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Academic Vocabulary
October 2019


What does the research say about effective methods of instruction on academic vocabulary and its impact on student learning?

Ask A REL Response

Thank you for your request to our Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Reference Desk. Ask A REL is a collaborative reference desk service provided by the 10 RELs that, by design, functions much in the same way as a technical reference library. Ask A REL provides references, referrals, and brief responses in the form of citations in response to questions about available education research.

Following an established REL Northwest research protocol, we conducted a search for evidence- based research. The sources included ERIC and other federally funded databases and organizations, research institutions, academic research databases, Google Scholar, and general Internet search engines. For more details, please see the methods section at the end of this document.

The research team has not evaluated the quality of the references and resources provided in this response; we offer them only for your reference. The search included the most commonly used research databases and search engines to produce the references presented here. References are listed in alphabetical order, not necessarily in order of relevance. The research references are not necessarily comprehensive and other relevant research references may exist. In addition to evidence-based, peer-reviewed research references, we have also included other resources that you may find useful. We provide only publicly available resources, unless there is a lack of such resources or an article is considered seminal in the topic area.


Baker, S., Lesaux, N., Jayanthi, M., Dimino, J., Proctor, C. P., Morris, J. et al. (2014). Teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in elementary and middle school (IES Practice Guide, NCEE 2014-4012). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, What Works Clearinghouse.

From the Abstract:
"As English learners face the double demands of building knowledge of a second language while learning complex grade-level content, teachers must find effective ways to make challenging content comprehensible for students. This updated English learner practice guide, "Teaching Academic Content and Literacy to English Learners in Elementary and Middle School," provides four recommendations for teaching complex content to English learners while simultaneously building academic language and writing and oral language proficiency. This updated practice guide builds on the work of the first practice guide on English learners, expands the grade range from K-5 to K-8, and incorporates instruction in mathematics, science, and social studies, as well as literacy. With techniques found in this guide, teachers can effectively address English learners' content and language needs by systematically--and at times explicitly--building students' English language and literacy, while teaching history, mathematics, science, and other disciplines. The four recommendations include concrete guidance on: (1) Teaching English learners academic vocabulary intensively within the context of an engaging piece of informational text; (2) Helping English learners make sense of the content area material; (3) Supporting English learners as they learn to generate well-organized essays that are progressively longer and more complex; and (4) Providing struggling English learners with high-quality instructional interventions in reading and English language development. Like all other practice guides, this updated practice guide is based on research that has met the rigorous standards set by the What Works Clearinghouse, capitalizing on recently conducted research on content learning and academic language. The research base for this guide was identified through a comprehensive search for studies evaluating instructional practices for teaching academic content and literacy to English learners in K-8."

Jung, K. G., & Brown, J. C. (2016). Examining the effectiveness of an academic language planning organizer as a tool for planning science academic language instruction and supports. Journal of Science Teacher Education, 27(8), 847–872. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"To engage in the practices of science, students must have a strong command of science academic language. However, content area teachers often make academic language an incidental part of their lesson planning, which leads to missed opportunities to enhance students' language development. To support preservice elementary science teachers (PSTs) in making language planning an explicit part of their science lessons, we created the Academic Language Planning Organizer (ALPO). The purpose of this study was to determine the effectiveness of the ALPO on two levels: first, by examining participants' interactions with the ALPO as they identified academic language features, objectives and supports; and second, by exploring the ways that participants translated identified language supports to planned science activities. Findings indicated that, when using the ALPO, PSTs identified clear language functions and relevant vocabulary terms, and also frequently developed clear, observable and measurable language objectives. When lesson planning, PSTs were largely successful in translating previously identified language supports to their lesson plans, and often planned additional language supports beyond what was required. We also found, however, that the ALPO did not meet its intended use in supporting PSTs in identifying discourse and syntax demands associated with specific academic language functions, suggesting that revisions to the ALPO could better support PSTs in identifying these academic language demands. Implications for supporting PSTs' planning for and scaffolding of science academic language use are presented."

Kamil, M. L., Borman, G. D., Dole, J., Kral, C. C., Salinger, T., & Torgesen, J. (2008). Improving adolescent literacy: Effective classroom and intervention practices (IES Practice Guide, NCEE 2008-4027). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance.

From the Abstract:
"The goal of this practice guide is to formulate specific and coherent evidence-based recommendations that educators can use to improve literacy levels among adolescents in upper elementary, middle, and high schools. The target audience is teachers and other school personnel with direct contact with students, such as coaches, counselors, and principals. The guide includes specific recommendations for educators and the quality of evidence that supports these recommendations. The first three recommendations are strategies that classroom teachers can incorporate into their instruction to help students gain more from their reading tasks in content-area classes. The fourth recommendation offers strategies for improving student motivation for and engagement with learning. Together, the recommendations are designed to address the literacy needs of all adolescent learners. The fifth recommendation refers specifically to adolescent struggling readers, those students whose poor literacy skills weaken their ability to make sense of written material."

Lawrence, J. F., Rolland, R. G., Branum-Martin, L., & Snow, C. E. (2014). Generating vocabulary knowledge for at-risk middle school readers: Contrasting program effects and growth trajectories. Journal of Education for Students Placed at Risk, 19(2), 76–97. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"We tested whether urban middle-school students from mostly low-income homes had improved academic vocabulary when they participated in a freely available vocabulary program, Word Generation (WG). To understand how this program may support students at risk for long-term reading difficulty, we examined treatment interactions with baseline achievement on a state standardized test and also differential effects for students with (n D 398) and without (n D 1,395) individualized education plans (IEPs). Students in this unmatched quasi-experiment (5 WG and 4 comparison schools) completed pre- and post-vocabulary assessments during the intervention year. We also retested student vocabulary knowledge after summer vacation and the following spring on 11 target words to construct a longitudinally consistent scaled score across 4 waves of data. Growth models show that students experienced summer setback. Although there were no average underlying differences in growth or differences in summer setback for students by baseline achievement, better readers improved more from program participation. IEP status did not predict differential benefits of program participation, and students with IEPs maintained gains associated with participation in WG; however, participation in the program did not change underlying growth trajectories favoring students who did not have IEPs."

