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What students need to know about language

On this page, you will find information about traits of language, how many and which words students need to know, how to analyse vocabulary, ways to explore your practice, materials for vocabulary analysis, and extracts for measuring readability.

Characteristics of language

Knowledge and use of language or languages grows throughout our lives. This is often easy to notice when we encounter different contexts for language use, such as education, family, employment and so on.

The use of different context for language is also known as language domains. Learning to use language(s) appropriately in varied contexts takes time and practice.

Language use in the education context

Each subject requires students to develop a deep understanding of specific language registers and terminology. In addition, they must know different settings and tasks that link with using the language modes. For example, transactional writing, descriptive writing, reading, and public speaking.

A child develops second language (L2) conversational ability or surface fluency in about two years. For academic language to take root, it requires between five to eight years – or longer, in some cases. This called the second language learning delay. It means that bilingual students who have highly developed conversational skills might perform poorly in school if their academic language skills remain underdeveloped.

Effects of second language delay

Some teachers might be unaware of this circumstance – the effects of second language delay. Some may assume that if a bilingual student has good conversational English, they will easily handle the curriculum content in mainstream classrooms. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Students who do not succeed in acquiring academic English find it harder to achieve well at school.

This situation, a pattern for many bilingual Pasifika students in mainstream New Zealand schools, perhaps explains why Pasifika and other bilingual students are disproportionately represented below the National Standards for literacy.

Characteristics of academic language

It takes significant time to learn the academic register of a language such as English. Bilingual or L2 students might find this more difficult than first language (L1) speakers.

This is because academic language is more formal than conversational language. It tends to use more passive constructions than conversational language. (For example, ”It has been argued by X …” rather than “X argues that …”).

In addition, academic language often lacks context, which means it provides fewer illustrations that can be used to aid in understanding or interpreting it. Also, it is more abstract – that is, compared to conversational language, academic language  has more words that refer to ideas that lack a concrete form.

Another factor is academic language has more difficult, less common vocabulary than conversational language. (See Academic words.)

How many words should my students know?

... between 1000 and 2000

The number of English words your bilingual students need to be able to understand and use in order to make good academic progress depends on what they need the words for.

First, for general everyday life and interaction with schoolmates, the students need to be able to use between 1000 and 2000 different words.

Second, they need to develop and expand their academic vocabulary. At all school levels, include a focus on academic vocabulary.

Materials written for students at levels 1 and 2 of the curriculum and student examples that are part of curriculum exemplars at these levels include a much more academic vocabulary and uncommon words.

You can also look at the words in your own materials and those that your students produce to build up a picture of their current and required vocabulary.

Which words do students need to know?

High-frequency words

Vocabulary students need to use in academic work, particularly in reading and writing, is different from what they may use for everyday interactions. For everyday interactions, a student at any level can probably get by with about 2000 words. This group of words is often referred to as high-frequency vocabulary

Vocabulary studies have shown that a basic 2000-word vocabulary of high-frequency items accounts for about 80 percent of the words in an academic text.

This seems like a substantial coverage of the vocabulary needed for reading. However, for easy reading, students need to know at least 95 percent of the words in a text.

What are the additional learning goals for vocabulary?

At all levels, students need to extend their basic vocabulary and learn the words that are useful for academic work and likely to appear across the range of academic texts they need to learn to read and create.

Academic words

The Academic Word List (AWL) is a well-recognised list of academic words. In all, this list comprises 570 word families. The list does not include the 2000 most-frequent-words-of-English. Professor Averil Coxhead developed AWL.

Academic Word List (AWL) – you can read more about AWL, its principles, words lists, and sublists. Some topics, such as sublists, have downloadable PDFs.

Word family
A "word family" is a group of words that share a common base or root word. If students know the stem (also known as an affix), they can recognise other words in the “family”. From this, they can figure out the meaning of  a word. For example, students may be familiar with the word “analyse”, and from that, they can work out the meaning of “analytical”.

