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Academic Vocabulary and the New Wave of Testing

When you hear the words academic vocabulary, you might think of words that live only in academic journals — awkward words such as insomuch, heretofore, or conversely. These words would never roll off your tongue and you would never expect to encounter them on prime time television or on the magazine rack as you wait in line at the supermarket.

If this is your idea of academic vocabulary, then think again.

David Coleman, the current president of the College Board, has a particular take on academic vocabulary; and, if you want to better prepare your students for the new wave of standardized testing under the Common Core and the new SAT, you better get hip to it. As he told the New York Times, Coleman believes academic vocabulary is all around us, and he is out to rid the SAT of "words you will never use again" and plans to instead focus standardized testing on "more common words like synthesis, distill and transform, used in context as they will be in college and in life."

Academic Vocabulary and the Common Core

Q: So what is the connection between academic vocabulary, the Common Core State Standards, and the SAT?

A: David Coleman.

Before Coleman started running the College Board and revamping the SAT, he served as one of the "architects" of the Common Core. So, to better understand the thinking behind the current movement for SAT reform, start with familiarizing yourself with the thinking behind the Common Core.

The Common Core borrows Isabel Beck's system of categorizing words in three tiers and tends to emphasize the middle tier (Tier Two) as those "general academic words" that are more likely to appear in written texts than in speech. In the Common Core's explanation, Tier Two words "appear in all sorts of texts: informational texts (words such as relative, vary, formulate, specificity, and accumulate), technical texts (calibrate, itemize, periphery), and literary texts (misfortune, dignified, faltered, unabashedly)."

Academic vocabulary, far from those words that live solely in academia, are those words that are used most often in the texts students read. They are not the words you hear in everyday speech (Tier One territory), and they are not the words you would only hear in a discussion of astrophysics (Tier Three territory). They are the words that you would read anywhere — words that have the power and flexibility to morph in meaning according to context.

Academic Vocabulary Words are a Standardized Test Writer's Dream

Consider the most often used vocabulary question type students encounter on a standardized reading exam:

In line x of the reading passage, the word blahdeblah means:

  1. thingummy
  2. thingamabob
  3. doohickey
  4. whatchamacallit

If you think about it, the words that can best fit this question format are those words that call upon the reader to use context clues to define. If you try writing such a question for a one-dimensional word like soporific, regardless of the context, the answer will end up being "sleep inducing." On the other hand, if you write such a question for an academic vocabulary word with multiple shades of meaning, like figure, the test-taker will need to rely on context clues in order to figure out which meaning of figure fits the context of the reading passage.

A Sneak Peek at Vocabulary Questions on the New Common Core Exams

Smarter Balanced, a consortium of more than twenty member states that boasts "a commitment to developing a next-generation assessment system aligned to the Common Core," provides some sample reading questions on their site. If we look at one of their vocabulary-focused reading questions, we might get a glimpse at how academic vocabulary will be tested at the high school level.

Read the sentence from the text. Then answer the question.

"Nanodiamonds are stardust, created when ancient stars exploded long ago, disgorging their remaining elements into space."

Based on the context of the sentence, what is the most precise meaning of disgorging?

  1. scattering randomly
  2. throwing out quickly
  3. spreading out widely
  4. casting forth violently

To get this question right, the test-taker needs to focus on the context clue exploded in the sentence. Since the disgorging of the elements would certainly have scattered, thrown, spread, and cast forth them into the atmosphere, considering just the word disgorging in not enough. The clue exploded leads the reader to choose the answer that contains violently, since an explosion, by its very nature, happens violently.

PARCC, the other mega-consortium of states developing new Common Core-aligned exams, provides us with another type of academic vocabulary question to consider. This sample question was designed for a 6th-grade reading exam.

What does the word regal mean as it is used in the passage?

a) generous
b) threatening
c) kingly
d) uninterested

Which of the phrases from the passage best helps the reader understand the meaning of regal?

a) "wagging their tails as they awoke"
b) "the wolves, who were shy"
c) "their sounds and movements expressed goodwill"
d) "with his head high and his chest out"

Unlike the previous example of disgorging in context, this question on regal can be answered correctly without even seeing the passage from which it was taken! If you know the definition of regal, you're golden. If you don't know the word, you will guess. And even though the second part of the question gets the reader to connect regal with royal qualities, it is not requiring the reader to use context clues to deduce the meaning of regal in the passage. It's getting the test-taker to simply choose which of the four descriptions apply to the meaning of regal.

