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English Language Arts | Teaching Strategies | February 29, 2024

4 Ways to Help Students Use Academic Vocabulary

Students’ academic vocabularies are critical for their success in reading comprehension and throughout their entire academic careers. Go beyond teaching academic vocabulary to helping students incorporate academic vocabulary into their speech and writing. Learn how to use academic language in your classroom to support students’ vocabulary development, along with these three other strategies.

Teaching Academic Vocabulary

How many times have you, as a teacher, heard a phrase from your students such as “I need the things, to do the stuff.”

Before a discussion of how to use academic vocabulary, it’s important to know what it is. In the book Vocabulary Instruction for Academic Success authors Yopp, Yopp, and Bishop (2009) have developed definitions for two categories of academic vocabulary: general academic vocabulary and specialized content vocabulary. General academic vocabulary can be defined as high-utility words found across content areas that students will encounter throughout their academic experiences whereas specialized content vocabulary is specific to a content area and includes important concepts or ideas for students to learn.


The correlation between student vocabulary knowledge and academic achievement is well documented, and all teachers focus on teaching their students the academic vocabulary representative of the grade level and content areas they teach. Author Christine Dugan, in her book Strategies for Building Academic Vocabulary in Language Arts, summarizes research that proves that academic vocabulary is not only important to reading comprehension (Baumann, Kame’enui, and Ash 2003), but also overall academic success (Lehr, Osborn, and Hiebert 2004).

Using Academic Vocabulary

Teaching students academic vocabulary is one thing. Getting students to use it is another. It can be a challenge to get students to incorporate that vocabulary into their own speech and writing. Here are four simple ways to help students actually use the vocabulary words that you teach them.

Set the Expectation

Set that expectation with your students that they utilize specific or precise language when speaking or writing. When students use everyday language, ask them one or more of the following questions.

  • What’s a more precise word for…?
  • What is the formal/academic word for…?
  • What vocabulary word have we been learning that represents…?

Use Research-Based Strategies

Teach vocabulary using strategies that are known to help students learn and remember word meanings for new vocabulary words. An example is the Keyword Method (Baker, Simmons, and Kame’enui 1995). The Keyword Method can be used before a lesson or unit to help students relate visual images to academic vocabulary. This strategy supports students, while also promoting discussion and opening students to new ways of visualizing words based on the work of peers.

Use Academic Language Daily

Along with your expectation of student use of precise language, make it a habit to incorporate this type of vocabulary in your own speech and writing as well. Modeling how to use academic language will help students to use it comfortably and confidently. It is a good idea to have the students say the vocabulary with you. For example, consider the following scenario.

Teacher: Your next task, or job, is to classify these objects, or put them into groups, in some way. You will decide on the categories or groups you create. What is the word for putting the objects into groups, everyone?

Students: Classify!

Teacher: Say that with me, everyone!

Students: Classify!

Note the contextual definitions built into the directions, and then the question and repetition of the word so that students become used to hearing and saying the more accurate vocabulary.

Remember that students do not need to master a word when they are exposed to it.

Teach Precise Language

Share with students how they can utilize more precise language when speaking and writing. For example, point out words and phrases that add specificity to their language. For example, they might say “response” rather than “answer,” or “evidence” rather than “proof.” Couple this with the vocabulary students are learning related to the academic subject being taught, as well as the expectation that they use the more formal, specific and precise language, and students will begin using the vocabulary on a more frequent basis.

With support, students can learn how to use academic language and apply it successfully to their own speaking and writing. Teachers can set expectations, use research-based vocabulary teaching strategies, model how to use academic language, and encourage precision. These efforts will help students in reading and in their overall academic success.

Baumann J., Kame'enui E., Ash G. (2003). Research on vocabulary instruction:

Voltaire redux. In Flood J., Lapp D., Squire J., Jensen J. (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching the English language arts (2nd ed., pp. 752–785). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Dugan, C. (2012). Strategies for building academic vocabulary in language arts. Shell Education. 

Lehr, F., Osborn, J., & Hiebert, E.H. (2004). A focus on vocabulary. Honolulu, HI: PREL.

Yopp, H. K., Yopp, R. H., & Bishop, A. (2009). Vocabulary instruction for academic success. Shell Education. 



Author Bio:

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Erick Herrmann, Educational Consultant

Erick Herrmann is an educational consultant with Teacher Created Materials. He has taught at the high school level as a Spanish teacher and Title VII coordinator, elementary literacy and ESL teacher, and served as a Teacher on Special Assignment. He is deeply committed to high quality instruction for all students, and enjoys sharing effective, engaging instructional strategies that teachers can immediately use in their classrooms.

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