Lesaux, N. K., Kieffer, M. J., Faller, S. E., & Kelley, J. G. (2010). The effectiveness and ease of implementation of an academic vocabulary intervention for linguistically diverse students in urban middle schools. Reading Research Quarterly, 45(2), 196–228. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"The present study aims to advance the extant research base by evaluating the implementation and effectiveness of an academic vocabulary program designed for use in mainstream middle school classrooms with high proportions of language minority learners. The quasi‐experimental, mixed‐methods study was conducted in 21 classes (13 treatment matched to 8 control) in seven middle schools in a large district, with 476 sixth‐grade students (346 language minority learners, 130 native English speakers). Classroom observations and teacher logs indicated the 18‐week program was implemented with good fidelity and that the approach contrasted sharply with the standard district English language arts (ELA) curriculum. Multilevel modeling indicated that the program resulted in significant effects on several aspects of vocabulary knowledge, including meanings of taught words (d = 0.39; p .0001), morphological awareness (d = 0.20; p = .0003), and the word meanings as presented in expository text (d = 0.20; p = .0227). The program also yielded marginally significant, but promising effects on a depth of word knowledge measure (d = 0.15; p =0.0830) and a norm‐referenced measure of reading comprehension (d = 0.15; p = .0568). No effects were found on a norm‐referenced vocabulary measure. These effects were comparable for language minority learners and their native‐English‐speaking classmates. Data from teachers shed light on the challenges of meeting students' diverse instructional needs and the roles of curriculum and professional networks in building instructional capacity. The findings show promise in developing effective multifaceted vocabulary instruction for implementation by ELA teachers in middle school classrooms with high numbers of language minority learners."

McKeown, M. G., Crosson, A. C., Moore, D. W., & Beck, I. L. (2018). Word knowledge and comprehension effects of an academic vocabulary intervention for middle school students. American Educational Research Journal, 55(3), 572–616.

From the Abstract:
"This article presents findings from an intervention across sixth and seventh grades to teach academic words to middle school students. The goals included investigating a progression of outcomes from word knowledge to comprehension and investigating the processes students use in establishing word meaning. Participants in Year 1 were two sixth-grade reading teachers and 105 students (treatment n = 62; control n = 43) and in Year 2, one seventh-grade reading teacher and 87 students (treatment n = 44; control n = 43) from the same public school. In both years, results favored instructed students in word knowledge, lexical access, and morphological awareness on researcher-designed measures. In Year 2, small advances were also found for comprehension. Transcripts of lessons shed light on processes of developing representations of unfamiliar words."

Ortlieb, E., Perkins, D. R., & Verlaan, W. (2012). Investigating the effectiveness of vocabulary strategy instruction on content-specific word acquisition. Elixir Psychology, 43, 6843–6849. Retrieved from

From the Abstract:
"Mathematics is typically one of the subjects with which many students struggle. To improve mathematics achievement, it is helpful for students to gain proficiency in mathematics vocabulary. The importance of developing vocabulary as a means of improving comprehension has long been understood by educators and researchers. Students who are exposed to academic vocabulary are usually more successful in their content area classes; yet, the relative effectiveness of vocabulary strategies to build content area vocabulary comprehension in mathematics at the secondary level has had limited research. In this study, two vocabulary strategies were compared in a six-week long investigation to determine the relative effectiveness of each strategy on students' content area vocabulary development in an Algebra II class - a Modified Cloze/Maze procedure and a Concept of a Definition word map. The research findings conducted from this study are relevant to all content area teachers, in particular math teachers at the secondary level."


Keywords and Search Strings: The following keywords, subject headings, and search strings were used to search reference databases and other sources: Academic language, Academic vocabulary, Academic English, Student outcomes, Student achievement, High school

Databases and Resources: We searched ERIC for relevant resources. ERIC is a free online library of more than 1.6 million citations of education research sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES). Additionally, we searched Google Scholar and EBSCO databases (Academic Search Premier, Education Research Complete, and Professional Development Collection).

Reference Search and Selection Criteria

When we were searching and reviewing resources, we considered the following criteria:

Date of publications: This search and review included references and resources published in the last 10 years.

Search priorities of reference sources: Search priority was given to study reports, briefs, and other documents that are published and/or reviewed by IES and other federal or federally funded organizations, as well as academic databases, including ERIC, EBSCO databases, and Google Scholar.

Methodology: The following methodological priorities/considerations were given in the review and selection of the references:

  • Study types: randomized control trials, quasi experiments, surveys, descriptive data analyses, literature reviews, and policy briefs, generally in this order
  • Target population and samples: representativeness of the target population, sample size, and whether participants volunteered or were randomly selected
  • Study duration
  • Limitations and generalizability of the findings and conclusions

This memorandum is one in a series of quick-turnaround responses to specific questions posed by stakeholders in Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Oregon, and Washington, which is served by the Regional Educational Laboratory (REL) Northwest. It was prepared under Contract ED-IES-17-C-0009 by REL Northwest, administered by Education Northwest. The content does not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IES or the U.S. Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by the U.S. Government.