The Fundamentals of Academic Vocabulary: Essential Concepts for Middle School Students and Their Teachers

By Greene, Jennifer Wells | Perspectives on Language and Literacy, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

The Fundamentals of Academic Vocabulary: Essential Concepts for Middle School Students and Their Teachers


Greene, Jennifer Wells, Perspectives on Language and Literacy


The purpose of this article is to describe the vocabulary needs of middle school students, with a focus on academic vocabulary. In the early grades, when students are learning to read, academic vocabulary demands are relatively limited; and generally speaking, if they can recognize grade-level words, they can understand what they have read. This changes when students reach fourth grade and beyond as they are no longer learning to read; instead, students are expected to read to learn. At the same time students are expected to read texts containing a different kind of vocabulary, academic vocabulary, which is a very different sort of vocabulary than the words we use for general communication. For so many students, those in the general education as well as those in special education and ESL contexts, when word recognition declines, so does solid comprehension of their texts. Teachers of middle school students see this difficulty every day in their classrooms and, given their instructional demands, are often at a loss about how to assist their students with academic vocabulary development. This article has three goals. The first is to define and describe academic vocabulary in relation to other kinds of vocabulary. The second is to develop an understanding of why knowledge of academic vocabulary is so important. Finally, help students focus on and develop their knowledge of academic words by providing a description of a balanced framework of learning activities.

What is academic vocabulary and how is it different from other kinds of vocabulary?

Vocabulary researchers have categorized words based upon their frequency of use for specific purposes. A well-known categorization was developed by Beck, McKeown, and Kucan (2002) who conceptualized vocabulary into three tiers. In this conceptualization, Tier 2 words are those that are academic in nature. Coxhead (2000) defined academic words as a type of specialized vocabulary that appears most frequently in written academic text (e.g., textbooks and journal articles) but not very frequently in other kinds of texts or settings (e.g., novels and conversations). Additionally, academic words are often supportive to a topic rather than central to a topic. As an example, consider the words release and contrast. These words are frequently used in academic textbooks written for university-level students as well as middle school students (Greene & Coxhead, 2015; Coxhead, 2000); however, when we think about how they might be used, it is easy to see how they would support a topic being discussed. Finally, the third part of Coxhead's definition of academic words is that they often come from Greek or Latin roots (e.g., transport and export).

A second type of specialized vocabulary is referred to as technical vocabulary (Nation, 201 5). Technical words are those that are specifically used in a particular subject area, and as opposed to academic words, technical words are directly related to the topic discussed. Beck and colleagues (2002) refer to technical words as Tier 3 words. Words such as molecule and bacteria are examples of technical words in middle school science textbooks (Greene & Coxhead, 2015). The following paragraphs describe how academic and technical words are demonstrated in written text.

The paragraph below is from a science textbook written for students in the seventh grade. In this paragraph academic words have been bolded and technical words have been bolded and underlined for easier identification.

As you grow, you pass through different stages in life. Similarly, your cells pass through different stages in their life cycle. The life cycle of a cell is known as the cell cycle.

The cell cycle begins when the cell is formed and ends when the cell divides and forms new cells. Before a cell divides it must make a copy of its DNA. DNA contains the information that tells a cell how to make proteins. The DNA of a cell is organized into structures called chromosomes. …

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