Teaching Academic Vocabulary

ESL students and teachers alike are often concerned with how to improve vocabulary, and for good reason. Words are the building blocks of any language. The more vocabulary you know, the more you can use and understand. Some studies show that students need to understand about 98% of the vocabulary in an academic reading passage to understand it. Standardized tests often use vocabulary as a measurement stick. Needless to say, if you’re an ESL teacher, you will always be integrating some type of vocabulary-building into your classes.

But once students have a solid foundation of vocabulary, how can you make it even better? This post is written with a very specific demographic in mind: ESL students who are entering or are already studying at American universities.?? A lot of these tips and ideas might apply to classes, but I wanted to focus on this specific group because sometimes it’s so hard to find practical ways to improve their vocabulary. At times, they seem to know it all already.??

But then, of course, they don’t. And that’s why they need you.

Why Study Academic Vocabulary Anyway?

When I was going through school, I learned how to write. I learned spelling and grammar, but I also learned that we can’t just write down the words we think or say exactly. At least, not for more formal papers, the kind of papers you turn in when you’re in college.

Most everyone who got their schooling in an English-speaking country knows this. You might say or think:

Wow! That idea is like really super cool.

But you know that that’s not appropriate for a sentence in an essay.

Well, how do our ESL students know?

Of course, they have the schema knowledge of academic vs. non-academic or formal vs. informal writing from their own languages, but they probably won’t have a good grasp on what fits into those categories in English. They just haven’t been exposed to the amount of English language throughout their lives that native speakers have. We can’t just tell our students to “use more academic vocabulary” when they write “super good” because they don’t know what “academic vocabulary” means.

It’s our job as ESL teachers to catch them up to speed and build these “intuitions” about what words “sound right” in academic writing.

Very, Really, Super

These three words are fine for speaking, but try getting your students to avoid them in writing. There’s almost always a better vocabulary word than “really ___” or “very ___”

This is a great infographic with tons of alternative vocabulary words.

So then what if your students ask why? Why can’t they use these three magic intensifiers? After all, “really big” actually does mean almost exactly the same as “huge”. So what’s the big deal?

This is one of those cases where you have to tell them “That’s just the way it is.”

Academic writing favors more specific adjectives. It is rare to see “very” in academic writing, and “super” and “really” are almost never used as adverbs. That’s just the way of “academic writing,” and we have to make our students aware of that.


And then what if a student doesn’t need an intensified version of a word, but rather another word that means the same thing? That’s what thesauruses are for.

I haven’t used thesauruses too much in class, but I’ve referred students to them several times. For in class ideas, BazTefl has a great post on thesauruses with plenty of suggestions on how you can use them. Check it out.

Essentially, ESL students have some words they lean on like crutches. They’ve had success with using “good” for anything positive in the past and there’s still so much new stuff to learn, so why should they spend time learning the words “beneficial,” “commendable,” or “marvelous”?

Well, because it makes them better writers and speakers. ESL students can become repetitive and we teachers always try to break that repetition up. Getting students to use thesauruses is a useful way to expose them to other options.

Reading to Put Vocab in Context

However, students need more than a thesaurus to really master vocabulary. Without knowing which types of contexts and sentences certain words “work” in, students will have a difficult time using them.

Once upon a time I was tutoring?? a student, helping her write papers for her graduate-level classes. Most of her assignments were writing summaries and responses to articles she had to read. The problem was that she wasn’t the best at writing summaries. She understood the content very well and could explain it to me, but her strategy for writing summaries was to take key sentences from the articles and simply use a thesaurus to replace certain words with their synonyms.

To her, it made sense. She was using “her own words”.

But it was absolutely brutal to read (it might have also been plagiarism. I’m not sure about the rules for something like that).

An example would be something like this:

Article sentence: A man and his dog went for a walk in the park.

Student: A human male and his canine went for a ambulation in the public garden.

Ouch. Painful.

So how do students learn when it’s appropriate to use “canine” and “ambulation”? One answer is reading.

There are countless studies that show the connection between reading and vocabulary: the more you read, the more words you encounter and acquire.

But “acquire” is the key word here. When you read a good writer (and if they’re published in a book, they’re usually good enough), you’re seeing the vocabulary word used in the correct context, both within grammar and discourse. Either consciously or unconsciously, you learn which words work in which situations. When you’re just picking a synonym out of a thesaurus, you don’t get that deeper knowledge.

Reading to Personalize Vocabulary

Reading also helps students pursue vocabulary related to their specific field.

Most of my students are learning English so that they can study their field of study at an American university. One of my professors during my master’s program complained about “English for no specific purpose” (as opposed to ESP – English for specific purposes). A lot of my students feel the same way.?? But when you have a class full of people with different interests, it becomes more difficult. Do you teach “general” vocabulary (what does that even look like?) or focus on a specific field?

The best way I’ve found to address this is by letting students choose their content.

For example, in my writing classes, I might give a few suggestions for topics to write about for the students who haven’t chosen their major yet. But for the others, I make sure they write an essay about something they will study when they get to the university. I will teach the essay type (compare/contrast, cause/effect, etc), but let them determine the content. Since we also work on incorporating outside sources, that’s where the reading and vocabulary comes in.

My students will need to find articles and books related to their majors, which will expose them to lots of specific vocabulary (and the contexts in which it is used). Then, to write their paper, they will have to produce that vocabulary again. It’s a powerful way to help students prepare for what they will encounter at the university.

Roots, Prefixes, Suffixes

Of course, there is the famous Academic Word List. This is the most general collection of words that truly are “academic”: they were found to be the words that appeared most frequently in academic texts.

As you look through it, you’ll notice that the words are a little…boring. They truly are general terms and are therefore a little difficult to explain and study, although of course there is some benefit to learning these words.

For me, a better way to give students the skills to deal with academic vocabulary is to have them learn Latin and Greek prefixes, roots, and suffixes. So many long, “difficult” words contain a common root.

In my classes, I’m constantly drilling my students about these roots. Every time a word with “re-” pops up, I’ll ask my class what it means and teach it to them if they don’t know. If we have a new word that ends in “-ion”, my students should know that it’s a noun. Learning just a few of these little bits and pieces of Greek and Latin can help students make so many more educated guesses about new vocabulary in the future.

If you want to teach these, here is a great list (although it’s not entirely complete).

Conclusion: Diagnose, then Decide

The method you choose for improving your students’ academic vocabulary will depend on your students. Maybe most of them have a pretty wide vocabulary, but they need to learn the appropriate contexts in which to use it. Or maybe they get nervous any time they see a new word, and studying word roots would help them with taking more educated guesses or remembering new vocabulary. And of course, you will tailor your students’ vocabularies to fit their fields.

Be flexible with the methods you choose, because after all the term “academic” itself is a rather flexible concept.

Thanks for reading.


Featured Image Credit: Always Shooting


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