Online Academic Resources - Reading

Building Academic Vocabulary

The ability to understand and use words to acquire and convey meaning.

Four Different Vocabularies

Each person really possesses four different vocabularies:

  • Oral vocabulary – refers to the words we use in speaking
  • Reading vocabulary – refers to words we recognize or use in print
  • Listening vocabulary – refers to the words we need to know to understand what we hear
  • Writing vocabulary – refers to the words we need for writing
Two Types of Vocabulary Words
  • General vocabulary - words that are not specifically associated with a particular area
  • Technical vocabulary – words that are uniquely or usually related to individual academic disciplines
Why is vocabulary knowledge important?
  • The importance of vocabulary knowledge to academic success in general, and reading comprehension, in particular, is widely documented.
  • Vocabulary knowledge is one of the most potent predictors of success in reading comprehension.
  • Good readers tend to know many words and understand many concepts.
  • People who know many words tend to be good readers.
  • Unfortunately, the reverse is true!!

Vocabulary research indicates two key ideas about vocabulary acquisition:

  1. Most vocabulary is learned indirectly.
    • by engaging in conversation
    • by reading extensively
  2. Some vocabulary is learned through explicit instruction and interaction with new words
Vocabulary instruction how we learned . . .

In the past vocabulary words were taught on the surface level, rather than through “deep processing.”

  • The instructor gave you a list of words.
  • You were asked to define them.
  • You wrote them in a sentence.
  • You were given a test.
Deep processing . . .
  • Refers to understanding the relationships of words in context, within themselves, as well as within the context of the subject matter presented.
  • Deep processing learning occurs in meaningful ways and in meaningful contexts.
Ways in Which We Learn New Words
  • Vocabulary acquisition should be integrative. It should help you connect new words with your existing store of words and knowledge.
  • Vocabulary instruction needs to include repetition. To learn words you need to see, hear and use them many times and in many contexts.
  • Words and concepts are best learned when they are in meaningful contexts.
  • New words are best learned when we make connections between words and concepts that we already know and the new words we encounter. This idea of integration is based on “schema theory,” the belief that we all have a set of ideas about how the world works. In order to learn new ideas, we have to create a link between the known and the unknown. The addition of new information causes us to reevaluate and reorganize old information for use on another day.
  • You need to find ways to review new words. That may be as simple as placing a list of words on your mirror for daily review and to determine which ones you are able to actually define and which ones may be still in the “heard of it” category. If these are “technical” vocabulary, you can also enhance your word knowledge by continuing to read materials on the topic and hear the way that other writers use the term.
  • Though you may use word lists or flashcards to help you with learning new words, the easiest way to learn is to keep it meaningful – through connections to other words and text. If you are a person who likes to use lists or cards, include a personal connection or picture with the word to promote that meaningful connection.
Word Parts
  • Knowing the meanings of word parts, such as root words and affixes can help you to understand words that may be unfamiliar. There are some standard word parts in the English language that are applicable to general vocabulary. In your field of study, there may be word parts that recur and are worth your investment of time to study. These can add to your background knowledge about your field. This would be particularly true in the health professions.

  • Word Part Example:


    Because of his proximity to Mount St. Helens, he contracted pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis.

    Pneumono – related to the lungs Ultra – super
    Micro – small scopic – related to a viewing instrument
    Silico – the mineral, silicon
    Volcano – eruption in the earth
    Coni – dust
    Osis – referring to a disease

    A disease of the lungs caused by habitual inhalation of very fine silicon dust particles from a volcanic eruption.

Context Clues
  • Sometimes the context in which we find unfamiliar words will supply the meaning that we need. There are three main types of context clues:

    1. Definition
      The word is defined, usually in the same sentence.

      For example:

      She refused to quibble, to argue about trivial matters, when they had much more important decisions to make than whose turn it was to pick the restaurant.

    2. Description or Examples
      The word is described by the context or an example is provided in such a way that the reader can take a good guess at its meaning.

      For example:

      Their vociferous chatter made me wish I had ear plugs.

      After kicking his brother and biting his sister, the recalcitrant child was punished by his parents.

    3. Comparison or Contrast
      The word is compared with some other word or concept, sometimes a synonym, but sometimes an opposite.   

      For example:

      Mike was loquacious while Susan said very little.

      When the plane responded to air turbulence with rapid rolls and dips, the passengers felt as though they were on a roller coaster ride.

Textbook Reading
  • Textbook aids are included in texts to help individuals with new vocabulary. These include:
    • highlighted, boldface type and italicized words within chapter
    • a glossary, which is an alphabetized list of the technical words in a textbook found at the end of the book
    • an index, which is an alphabetized list of important terms and topics in the book found at the end of the book. Generally the term in the index will be defined in context on one of the pages listed in the index.
Textbook Decoding Strategy
  • When you encounter an unfamiliar word in reading, finish the sentence. Try to determine the word through your knowledge of word part or context. If you decide that the word is necessary for comprehension, try to determine the meaning of the word through the context by looking in the surrounding sentences for clues to the meaning. If that does not help to determine a usable meaning, follow these steps:

    1. Decide whether the word is technical or general. If you can’t decide, assume it is technical.

    2. If the word is technical:
      • Try the glossary first
      • Then try the index
      • Then try the dictionary

    3. If the word is general:
      • Try the dictionary first
      • Then try the glossary
      • Then try the index
  • After finding a meaning for the word, check the meaning in the context of the sentence to make sure that the definition fits. Context is very important as a verification procedure.
Academic Vocabulary Strategies

Here are three vocabulary strategies that an individual might use to help with the acquisition and understanding of academic vocabulary. An explanation of each strategy can be found at these websites: