Students attending kindergarten through twelfth grade, as well as college and university students, routinely encounter vocabulary with which they are unfamiliar.
In early grades, the word learning tasks include recognizing words in print or learning everyday vocabulary.
As students move through the grade levels, they encounter increasingly complex terms. A number of schemes have been devised to help students and teachers understand how words are learned and used in academic settings.
Who Developed The Tier System?
One model for thinking about academic words divides vocabulary into three tiers (Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002). Tier one words, in this model, are common or basic words requiring little or no instruction. Tier two words are very useful terms found in many content areas (such as, sciences, social studies, literature, mathematics), and they are frequently used by proficient users of the language. Tier three words are found far less frequently or are limited to specific content areas. An example of a tier two word is “analyze” and a tier three word from the field of social studies is “bicameral." "Analyze” would be used commonly in academic settings and a variety of disciplines, and “bicameral” would appear mainly in writing and speech in just one content area.
What is the Academic Word List?
Another researcher working to understand how academic words may be classified created a list of common words used in academic settings (Coxhead, 2000). Her research resulted in the Academic Word List which comprises words roughly equivalent to Beck, et al’s (2002) tier two words. She created her list from a corpus, or collection, of academic texts from four overarching disciplines at the university level. The corpus included 3,500,000 words, and academic words were derived by eliminating the 2000 most common words in English. Then, words which were found only in a limited range of disciplines were eliminated. Finally, the words from the corpus which appeared uniformly throughout the texts, frequently, and across a range of texts were included as Coxhead’s academic words.
Zwiers (2008) suggests a series of overlapping circles to describe the interaction of language from home and culture with general academic language (for reading, writing, thinking, and knowing) and discipline-specific language. He calls these tier-two type terms “brick and mortar” words because they bind the main ideas of academic writing together with greater precision than the more common words used in casual conversation.
Why are Academic Words Helpful for Teachers?
Teachers are often very good at teaching the words specific to the content areas they teach in middle and high school. Math teachers teach content words such as “Pythagorean” and “algorithm.” Science teachers help students learn “chlorophyll” and “apogee.” However, students need assistance and practice with the academic words that help students think, write, and speak with precision in school even if those terms are not specific to the content area.
First, students should read a wide range of texts where they will encounter content terms (e.g., “bicameral”) and academic words that reach across disciplines (e.g., regulate, purchase, compute). Second, teachers should model use of academic words in their own speech and written work. Third, students should be directly taught academic words. Fourth, students need opportunities to use the terms themselves in small-group work, their own writing, and presentation opportunities in class. As students become proficient with academic vocabulary, they will become more proficient with academic language tasks in general, as well.