Academic journal article Research & Teaching in Developmental Education

Increasing Students' College-Level Vocabulary by Collaborating with Faculty

Academic journal article Research & Teaching in Developmental Education

Increasing Students' College-Level Vocabulary by Collaborating with Faculty

Article excerpt


Limited proficiency in vocabulary can adversely impact college students. Developmental educators may want to enlist faculty in their efforts to help students increase their college-level vocabulary. This article contains a paper written in 2012 for faculty at Niagara University. It can serve as a template for developmental educators to share their concerns about students' limited vocabulary and suggest ways that faculty can help students expand their vocabulary.


As a veteran of learning assistance who has focused on reading support for 27 years, I have become increasingly concerned with the limited vocabulary proficiency of entering college students. Unlike several generations ago, many students today have not benefitted from the kinds of experiences that can strengthen vocabulary: intentional vocabulary instruction throughout high school, Latin courses, frequent independent reading required by teachers, and regular reading for pleasure. Consequently, some entering college students lack the vocabulary necessary to fully comprehend their reading assignments. Students with a limited vocabulary may also miss meaning during lectures and may not fully understand exams questions and directions.

Obviously, knowing more words significantly increases comprehension. A strong vocabulary can also enable students to convey their thoughts more precisely in speech and in writing. It can even increase their chances for a job - an important goal for most students today.

Through the years, I have implemented a number of approaches to help students expand their vocabulary, from individual assistance, to including vocabulary instruction in developmental reading and reading/ writing courses, to creating stand-alone vocabulary courses. At my current institution, the vocabulary course I developed in 1999 was a one-credit equivalent but it carried no academic credit toward graduation. Although it was a sound course that an average 11.3% of our first-year students were recommended to take, my institution is eliminating noncredit classes.

Losing our vocabulary course challenged me to think of new ways to help students expand their vocabulary. As developmental educators, we know the importance of collaborating with faculty so in 2012 I wrote a paper that I shared with our entire faculty. My paper, which appears below, was intended to start a conversation about the problem. I suggested simple ways that faculty can help their students increase vocabulary, and 1 offered to assist faculty in this endeavor.

My paper was well-received. Soon after I emailed it, a professor of English stopped me on campus exclaiming, "You've changed my teaching!" In his freshman composition course, he often uses the word "adversity" because it is integral to his course theme but he never defined this word or asked students if they knew its meaning. My paper helped him realize that the word "adversity" was probably unfamiliar to some of his students. Another English professor assigned my paper in her Introductory Literature course with a theme of "Why Read?" and asked students to write a brief response about increasing vocabulary. An accounting professor asked me to preview his Introduction to Accounting textbook. Together we developed a list of generic nouns, verbs, and adjectives that his students need to know in order to fully understand the reading.

I offer my paper to you and invite you to consider how you might reach out to faculty on your campus to begin a conversation that can help your students increase their college-level vocabulary. I encourage you to add course-specific examples from your campus as well as additional strategies that your faculty could employ. I hope my paper provides you with an opportunity to broach this important subject with the faculty on your campus.


Sharon Green

Coordinator, Instructional Services - Office of Academic Support, Niagara University

The Problem

The vocabulary of a number of our students is below college level. …

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