Best Practices for Academic Vocabulary for ESL Students

We are encouraged to build our students’ vocabulary and, as we dig deeper into the Common Core State Standards, the call for academic language and academic vocabulary is ever-present. 


Have you noticed that these terms are often used interchangeably? I wanted to understand the differences between these two words and decided to take an in-depth look at the precise meaning of each term.


I found that the overarching concept is academic language, which is defined as “the specialized language of academic discourse and textbooks.”


Many researchers insist that proficiency in academic language is the most important predictor of academic success for individual students. Students must learn the many skills that are interwoven into the notion of academic language.

English Language Learner and textbook in ESL classroom focusing on academic vocabulary.


Academic vocabulary and language are complex and require us to teach students the following

  • phonological features of English

  • vocabulary and word formation

  • rules (lexical knowledge)

  • grammar

  • discourse

  • cognition

    Academic vocabulary breakdown for ESL teachers with tips on helping English Language Learners in the classroom.


Although vocabulary is an important component, it is only one part of academic language. Academic language includes concise word choice, information-bearing vocabulary and complex grammar, and sentence structure.


Read on for more information on the components of academic language and how you can use this knowledge in your ESL classroom! 


This is the first of two posts focusing on academic language and English Language Learners. This post is filled with tips for ESL teachers to help your ELLs with phonological features and vocab and word formation!


Check out part 2 focusing on grammatical competency, discourse, and cognition for a wide variety of ideas and activities with tips for ESL teachers.

For a breakdown of all of the components download your FREE academic language graphic for details.

ESL teacher tips about academic vocabulary for English Language Learners in your classroom.


Academic Language and Phonological Features


Phonological features mean understanding the phonological features of English, including intonation, stress patterns, and sound patterns.


To further break this down consider the following:

  • Sounds of English include consonants and vowels and their use in combination.

  • Sound patterns include the 44 phonemes with many letters and spelling patterns.

  • Articulation means the way a sound is produced using the speaker’s lips, tongue, teeth, palate, and lungs/breath.

  • Pronunciation is part of the orthographic mapping that is necessary to encode language into memory.

  • Word stress relates to intonation and the structure of sentences. (see image below)

Anchor charts for ELL students in your ESL classrooms can help with success criteria and learning goals for students.

Academic Language and Vocabulary and Word Formation


Vocabulary and Word Formation includes teaching prefixes, suffixes and roots, tier 1, 2, and 3 words (here is where academic vocabulary comes in), parts of speech, multiple meanings of words, and the grammar rules that apply to word formation and usage. 


  • Academic Vocabulary includes:

    • Content words are those words that have meaning.

    • Process or function words refer to determiners, conjunctions, prepositions, pronouns, auxiliary verbs, modals, qualifiers, and question words.

    • Word parts including verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, etc.

    • Word formation is how a word can shift from noun to verb to adjective to adverb. For example, analysis to analyze to analytical to analytically.

ESL classroom mini lesson for academic vocabulary and word formation for English Language Learners in your classroom.

    • Prefixes such as un-, re-, in-, dis- that appear at the start of the word and how it shifts the definition of words.

    • Suffixes such as -ly, -ness, -ful, -ish that appear at the end of the word and how it shifts the definition of words.

    • Root words are words on their own but can be modified with prefixes and suffixes too.

    • Compound words include open, closed, and hyphenated such as ice cream, pancake, and merry-go-round.

Compound words for English Language Learners as part of upper elementary vocabulary lessons.

Some activities to use to help with academic language is to include academic vocabulary word walls. This group of 53 word wall cards with their nouns, adjectives, and adverbs is a great addition to your classroom! 

Another option that can help with your upper elementary students is this resource for your word work or literacy centers, with Daily 5 or as a year-long bell ringer. This vocabulary program includes academic words, word journal pages, vocabulary games, vocab activities, vocabulary tests, and assessments… everything you need to raise the vocabulary acquisition of your students.


Although vocabulary is an important component, it is only one cog on the wheel we call Academic Language. To help with your year-long planning for academic language and everything else for your ESL classroom, check out this year-long bundle. Each month is stuffed with games, vocabulary, and English Newcomer Lesson Plans, and it is perfect for all classrooms; ESL, ELL, EFL, and ELD – requiring minimal PREP on your end!


Read this post about academic vocabulary lessons for ESL teachers of ELL students.

I would love to hear your comments!

Happy Teaching!

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