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Academic Vocabulary

Building Academic Vocabulary

All teachers have a responsibility to explicitly teach the academic vocabulary required in their classes as part of their learning and teaching program.

For secondary students, developing a rich academic vocabulary as part of their increasingly sophisticated literacy repertoire is essential. Students need explicit instruction to support growth in academic vocabulary from multiple teachers across all of their subjects, especially as concepts become more abstract and language becomes more technical. Teaching and learning programs should support students to develop the ability to switch between literacy demands and conventions, such as changing from creative writing in an English class to preparing a Science report, or from reading data presented in a table to a worded problem in Mathematic. Academic vocabulary, like all vocabulary, can be applied in multiple contexts and settings – students learning specific language requirements in Science may be able to apply this language to other subjects at school, such as Mathematics. Developing a deep academic vocabulary and knowing when and how to deploy them across the breadth of secondary school subjects are key learnings in secondary school (Lea & Street, 2006).

Advice to schools

Develop a plan for building academic vocabulary

Identify the key leaders in the school who can develop and implement a plan for explicitly teaching academic vocabulary, for example, within facilities or common teacher groups such as STEM or Year 9. Discuss whether the school has a consistent or common approach to building academic vocabulary, including:

  • Ensuring that the school has a deep knowledge of the academic vocabulary requirements for each subject within the teaching and learning program
  • Identifying when more new language and terminology will be encountered, such as at the start of the year or where scaffolding across two subjects might be needed – for example, a data representation term introduced in Mathematics in Term 1 may be applied in Geography in Term 2
  • Ensuring teachers don't assume students have retained the academic language previously taught. The more technical the language the less likely students are to use it beyond the classroom.

Advice to teachers

Create a rich language classroom

Provide multiple opportunities for students to hear, say and read the required vocabulary within the classroom and lesson where new vocabulary is explicitly taught and within subsequent lessons, including:

  • Identifying and select the academic vocabulary that will have the biggest impact on student learning – this may mean you focus on 5 to 10 key words in each subject. Identifying when new language and terminology will be encountered in their textbooks, resources and classes
  • Providing direct instruction on new words or terminology to unpack its meaning and its role in the concept or topic being studied, and its relationship to other words within its word family. This could be by:
    • Explicitly pre-teaching vocabulary – 'front loading'
    • Explicitly teaching in context – within the lesson the teaching of the selected vocabulary is planned for and made explicit
    • Incidentally teaching in context – as moments occur within lessons, not planned for, teachable moments.
  • Clarifying when new words of terminology may have multiple meanings across different contexts, such as when the term 'sustainability' is being used in Science or Economics
  • Modelling the expected academic language as part of daily teaching and learning practices
  • Set and maintain high expectations of students use of academic language
  • Engaging students in regular classroom discussions using the expected language, allowing students to be both listeners and speakers
  • Assessing students' retention of previously taught academic vocabulary before determining next steps in your teaching plan

Support students in developing their language-learning independence

Explicitly teach language-learning strategies to support students to independently build their academic vocabulary, including:

  • using both online and print-based glossaries and dictionaries to define meaning
  • building understanding of word families so new words can be connected to prior learning
  • learning to read for context clues so students can 'figure out' new language they encounter
  • explicitly teach key-word builders related to academic vocabulary. For example, if students understand that 'bio' is a root word from Greek, meaning 'relating to life', then they have a starting point to understand biology, biography and biophysics.