Some other examples of the most frequent base-words that have extended "families" are "concept", "data", and "research". Some examples of the least frequent ones are "forthcoming", "adjacent", and "collapse".

The words in Coxhead’s list can account for as much as 10 percent of the remaining words in a text. The most frequent of her words in the AWL occur, on average, once every 4.3 pages of adult academic text.

A few facts about AWL

The words in the AWL are likely to be:

  • more than one syllable long
  • abstract rather than concrete.
  • derived from Latin, French (through Latin), or Greek.

Because half of all high-frequency words and two-thirds of all academic and technical words are derived from the above, learning the meanings of roots, prefixes, and suffixes is important. Learning these basic elements makes it easier to learn new words.

In addition, teachers should help students say and use in writing:

  • abstract concepts, such as "ideology", "capacity", and "phenomenon"
  • descriptions, such as "ethnic" and "compatible"; processes, such as "decline"
  • aspects of academic tasks, such as "define", "demonstrate", and "contrast".

Technical words and low-frequency words

The remaining vocabulary-learning challenges for students are the relatively small number of subject-specific or technical words, and the small number of low-frequency words. While these words may appear a number of times within one text, they are not likely to appear in other texts for a long time.

Think of a word like "behemoth" as an example of low-frequency vocabulary. Some of your students (even very young ones) will know a number of very low-frequency words because of their experiences and interests.

Secondary teachers who have access to Effective Literacy Strategies in Years 9–13 (Ministry of Education, 2004) can refer to Chapter 2 for information about teaching academic and other vocabulary in secondary schools. Primary school teachers are referred to the section on expanding students’ vocabulary on pages 126-127 of Effective Literacy Practice in Years 5–8 (Ministry of Education, 2006).

How to analyse the vocabulary levels

You can do this analysis by using the Text Inspector, a free online service that gives feedback on texts designed for teaching, assessing, and learning English.

All you have to do is:

  • copy some text you want to analyse
  • paste it into the box on the website
  • click on the ANALYSE button
  • wait briefly for your analysis results to pop up.

Your students may enjoy doing this themselves.

The words will show up in four different colours, according to how difficult or uncommon they are. The program will tell you how many word "types"  the text contains, and how many times each occurs, based on the following four frequency levels.

  1. The list of the most frequent 1000 word families.
  2. The list of the second 1000 word families.
  3. The Academic Word List.
  4. The words that do not appear in any of the preceding lists.

Exploring your practice

How many words should my students know?

Vocabulary researchers have compiled word lists from the words students identified as unfamiliar to them. Identifying such words can be a worthwhile activity for you and your students.

Which words are unfamiliar to your students

Choose a time when your students need to read a curriculum-related text.

Ask them to underline words they:

  • do not know the meaning of
  • find difficult
  • are not sure about.

Use the Text Inspector site to compare the students’ selection of items against an analysis of word levels. 

Ask yourself:

  • Where do your students’ difficulties lie? 
  • Are they mainly with words at a particular level
  • Are they words from a particular list?
  • To what degree do all your students share the difficulties? 
  • Do they fall into any identifiable groups with common difficulties?

Assessing word levels

For students
Another way to assess the level of words students are having difficulty with is by using a test, such as Paul Nation’s Vocabulary levels test (Productive) . The test has three versions, and students can take the tests themselves. Older students may enjoy setting vocabulary learning goals based on their results from using these web-based tools.

For teachers
Check out your understanding of concepts related to vocabulary, on the site Learning vocabulary in another language: A test of teachers’ knowledge.

ESOL Online has a number of useful professional readings on vocabulary as well as word lists and vocabulary teaching activities.

Materials for vocabulary analysis

NOTE: These examples are "as is", that is, they include student errors. 

Stories along the River

From the level 1 writing exemplar, Stories along the River

So we can remember people who die and thing that happened by the Waikato river a long time ago. So people don't forget things that happened at places. 

Telling Story 
people write story so the person who read them can remember about the waikato river and what people used to do on the river. 

