What is academic vocabulary?

One of the Common Core Standards in writing is using academic vocabulary.

When I was a child, my mother would call everyday, overused words “five cent words.” She encouraged me to use specific, adult-like “fifty cent words.” What my mother called “fifty cent words” is what today’s teachers call “academic vocabulary.”

Two lists of words, one simple words under the image of a nickel, and one more specific words under the image of a 50 cent piece


    • The Common Core Standards define academic vocabulary as “words that are traditionally used in academic dialogue and text.” These are not the high frequency, single meaning words that most preschoolers use. Nor are they words an elementary school student would use in everyday conversation with peers. But they are words which students might hear their teacher or a well-educated person use. These words are more precise (stroll instead of walk, doodle instead of draw) than the usual words children use, or they might include a less well-known meaning of a well-known word (a set of dishes, she set her hair, set the record straight).
    • Academic vocabulary also includes “domain specific” words used in a field of study. In an English class, words like synonym, noun, paragraph, punctuation, and dialog would be considered academic vocabulary. In a math class, numerator, decimal, digit, transform and rhombus would be considered academic vocabulary. These words are infrequently used outside the field of study, but they are important to know and use correctly within a field of study. Usually they are found in expository (informational) writing.
    • Direction words that a teacher would use are included in academic vocabulary, including words or phrases like “I need to take attendance,” or “Can you contrast Junie B and Lucille?” or “Yes, you may read aloud, but do it quietly.”
    • Usually, but not always, academic vocabulary is multi-syllabic vocabulary whose derivation is either Latin or Greek. Many times academic vocabulary passed through the French or German languages before it reached English.
    • These longer academic vocabulary words often contain prefixes and/or suffixes added to root words. (The longest English word, antidisestablishmentarianism, is a string of prefixes and suffixes added to the root word establish. Fortunately, it is not an academic vocabulary word, at least not for elementary and middle school children!)
    • Academic vocabulary is concise vocabulary—using a single, specific word to take the place of a phrase.

The English Language Arts Standards of the Common Core recommend direct vocabulary instruction to students, focusing on “understanding words and phrases, their relationships, and their nuances and on acquiring new vocabulary.”

For an excellent list of academic vocabulary words; suffixes and prefixes; and root words with prefixes and suffixes categorized by parts of speech, go to http://www.englishcompanion.com/pdfDocs/acvocabulary2.pdf.

When you think “academic vocabulary,” think of the lowly nickel and the mighty fifty cent piece.

In our next blog, we’ll discuss how academic vocabulary can be taught.

One response to “What is academic vocabulary?

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