Many ESL students, particularly young ones, come to class with fairly strong conversational English skills, which they have learned from interactions with their peers on playgrounds, in parks, and other areas of play and socializing.
What many young ESL student lack is academic English, the language used for academia, the professions, and business. Academic English is what is used in college classes and professional work, and research shows that a strong vocabulary leads to higher educational gains, higher-paying jobs, and improved life quality overall. With so much at stake, it is clear we should be concerned about our students’ academic vocabularies. But how specifically do we address it? And what exactly is it? How does it differ from conversational vocabulary?
Qualities of Academic Vocabulary
Academic vocabulary tends to be multisyllabic, comprised of morphemes, or word parts, each of which carry meaning. Conversational vocabulary, on the other hand, because it is more contextualized, relies less on the words carrying meaning than academic vocabulary. Conversational English is contextualized, and the context carries the meaning. For example, a recent conversation with my daughter went something like “What time should I pick you up?” “Five, Mom.” “I’m sorry, what time?” “Five!” Not one word in that exchange has more than one syllable because of the context and the ability to clarify: I was able to check with my daughter about what time she had said. The context, of a mother dropping her daughter off in the morning and asking about the pick up time, is also familiar to most readers and requires little elaboration.
Look at this similar exchange in academic vocabulary:
Re: Departure Time
In order to depart in a timely manner, please arrange to have your child at the school by eight a.m. Please ensure that he or she is prepared with appropriate clothes and lunch. Failure to follow these directions will result in the child’s inability to participate in the trip.”
Note the numerous multisyllabic words here, the long and detailed sentences, and the impersonal tone--all are features of academic vocabulary in contrast to the personal, immediate, and monosyllabic nature of conversational.
Many words in academic vocabulary are of Latin origin because institutions of higher learning in England used Latin while English, a Germanic language, was used in more every day settings. This is one reason students have difficulty with academic language—its vocabulary is very different from that of the English they already know. For example, in academic/medical vocabulary, it is “obese female” as opposed to the more familiar conversational (and rude as opposed to impersonal) “fat girl” or “fat woman.”
Academic vocabulary tends to be abstract, dealing with ideas rather than the concrete, as with conversational vocabulary. “Capitalism,” “violence,” “educational system,” “legislation,” “law enforcement”—all of these are abstractions I have seen in the news recently, and more suited for news reports or academic essays. More commonly, in conversational English, they are “money,” “fighting,” “school,” “law,” and “police” or “cop.”
Students already know the conversational version; what they need to learn is the academic equivalent or “translation.”
Academic vocabulary is technical and precise, meant to convey specific ideas, often when the context is reduced. So while a parent may tell his child to “Get down from there, now!” from an amusement ride, the sign on the ride may read “Please demount the amusement ride when finished.” The academic version, for example replaces the familiar “Get down!” with “Dismount” and the nonspecific “there” with “amusement ride,” demonstrating the difference between the two forms due to context.
Finally, again because of the reduced context and distance between addresser and addressee, academic language is impersonal. While a parent might tell her child “Hurry up, or I’ll leave without you!” a letter from the bus company, because of the lack of relationship between the two parties, might say “Those who do not arrive promptly at 7 am are in danger of being excluded from the trip.” Although the basic idea is the same, the language is very different.
5 Methods to Improve Student Academic Vocabulary
One of the major methods to improve students’ academic vocabulary is to read extensively—academic essays, reports, and excerpts from content textbooks. In this way, students will be exposed to a number of different academic words, some of them from their future majors.
Keep a Word Journal
Studies show that students not only need to be exposed to higher-level vocabulary, but they also need to work with it in order to acquire it and make it a part of their own vocabularies. One way to do this is the use of a word journal, in which students record at least three new words they have encountered in each reading, a definition, the part of speech, and a new sentence with the word. This provides some extra processing to help students assimilate the new word into their own vocabularies.
Learning morphology, or the parts of words, is an excellent way to help students decode new academic words. Again, academic vocabulary is multisyllabic, and most of these syllables, or morphemes, carry their own meaning. As a simple example, words that end in “—ment” in academic English are almost always abstract nouns: government, employment, containment, etc. In another example, “morphology” is comprised of two morphemes, “morpho” or shape, form, and “—ology,” meaning “study of.” So “morphology” is the study of (word) forms.
Set up Discussion Groups
To further acquire academic vocabulary, students can be assigned groups, given a specific academic topic, such as gun control and the United States, and some academic vocabulary to go with it: “legislation,” “Congress,” “(Second) Amendment,” and so on. They can then discuss what they think about how gun control is practiced in the United States, using the vocabulary assigned.
Finally students can write essays on academic topics, like the difference in the legislative process, or how laws are passed, between the U.S. and other countries. This topic, unlike more common topics like “My Favorite Place,” is more likely to draw on academic vocabulary because even to discuss such an abstract process as passing laws I will need abstract, multisyllabic words, unlike those used in describing specific places.
Acquiring new vocabulary, and an academic one, is a difficult process, requiring commitment over a period of time.
However, the rewards in increased educational and employment opportunities make the effort worth it.