Building Academic Vocabulary
The ability to understand and use words to acquire and convey meaning.
Four Different Vocabularies
Each person really possesses four different vocabularies:
Oral vocabulary – refers to the words we use in speaking
Reading vocabulary – refers to words we recognize or use in print
Listening vocabulary – refers to the words we need to know to
understand what we hear
Writing vocabulary – refers to the words we need for writing
Two Types of Vocabulary Words
General vocabulary - words that are not specifically
associated with a particular area
Technical vocabulary – words that are uniquely or usually related
to individual academic disciplines
Why is vocabulary knowledge important?
The importance of vocabulary knowledge to academic success in general,
and reading comprehension, in particular, is widely documented.
Vocabulary knowledge is one of the most potent predictors of success in
- Good readers tend to know many words and understand many concepts.
People who know many words tend to be good readers.
Unfortunately, the reverse is true!!
Vocabulary research indicates two key ideas about vocabulary acquisition:
- Most vocabulary is learned indirectly.
- by engaging in conversation
- by reading extensively
- Some vocabulary is learned through explicit instruction and
interaction with new words
Vocabulary instructionhow we learned . . .
In the past vocabulary words were taught on the surface level, rather
than through “deep processing.”
- The instructor gave you a list of words.
- You were asked to define them.
- You wrote them in a sentence.
- You were given a test.
Deep processing . . .
- Refers to understanding the relationships of words in context, within
themselves, as well as within the context of the subject matter presented.
- Deep processing learning occurs in meaningful ways and in meaningful
Ways in Which We Learn New Words
- Vocabulary acquisition should be integrative. It should help you connect
new words with your existing store of words and knowledge.
- Vocabulary instruction needs to include repetition. To learn words
you need to see, hear and use them many times and in many contexts.
- Words and concepts are best learned when they are in meaningful contexts.
- New words are best learned when we make connections between words
and concepts that we already know and the new words we encounter. This
of integration is based on “schema theory,” the belief that
we all have a set of ideas about how the world works. In order to
learn new ideas, we have to create a link between the known and the
The addition of new information causes us to reevaluate and reorganize
old information for use on another day.
- You need to find ways to review new words. That may be as simple as
placing a list of words on your mirror for daily review and to determine
ones you are able to actually define and which ones may be still
in the “heard
of it” category. If these are “technical” vocabulary,
you can also enhance your word knowledge by continuing to read materials
on the topic and hear the way that other writers use the term.
- Though you may use word lists or flashcards to help you with learning
new words, the easiest way to learn is to keep it meaningful – through
connections to other words and text. If you are a person who likes
to use lists or cards, include a personal connection or picture with
word to promote that meaningful connection.
- Knowing the meanings of word parts, such as root words and affixes can
help you to understand words that may be unfamiliar. There are some standard
word parts in the English language that are applicable to general vocabulary.
In your field of study, there may be word parts that recur and are worth
your investment of time to study. These can add to your background knowledge
about your field. This would be particularly true in the health professions.
- Word Part Example:
Because of his proximity to Mount St. Helens, he contracted pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.
Pneumono – related to the lungs Ultra – super
Micro – small scopic – related to a viewing instrument
Silico – the mineral, silicon
Volcano – eruption in the earth
Coni – dust
Osis – referring to a disease
A disease of the lungs caused by habitual inhalation of very fine
silicon dust particles from a volcanic eruption.
- Sometimes the context in which we find unfamiliar words will supply the meaning that we need. There are three main types of context
The word is defined, usually in the same sentence.
She refused to quibble, to argue about trivial matters, when
they had much more important decisions to make than whose turn
it was to pick the restaurant.
- Description or Examples
The word is described by the context or an example is provided
in such a way that the reader can take a good guess at its meaning.
Their vociferous chatter made me wish I had ear
After kicking his brother and biting his sister, the recalcitrant child was punished by his parents.
- Comparison or Contrast
The word is compared with some other word or concept, sometimes a synonym, but sometimes an opposite.
Mike was loquacious while Susan said very little.
When the plane responded to air turbulence with rapid rolls
and dips, the passengers felt as though they were on a roller
- Textbook aids are included in texts
to help individuals with new vocabulary. These include:
- highlighted, boldface type and italicized words within chapter
- a glossary, which is an alphabetized list of the technical
words in a textbook found at the end of the book
- an index, which is an alphabetized list of important terms
and topics in the book found at the end of the book. Generally
the term in the index will
in context on one of the pages listed in the index.
Textbook Decoding Strategy
- When you encounter an unfamiliar word in reading, finish the sentence. Try
to determine the word through your knowledge of word part or context. If
you decide that the word is necessary for comprehension, try to determine
the meaning of the word through the context by looking in the surrounding
sentences for clues to the meaning. If that does not help to determine a
usable meaning, follow these steps:
- Decide whether the word is technical or general. If you can’t
decide, assume it is technical.
- If the word is technical:
- Try the glossary first
- Then try the index
- Then try the dictionary
- If the word is general:
- Try the dictionary first
- Then try the glossary
- Then try the index
- After finding a meaning for the word, check the meaning in the
context of the sentence to make sure that the definition fits.
Context is very important as a verification procedure.
Academic Vocabulary Strategies
Here are three vocabulary strategies that an individual might use to
help with the acquisition and understanding of academic vocabulary. An
explanation of each strategy can be found at these websites: