Developing Academic Language: Got Words?

By: E. Sutton Flynt, William G. Brozo
Concerns about how to build academic vocabulary and weave its instruction into curricula are common among classroom teachers. This article reviews the research and offers some practical suggestions for teachers.

The prior installment of this department (inOctober, 2007) introduced the idea of toolkitelements for content teachers. We asserted thatone of those essential elements is the skill of enrichingstudents' academic language. In this installment, wehighlight academic vocabulary and what professionalopinion and research have to say about tools for buildingword knowledge in the content areas. By using theexpression academic vocabulary we are referring toword knowledge that makes it possible for students toengage with, produce, and talk about texts that are valuedin school (Brozo & Simpson, 2007).

Pearson, Hiebert, and Kamil (2007) noted, "After anearly 15-year absence from center stage, vocabularyhas returned to a prominent place in discussions ofreading, and it is alive and well in reading instructionand reading research" (p, 282). Vocabulary study andpractice received new impetus with the release of theNational Reading Panel's (NRP) report (NationalInstitute of Child Health and Human Development[NICHD], 2000), and since then we have seen a plethoraof grants and research studies devoted to the topic.

The RAND Reading Study Group (2002) reassertedthe essential relationship vocabulary knowledge has tooverall reading comprehension. This relationship iseven more significant for content texts due to the burdenthey place on children to understand new and numeroustechnical words (Harmon, Hedrick, & Wood,2005). Although we know students need to possess sophisticatedlanguage tools to explore information andconcepts in content area materials, fundamental questionsremain in the minds of many teachers. Two of themost basic questions are the following:

  1. What should attention to academic vocabulary in the content areas look like?
  2. Which approaches to vocabulary acquisition will have the biggest impact on children's academic achievement, especially those who are at the highest risk of failure?

The answers to these questions are found in oneoverarching principle to guide teachers, regardless ofthe specific vocabulary practices they employ: Greaterattention should be paid to developing students' academicvocabularies in systematic ways.

How important is systematic vocabulary instruction?

If one were to query upper elementary teachers abouttheir attention to vocabulary, most would say that theydo teach vocabulary to their students. Recently, Scott,Jamieson-Noel, and Asselin (2003) found, in their observationsof 23 ethnically diverse classrooms, thatonly 6% of school time was centered on vocabularydevelopment, and in the core academic subject areasonly 1.4% of instructional time was spent developingvocabulary knowledge. As reported by theresearchers, the instruction observed was too oftenmore mentioning and assigning rather than teaching.Bolstering the argument for the apparent paucity of indepthattention to vocabulary instruction, Walsh(2003) found that none of the most widely used basalprograms provided the attention to vocabulary necessaryto increase comprehension. Coupling Walsh'sfindings with those from Dunn, Bonner, and Huskee's(2007) report of students who placed at the 50th percentilein reading comprehension (increasing theirscores by as much as 30 percentile points after havingreceived direct and meaningful vocabulary instruction)suggests that all teachers need to examinetheir vocabulary practices with special attention tosystematic approaches to expanding word knowledgefor children.

Back to Top

What should teachers do?

Almost all of the studies included in the NRP report(NICHD, 2000) found that direct instructional approachesimproved both vocabulary and comprehension(Kamil, 2004).

The RAND Reading Study Group Report (2002)also stressed the value of systematic vocabulary instructionfor building comprehension. In spite of admonitionsfrom research, finding time for direct andsystematic instruction of large numbers of words fromthe content areas presents teachers with major challenges(Anderson & Nagy, 1991; Stahl & Fairbanks,1986). What follows is a list of evidence-based recommendationsfor developing students' academic languagein meaningful ways. We assert that thesesrecommendations can serve as guidelines for a rangeof specific practices teachers can undertake to expandword learning in the content areas and consequentlyincrease student achievement.

Be highly selective about which words to teach

Content area terms should be selected fortheir use in helping children apply word learningstrategies and for engendering interest in using thewords as tools for meaningful communication(Blachowicz & Fisher, 2000).

Provide multiple encounters with targeted words

Multiple exposures to content vocabularycan occur through the use of collaborative, activetasks and can be supported by technology (Kamil,2004). The quality of each encounter is important, asis causing students to use writing, speaking, listening,and reading when collaborating about targeted words(Pearson et al., 2007).

Provide students direct instruction on how to infer word meanings

Students need to be shown how meaningful information about vocabulary wordsin content text can be derived through contextualanalysis (Graves, 2000; Nation, 2001). Of course, themore meaningful and authentic the context a teacheruses the greater the impact on students' ownership ofthe targeted terms (Scott et al., 2003).

Promote in-depth word knowledge

Many content terms may be better understood when studentsmanipulate words through group activities requiringcategorization, word association, or semantic analysis(Beck, McKeown, & Kucan, 2002; Marzano, 2005).

