School texts, especially those in content areas, have a special register called academic language. Within the academic language of content area textbooks, distinctions can be made in vocabulary. While words such as geography and affect may be equally challenging for students unfamiliar with academic language, Nation (1990) has distinguished between words specific to a content area (e.g., geography) and words that appear in numerous content area (e.g., affect). This distinction, Nation has observed, is an important one to consider in the design of instruction. Words within the former group are likely to be addressed by content area specialists teaching a course. Words of the second type—which Nation has called general academic words—are unlikely to be addressed by either teachers of content area courses or textbook writers. These words are used to communicate the content of the topic and are not in themselves a focus of attention.
One of Nation’s colleagues, Coxhead (2000) has identified a group of 570 words that represent approximately 3,130 words. These words have what Carroll, Davies, and Richman (1971) called “high dispersion indices.” That is, these words appear in numerous content areas, not a single one. The 570 key words (called headwords) are presented in the Academic Word List (AWL) (Coxhead, 2000). The AWL was developed on the basis of textbooks used in different university disciplines. The specific focus of this list was in the words that university students who are learning English as a Foreign Language need to know in reading across different content areas in universities.
Snow and her colleagues have been using words from the AWL to create a program called Word Generation for students in middle grades. The focus words for a week are presented in the homeroom period at the beginning of a week. Content area teachers in the middle school have information on the words and how these words might take special forms in their content area. Over the course of a school week, students read the target words in a text, discuss the words in different content areas, and write an essay where they have the opportunity to use the target words.
General academic words have not been a focus of either English/language arts instruction or content area instruction. General academic words are present and important in content area texts. Coxhead’s (2000) list and the Word Generation that Snow and her colleagues are pursuing illustrate the focus that is required, if struggling readers are to gain the proficiencies they need to become competent content area readers.
To see the AWL, visit here.
To learn more about the Word Generation project, join us on Schools Moving Up, September 6, 2007 for a session with Catherine Snow, Harvard University.
Carroll, J.B., Davies, P., & Richman, B. (1971). The American Heritage word frequency book. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Coxhead, A. (2000). A new academic word list. TESOL Quarterly, 34(2) 213-238.
Nation, I.S.P. (1990). Teaching and learning vocabulary. Boston, MA: Heinle & Heinle Publishers.