Identify 10-15 General Academic Words per Grade Level
Standardized tests measure students’ reading comprehension–however it’s not just their understanding of the passage(s) that is being assessed. Eighty-five percent of achievement on these tests is based on understanding the academic language within the questions (Marilee Sprenger, 101 Strategies to Make Academic Vocabulary Stick).
This “academic language” refers to the universal and cross-curricular words found in prompts, questions, and directions. They reveal the specific task students are asked to perform (e.g., compare, explain, argue, interpret, etc.). They tell students what to do and the type of information required in the answer/response (e.g., best, most likely, cite evidence, etc.).
For example, these four questions all address the same excerpt from the wordless picture book Sidewalk Circus. At first glance, they appear very similar. However, when applying them to the text itself, they would clearly produce different responses.
If students do not accurately interpret the function of these general academic words, they will continue to miss points on standardized tests–and it’s not because they didn’t understand the passage they read. It’s because they didn’t understand the question they were asked!
Utilizing a comprehensive list (below, left), select 10-15 general academic words per grade level. Target those words all year and in all content areas–math, science, social studies, etc. This will ensure students are applying them in various contexts. (NOTE: These functional words are in addition to the core content-specific/domain-specific vocabulary that is being taught in each subject area.)
Download a suggested list of functional or general academic words per grade range (below, right). This scaffold is based on words that build on one another’s meaning. Students need to be able to summarize one idea before they can compare multiple ideas or argue for the best idea. Work with colleagues to identify grade-level terms so that each year, the pool of known functional words is growing.