Provide students with opportunities to extend their word knowledge

Students can be shownhow to use morphemic analysis, awareness of polysemy(varied meanings), and attention to derivationsand origins to further their knowledge of content vocabularyand find similar features in new words(Marzano, 2004). On checking research done withEnglish-language learners (ELLs) these approacheswere found to be equally as effectivein promoting vocabulary growthand improved comprehensionwith ELLs as with nativespeakers of English(Beck et al., 2002; Carloet al., 2004; Nagy,1997).

Finally, for thosereaders who havenot explored theReadWriteThinkwebsite (, a jointproject of the InternationalReading Association and theNational Council of Teachers ofEnglish, we urge you to do so. Thereare numerous examples of complete lessons that reflectcurrent thought about how best to help studentsenlarge their academic vocabulary. Examples suchas "Using Word Storms to Explore Vocabulary" and"Encourage Critical Thinking" allow teachers to savetime, improve their teaching, and affect studentachievement.

Back to Top

About the authors

Flynt teaches at the University of Memphis,Tennessee, USA; e-mail: Brozoteaches at George Mason University in Fairfax,Virginia, USA; e-mail:



Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Anderson, R.C., & Nagy, W.E. (1991). Word meanings. In R. Barr, M.L. Kamil, P.B. Mosenthal, & P.D. Pearson (Eds), Handbook ofreading research (Vol. 2, pp. 690'724). New York: Longman.

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

Blachowicz, C., & Fisher, P. (2000). Teaching vocabulary. In M.Kamil, P. Mosenthal, P.D. Pearson, & R. Barr (Eds.), Handbook ofreading research (Vol. 3, pp. 503'523). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Brozo, W.G., & Simpson, M.L. (2007). Content literacy for today'sadolescents: Honoring diversity and building competence (5thed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

Carlo, M.S., August, D., McLaughlin, B., Snow, C., Dressler, C.,Lippman, D., et al. (2004). Closing the gap: Addressing the vocabularyneeds of English-language learners in bilingual andmainstream classrooms. Reading Research Quarterly, 39,188'215.

Dunn, M., Bonner, B. & Huske, L. (2007). Developing a systemsprocess for improving instruction in vocabulary: Lessons learned.Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and CurriculumDevelopment. Retrieved October 17, 2007, from

Graves, M.F. (2000). A vocabulary program to complement and bolstera middle-grade comprehension program. In B.M. Taylor,M.F. Graves, & P. van den Broek (Eds.), Reading for meaning:Fostering comprehension in the middle grades (pp. 116'135).New York: Teachers College Press.

Harmon, J.M., Hedrick, W.B., & Wood, K.D. (2005). Research onvocabulary instruction in the content areas: Implications forstruggling readers. Reading and Writing Quarterly, 21, 261'280.

Kamil, M.L. (2004). Vocabulary and comprehension instruction:Summary and implications of the National Reading Panel findings.In P. McCardle & V. Chhabra (Eds.), The voice of evidencein reading research (pp. 213'234). Baltimore, MD: Paul H.Brookes.

Marzano, R. (2004). Building background knowledge for academicachievement: Research on what works in schools. Alexandria,VA: Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development.

Marzano, R. (2005). Preliminary report on the 2004'2005 evaluationstudy of the ASCD program for building academic vocabulary.Alexandria, VA: Association of Supervision and CurriculumDevelopment. Retrieved October 17, 2007, from

Nagy, W.E. (1997). On the role of context in first- and secondlanguagevocabulary learning. In N. Schmitt & M. McCarthy(Eds.), Vocabulary: Description, acquisition and pedagogy (pp.64'83). Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Nation, I.S.P. (2001). Learning vocabulary in another language.Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. (2000).Report of the National Reading Panel. Teaching children to read:An evidence-based assessment of the scientific research literatureon reading and its implications for reading instruction (NIH publicationNo. 00-4769). Washington, D.C.: U.S. GovernmentPrinting Office.

Pearson, P.D., Hiebert, E.H., & Kamil, M.L. (2007). Vocabulary assessment:What we know and what we need to learn. ReadingResearch Quarterly, 42, 282'296.

RAND Reading Study Group. (2002). Reading for understanding:Toward an R&D program in reading comprehension. SantaMonica, CA: RAND.

Scott, J.A., Jamieson-Noel, D., & Asselin, M. (2003). Vocabulary instructionthroughout the day in twenty-three Canadian upperelementaryclassrooms. The Elementary School Journal, 103,269'286.

Stahl, S., & Fairbanks, M. (1986). The effects of vocabulary instruction:A model-based meta-analysis. Review of EducationalResearch, 56, 72'110.

Walsh, K. (2003). Basal readers: The lost opportunity to build knowledgethat propels comprehension. American Educator, 27,24'27.

Flynt, E., & Brozo, W.G. (2008, March). Developing Academic Language: Got Words?. The Reading Teacher, 61(6), 500'502.


For any reprint requests, please contact the author or publisher listed.


Add comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.
Sign up for our free newsletters about reading
Reading Blogs
Maria Salvadore
Maria Salvadore
April 7, 2014
March 27, 2014
"Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to read." — Groucho Marx