People can find important places to go to and find there and so we do not get lost. It could lead you to something that belongs in the Waikato river. It might be a taniwha. 

You can sing about the waikato River. You make up songs to do with the River to tell other people about Special Places, and why they are special. 

photos tell you about the olden days at the Waikato river so We can see the changes of the river and the places along the river 

Water Woes

From the level 5 social studies exemplar, Water Woes

In third-world or developing countries such as Ethiopia, Cambodia and Jordan, there are often many issues over gaining and maintaining access to safe water and sanitation. However there are some successes. Some of the issues that restrict people's access are harmful chemicals from factories, financial issues, the location and landscape of where people live, and last of all, people using most of the water in a river before it gets down to villages lower down so that the lower villages have none left …

The location and landscape of where people live can be a big issue of how much water someone gets. The amount of rainfall and fresh water available may determine how much daily safe water they get, as there are not many pipes, taps, pumps or wells that people can look to for help. In Cambodia, if a village is not near fresh water, it is almost impossible for the women to fetch fresh water. Although there is not much poorer countries can do to change nature, Jordan is thinking of building a canal to the ocean to get more water, and also building pipes from lakes in Israel, with financial assistance from Israel …

Parihaka, Past and Present

From the level 5 social studies exemplar, Parihaka, Past and Present

A: My whanau return to Parihaka regularly for the kohi mate on 18–19 of the month. People come by the busload to remember and help us young ones learn what occurred in the past. The grief of losing our land in 1881 is like an open wound which continues to weep. On 5 November each year when Pakeha celebrate Guy Fawkes, we remember our tupuna who lost their lives and their land at Parihaka.

B: My family have leased this land since 1935. We have had a long term lease but our rentals have gone up a lot lately. We have worked hard to make this land productive. This is where my family belongs. How is the government going to sort out this mess? This is my home, but Te Ati Awa say it is still their land. These issues go on and on and need to be settled for New Zealand to move into the future.

C: My ancestor Te Whiti has long been called a peacemaker. When the English constabulary started storming Parihaka, he knew that he and his people were greatly outnumbered. It was a wise move that he took in getting the adults to lay down their arms and encourage his people, even the tamariki, to welcome and offer hospitality to the invaders. But despite that, Te Whiti and Tohu were taken prisoner and spent 18 months being taken from gaol to gaol in the South Island. The anguish on the faces of the people in the photos we saw remind us of the grief of Parihaka and why Māori continue to fight for justice over land and seabed issues.

All words used in student texts

All words used in student texts in level 1 and level 2 social studies curriculum exemplars*

