiring language and academic literacy for adolescent English language learners--A report to Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Alliance for Excellent Education.

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ITBE Link - Spring 2015 - Volume 43 Number 1