The Take-Away on Academic Vocabulary?

When it comes to vocabulary and standardized testing, the new age in testing might not be radically different from the previous age. Vocabulary is not going away on the SAT, and the Common Core is only striving to emphasize the words that students need to learn to make sense of textbooks and literature. However, when it comes to popular question types, paying attention to contextual clues will matter all the more — as evidenced by the Smarter Balanced sample question on disgorging.

The best way to prepare students for shifting their thinking in David Coleman's direction is not to stop teaching "hard" words; it is to be ever mindful and explicit about the multifaceted nature of academic vocabulary words. If you are teaching momentum and inertia in physics, you might want to pause and discuss the momentum of a winning sports team or the inertia of your students the day after the prom. Ironically, these sidebars might better prepare your students for standardized testing than the lesson itself.


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Georgia Scurletis is Director of Curriculum for the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. Before coming to Thinkmap, she spent 18 years as a curriculum writer and classroom teacher. Georgia has written curriculum materials for a variety of Web sites (WGBH, The New York Times Learning Network, Edsitement) and various school districts. While teaching high school English in Brooklyn, she was a recipient of the New York State English Council's Educators of Excellence Award, the Brooklyn High Schools' Recognition Award, and The New York Times' Teachers Who Make a Difference Award. Click here to read more articles by Georgia Scurletis.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 5th 2013, 8:03 AM
Comment by: Peter C. (Santa Barbara, CA)
Interesting article, but hoo boy, I hope the academics get it right (I still recall being subjected to the tremulous joys of "New Math").

I'm not convinced by the example, using "disgorging" to signify "casting forth violently". "Throwing out quickly" is only marginally a lesser choice, and students would rightfully feel confused being marked wrong for choosing it. Let's hope scoring will be weighted, rather than simple binary right/wrong.

Again though, the test-makers better think long, hard and accurately about what they're doing. Returning to the example, surely a word like "spewing" would be less ambiguous than "disgorging", since it already includes the notion of quick ejection contained in "explosion", something which "disgorging" arguably does not.

Ah well, but "spewing" might be said to lack "academic" credentials.... :-)
Friday September 6th 2013, 6:12 PM
Comment by: Lyn P.
In the high school example, I too could argue for any of the 4 responses and likely would have if I had been forced to pick an answer. "The most precise meaning of disgorge" -- seems to me that what the test formulators want is not the most precise meaning of 'disgorge' but what the writer intended in that sentence -- not the same thing. To ask for the meaning of a word when what you are really asking is what the author intended by using that word is quite simply confusing. "Based on the context of the sentence" would have (in my mind back then) been in conflict with "the most precise meaning of" and I'd have wasted minutes trying to guess what 'they' expected as a correct answer. This was a frequent source of frustration for me with tests: failure to ask precise questions, either ask for a definition or ask for the author's intention/implication/connotation, don't make me guess what you want. Words have precise meanings and how they are strung together creates mental constructs, different words create different constructs -- ask what you mean to ask don't make students guess what you want. This from someone with 30 years as a tech writer and 3 years a performance poet; I use words both technically precise (have to in high tech) and imaginative whatever the situation calls for to communicate accurately and unambiguously. There is little excuse for imprecision on the part of test formulators. Shame on all of them for ambiguity.
Friday September 6th 2013, 6:55 PM
Comment by: David H.
I find the examples in the first paragraph strange. I certainly don't consider myself a master of vocabulary (I've learned plenty of new words watching Phineas and Ferb), but 'insomuch' is a word I definitely use (though not nearly as often as 'inasmuch') both in writing and in conversation, and likewise I'm pretty sure I've used the word 'conversely' in writing (admittedly not often) and have definitely read it in magazines. I admit 'heretofore' isn't a word I'd think of using, and wouldn't be certain of the definition of without any context. (A quick search reveals that has been used in non-academic magazines I've read too, though not as often and not more recently than 1997.) But overall, they seem like strange examples of words that "would never roll off your tongue".
Indeed, you then go on to say, "you better get hip to it". Now THERE'S some language that would never roll off my tongue, I hope!
Monday September 9th 2013, 5:57 AM
Comment by: Georgia S. (IA)
Peter and Lyn,
I could not agree with you more. The assumption that students will rely on the context clues in the sentence instead of relying on what they personally believe is the "most precise meaning of xxx" is a big one. It requires the test-taker to "psych out" the test-maker, and should we really be expecting that from students?

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