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Why students need to learn academic words

Method, analyse, conversely. These words are more useful than you think.

These and other “academic” words are used in writing and speech at school and other educational settings without being specific to any discipline. They can be used, among other things, to describe research (method, analyse) and to structure speech and writing (conversely).

What’s more, knowing them can predict performance at primary school, secondary school and university. In other words, how well students know academic words may affect how well they do at school. But although students are surrounded by academic words, they are not typically taught them at school – so learning them can be challenging.

Challenging vocabulary

International university students in Hong Kong and New Zealand have reported difficulty with learning and understanding English academic vocabulary.

Monolingual native speakers of English also face problems with academic words, including frequently used vocabulary such as summarise and contribute. Despite the common view that native speakers have well-developed vocabulary knowledge, research suggests that a low socio-economic background can hinder language development, including vocabulary, at both primary and secondary school.

Some academic words occur in everyday language too, so they may go unnoticed. A student can easily fail to realise that reliable means “of consistent quality” in a scientific journal article if they already know that in everyday language it often means “dependable”. Research suggests that people find it hard to correctly guess new meanings for words they encounter in a reading passage, because they stick with the meanings they already know.

With extra meanings come other things students need to learn about a word. For example, when random appears before sample or sampling, it means that “all the people or things being involved have an equal chance of being chosen”.

As with all word learning, academic word learning isn’t just about understanding what a word looks and sounds like and a definition of its meaning. It also includes understanding which other words tend to appear close to it whenever it has a certain meaning.

Another reason why it is difficult to learn academic words is that some can also be jargon – a word with a special meaning in a particular context. For example, the noun function is used with various shared meanings across scholarly disciplines but it has a specialised meaning in mathematics, and a more recent one in computer science.

teenage boy reading book outside
Academic words are often not taught in schools. smolaw/Shutterstock

Perhaps a more important reason for the difficulty students face with learning academic words is how they are exposed to them. Unsurprisingly, words are learned faster when they are taught than when they are not. Unlike scientific jargon, academic words are not, typically, taught at school or university.

Ways forward

Academic vocabulary instruction has been trialled at primary and secondary schools. Most of these studies have taken place in the US. They show that teaching academic vocabulary can lead to increased knowledge of academic words.

It is important to note that not any kind of instruction will do. Contrary to common practice in vocabulary teaching, these studies went beyond teaching a word’s spelling and pronunciation together with its most frequent meaning. For example, in one study students encountered the same word in different contexts, were taught more than one meaning for each word, and did activities such as meaning guessing and breaking words into meaningful parts.

Research on what makes some academic words harder to learn than others for students with specific characteristics – age, English proficiency level – can help make educated guesses about which words and which aspects of these words should be taught to different students.

For example, my research suggests that bilingual university students are more likely to recognise an English academic word the more frequent it is, but they tend to recognise cognate words (words similar in form and meaning, such as English university and Spanish universidad) even when they are infrequent.

Woman looking in dictionary.
Academic vocabulary instruction should be tailored to individual students’ needs. PHENPHAYOM/Shutterstock

However, not all bilingual students recognise a cognate word when they see or hear one. Teachers can raise bilingual students’ awareness of cognates by pointing out equivalent word parts between English and the students’ other language. They can also encourage them to use their knowledge of cognates while reading or listening in English.

As with any word, knowing many things about an academic word is more likely to help students understand it correctly in reading and listening and use it appropriately while speaking and writing.

However, classroom time is precious. Not all academic words can be taught in such depth. The teaching of these words will be more efficient if it is tailored to individual students’ needs.

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