*not including people's names

Level 1: Spoken 
(two exemplars) 
Level 1: Written 
(four exemplars) 
Level 2: Spoken 
(two exemplars) 
Level 2: Written 
(three exemplars) 
a am after ages and at bark born bowl called came catch climbs coconut dad dancing do does drinking drum eating family fish fishtrap for from fruit got grandmother great-grandfather hammer has he his I in is it keep kept know like list listens lunch lunchbox make me mum music my New Zealand not of on our out of parents people photos pick plastic playing pound roots school ship so socks stuff tape recorder that the them they tree to toes uses war warm was we well were when while who with a about after ago all along am and any apron are at baker bakes be because belongs book bread bumpy busy by can changes children clothes come cookies could cut dad die do don't each other enough family find flowers food for forget fun gardener get glue go grass happened hat have have to he help helped her his house I important in is it ka pai keep lead learn like like listening little live long look after lost love make make up maps me meet might moko monuments mum my need not of office old olden days on or other our people pepe person photos pies place poem production properly put on read related remember river safe says school see she sing so something somewhere else songs sort of special staffs (stuff) story survive taniwha teacher teaches teina tell telling that the their them there they thing this time to together tuakana used to very waiata Waikato River watching water we wear whaea whānau what when who why with without work would wouldn't write you yukky a aboriginal about according all ancestors and art bag barbecue beautiful because began being big brochures but can careful carvings cave change chopping down come cool (=good) cough council Cox's Bay day did dig do drawing drawings Dreamtime drop everyone flax for from get go Grey Lynn hands he heaps helping hole hot how hundred hungry I important in in case is it kowhai legends letterbox like live lots mail make making me men model my native neighbours newspaper nice nicer of off on other paint pass on people person photos pink places planting plants put putting rather red respect rock sacred said Saturday see shook should show sign smooth sneeze so some started stories stuff teach tell thank you that the their then there they think to told tour tourist tree trees truck Uluru use usually want wanted was weedy what where why women working world would writing yes youngsters yucky a affect also am and another Arabic are around arrival as at awesome basics because before behind being boys bring built bullocks bush busier by can can't cars cart change Christchurch city class come community computer could culture cut down dad Darfield did don't drive easier engines entertainment ever farmers farms fast faster feel fly food for forward from front future gidday go got grew had haere mai he hello help hongi horse how I in influenced is it job just kaumatua less like living lots machinery magnets main make making malo e lelei manuhiri many Māori means meet month more motor movies Mr much mum my new not numbers of often old on once one onto or paddocks passed peace people per petrol plough pollution powhiri print remember replies roads room 21 rows rugby say saying shopping sing skiing skills slowly so special sport stand started starting stuff supplies takes talk taught teach tena koe tena koutou katoa thanks that the their then there they this through to today together town traction tutira mai nga iwi uncle us used vehicles visit walking was way we welcomes went West Coast what when when wildlife will winter with Yemen you

Measuring readability

Extracts for analysis

Up to level 2

A is an academic text for school students working up to level 2 of the national curriculum

Kinleith Forest is a very busy place.During the day, forestry workers hack and saw noisily. Big trees crash to the ground. And logging trucks thunder along wide roads through the forest. At the same time, other workers are busy planting new trees. But when the sun goes down, things are just as busy. It is then that the night animals wake up. One of these is the long-tailed bat. I'm a scientist who studies long-tailed bats. There aren't many of these bats around. We're worried that they might all die out. To help save these bats we need to … [100 words]

(Moore, 2002, pages 20–21.)

Up to level 4 of the curriculum

B is intended for up to level 4 of the curriculum

Ferns are usually very easy to identify from their leaves. Known as fronds, fern leaves tend to be very long. They're often divided into leaflets that are attached along a central stalk. Each leaflet is sometimes divided into even smaller leaflets. … In their leaves ferns harness the energy in sunlight to make simple sugars from carbon dioxide and water. Well, that's hardly big news in the plant world, but let's look more closely at the back of those fern leaves. There we often find sporangia, which are reproductive organs. In fact sporangia are so interesting that they deserve their own article. [100 words]
(Alchin, 2002, pages 10–11.)

Year 9 and 10 students

C is intended for students in years 9 and 10

Vitamin D is essential for bone growth and health at all ages because it helps the body to absorb ingested calcium and to deposit calcium, with phosphate, into the skeleton. One natural source of vitamin D is exposure to sunshine. Vitamin D deficiency occurs in many regions of the world, including the northern European countries, northern Canada, and the Arctic. People who stay inside a lot (for example, elderly people) may also suffer from it.

Any calcium supplements should also contain vitamin D to ensure maximum absorption.

What is the influence of physical activity?

Young bones respond more to physical … [100 words]
(Osteoporosis New Zealand, 2001, pages 35–36.)

University students and graduate teachers

D is an academic text for university students and graduate teachers

Orientation refers to how learners view a task, the nature of the goals they form in order to perform it and the operations they use to carry it out. The particular orientation learners adopt determines the kind of activity that results. In part, how they orient to the task will reflect their previous experiences not just with similar tasks but with the kind of activity they associate with the particular setting in which they are communicating. In this way, how learners orientate to a task is socio-historically determined. Hall describes how the linguistic resources participants bring to an interaction and… [100 words]

(Ellis, 2003, page 187)